Taking an in-depth look at India’s anti-corruption movement and diving into the idea of fasting as a form of political protest.
By Harsh Vathsangam
Social activist Anna Hazare went on fast unto death demanding greater public role and more powers in an anticorruption bill earlier this year. Many prominent Indians and organizations all over the country are supporting Hazare’s demands. Photo: Flickr.
To many he is a messiah –
a face that represents millions of nameless people who have endured the brunt of India’s corruption. To skeptics he is a showman with a dubious track record – a pawn in a circus of politicians and media members each dedicated to furthering their own interests.
Either way, one thing is for sure, one simply cannot ignore Anna Hazare.
Over the last two years, India has been rocked by a series of debilitating corruption scandals, each one more spectacular than the last.
The most aggravating aspect of these controversies has been the government’s scant disregard and disrespect of taxpayers’ hard-earned money. These scams are simply larger-scaled versions of the endemic, everyday corruption that permeates India’s current cultural landscape.
The South Asian country is a place where one cannot get an electricity connection without greasing the palms of an Indian babu or a sleazy bureaucrat.
Sanjay Yadav, an auto rickshaw driver, described best how bribery has become commonplace.
“You go for a driver’s license you pay a bribe, if you go to the vehicle registration office you pay a bribe, you drive on the road you pay a bribe, you commit a crime you pay a bribe, you don’t commit any crime you pay a bribe,” Yadav said in an television interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
But even with recent legislation, it is disturbing to note that there exists very little protection for people who want to fight this system. As India strives to become a contender on the world stage, the anguish and resentment felt by many citizens have arguably highlighted corruption as venom that threatens to destroy the dreams of a new India.
Enter Hazare, who some have bestowed the honor of being called the modern-day Gandhi.
Related Video Story:
Indian activist Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption movement wage a public hunger strike in New Delhi. Thousands of Indians are flocking to New Delhi to join Team Anna. Video: YouTube user linktv.
For the past few months, Hazare has been at the center of what history might judge as one of the most important revolutions in modern India. Hazare started an indefinite hunger strike on April 5 to pressure the Indian government to enact a stringent anti-corruption law or the Jan Lokpal Bill.
The fast ended when government officials agreed to the demands and an Aug. 15 deadline to pass the bill. When that didn’t happen? Hazare went on to detained and released before not eating for 288 hours straight, according to the India Times.
If approved, the bill also referred to as the citizens’ ombudsman bill would call for an ombudsman with the power to deal with corruption issues. Prominent lawyers and social activists drafted the bill. Some of the authors are N. Santosh Hegde, former justice of the Supreme Court of India; Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court; and Arvind Kejriwal, a leading social activist.
After initially dismissing the movement as a frivolous sideshow, the government’s response evolved from ignorance to arrests to acquiescence. The change in response was due in large part by endorsements from almost every section of society including leading opposition party members pushing their own political agenda, media channels hoping to boost their television ratings, religious saints staging parallel fasts, Bollywood icons vying for the spotlight, members of the normally apathetic middle class sporting “I am Anna Hazare” T-shirts and landless laborers just hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who finally gave a voice to their suffering.
Another interesting facet of the movement was the extensive use of Twitter and Facebook. Such social media sites helped organize gatherings and plan protests. “Facebook has over a hundred pages dedicated to fight against corruption,” reported an NDTV journalist during a newscast earlier this year. “Anna Hazare has become a trending topic on Twitter with tweet every five seconds.”
With many subsequent multi-day fasts by Hazare and enough TV drama to make a Bollywood producer proud, at last the effects were seen. Important ministers in the Union Cabinet with tainted records resigned and some were even put behind bars. The government decided to table its own version of the bill in Parliament and incorporate prominent Hazare supporters in the drafting committee. A debate on the Jan Lokpal bill was held in the Indian Parliament on Aug. 27.
Hazare demanded three principles: citizen charter, lower bureaucracy to be under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism and establishment of Lok Ayuktas, anti-corruption ombudsman organizations, in the states with both houses agreeing to the principles.
Critics against the movement claim that the addition of an ombudsman against corruption only adds a layer in an already multifaceted corrupt system.
The establishment of anti-corruption laws would only be the first step in bringing about a cultural change in Indian society starting from the individual and working its way through the government. However, one fact cannot be ignored. Not since the struggle for independence from the British or the 1975 Emergency when the president could rule by decree has such a mass movement galvanized the Indian public and become as powerful as to shake the legitimacy of the incumbent government.
Another striking aspect is how the entire movement has been completely non-violent, the only weapons of choice being civil disobedience and fasts, a technique that has echoes of Gandhi in it and has been adopted by freedom fighters around the world.
According to The New York Times, Hazare ended his 12-day fast Aug. 28 only after India’s Parliament agreed to his “central demands for shaping legislation to create an independent anti-corruption agency empowered to scrutinize public officials and bureaucrats in India.”
In the end, one can’t help but admire how this movement represents a great example of why India is considered a future star on the global stage. There are people nonviolently making their voices heard, a government willing to listen and respond to its people, a noisy opposition and mass media intent on exposing wrongdoings. Such characteristics are what make a democracy successful.
And at the center of it all, has been Anna Hazare.
Editor’s Notes: There was additional reporting by Jeffrey Ledesma. Do you have questions or comments? Feel free to join the conversation by leaving a comment below or E-mailing the columnist directly by clicking here.