A soldier rises against the government
Anna Hazare has turned a simple idea into mass frenzy
Massive support for Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar, Delhi
Jantar Mantar, one of the few places in Delhi where the government of India allows protests, is suddenly being termed as “India’s Tahrir Square”. On a hot summer day, over 600 people have turned up at the spot.
Three young girls from an elite college in Delhi have appeared, wearing dark shades. “Is he the man?” one of them asks her friends. “Yes, he is the man,” comes the reply. There is a mix of curiosity and fascination among the youth in the air.
An old man who was lying till now has stood up to speak. The crowd reacts by screaming slogans, “Anna,tum aage bado. Hum tumaare saath hai!” (“Anna, you march ahead. We are following you!”)
Anna Hazare, one of the most respected social activists in the country, has taken the centre stage in what is undoubtedly the biggest people’s movement against corruption in the country. This 73-year-old Indian Army veteran and Gandhian is amongst the few public figures who still attach a keen sense of morality to the matters of governance.
Anna is on a hunger strike with more than 170 people, who are demanding introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament, an alternative to the Lokpal Bill proposed by the government of India. The hunger-strike, being carried out under the banner of India Against Corruption, has moved to the second day and struck a chord with people of different cultural and economic backgrounds.
People from all over the country have turned up at the protest meet. What unites all of them is an unquestionable loyalty to what one man is standing for.
“After I retired from government services, I have struggled enough on every count, especially with getting my pension,” says 61-year-old Abdul Gaffur Sheikh, who has come all the way from the Nandurbar district of Maharashtra to participate in the hunger-strike. “Anna represents all of us. He has shown us the path to eradicate all evils from our society,” he adds. Akhbar Ilahe, sitting next to Sheikh, nods in agreement.
Anna won the Padma Shri award in 1992 for the development he brought in his native village Ralegan Siddhi in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. His village, that earlier used to be drought-prone, saw incredible success in water harvesting and developing sustainable methods of creating energy. However, never the one to compromise on the issue of justice, Anna returned the Padma award when his plea for governmental action in a scam involving forest officials and a minister was not accepted.
That fighting spirit has continued till date, and it shows in the energy he displays in the application of creativity in public spaces. Anna brings out spectacle in his oratory. He brings out both wit and passion to hold the crowd. The simplicity of his persona – he mostly wears a white kurta and a Gandhi cap – and speech excite the right cells in Indian minds.
Anna invokes memories of the revolutionary leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for sampoorna kranti (“total revolution”). The stage that has been set at Jantar Mantar displays the images of those whom Anna has considered his heroes: Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi.
Anna is not overtly political, but his views on politics are strong. He speaks the language of the people. “You cannot trust political parties. They are all corrupt,” he observes. “There might be good individuals in politics. I appeal to everyone to quit supporting parties and support those in whom they see a reflection of their own ideals,” he adds.
When this reporter asked for his opinion on the NDA and the UPA on the issue of corruption, Anna slipped through an ambiguous answer. “I trust the parliamentary form of democracy. But the candidates need to be those whom you can trust. We have achieved it at the ground level in Maharashtra. We can definitely do it at the Centre too. People need to come together,” he said to a loud applause.
Even when he seems to take a stern stand, for instance, in a letter he sent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the option of dialogue is never ruled out. In fact, the dialogue route is often highlighted.
Something significant about Anna’s hunger strike is that people with all kinds of grievances are turning up at the venue claiming to support a vacuous idea of India against corruption.
On 6th April, nearly 400 unemployed teachers, who were recently fired from their jobs from government schools all over Delhi, turned up at Jantar Mantar, shouting, “We want justice”. In a curious mix of ideologies and politics, one can find supporters of Baba Ramdev, people from the Art of Living Foundation, a socialist Sharad Yadav, an almost ideology-neutral Om Prakash Chautala and the Hindutva proponent Uma Bharti at the venue. However, the politicians were booed out of the spot, with the latter two not even getting an opportunity to share the dais with Anna.
So, is Jantar Mantar the new Tahrir Square? Is Anna Hazare the JP of our times? Perhaps. Perhaps, not?
“Corruption is a much more complex problem. It is a structural problem. What about the informal economy?” asks noted social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. “I respect Anna Hazare, and this is a definitely the beginning of creation of a major piece of legislation. However, corruption is a structural adjustment problem with democracy. Their protests are interesting and intentions are honourable. But, a Lokpal Bill or five Magsaysay award winners cannot solve the problem of corruption,” he adds.
Visvanathan goes on to say that the apolitical nature of the movement and simplicity of the concept is actually a good thing. He opines that if the movement was to be more precise on what it means by corruption, it would have acquired the complexities that come with scale.
But, he is cautious when it comes comparing it with the Tahrir Square. “Tahrir was a different kind of battle. You absolutely cannot draw parallels between Tahrir and Jantar Mantar. However, protests start with simple things. Pushing for a change shows that people are fed up. But the nature of change is what matters and that will take time,” Visvanathan says, with a strict no for an answer to the question if Anna can be compared with JP.
But, for all the skepticism, the movement is flying high. With over 5,70,000 people supporting the cause on the web site of India Against Corruption, even a significant section of Bollywood, including actor Aamir Khan, has pledged support. The opposition parties are going out of their way to claim a share of the credit going to Anna.
G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.com