Who’s afraid of Anna Hazare

The last two weeks of August saw India go through an unprecedented people’s movement, an Arab Spring of sorts. Maybe you have heard of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare, social activist and prime mover of a recent anti-corruption stir. Following a 288-hour fast in protest of government corruption, he is currently being touted as a Gandhi-come-again in these dark ages. It was indeed laudable that in a country where communal strife and acts of terror are frequent occurrences this protest involving overwhelming numbers was completely non-violent and peaceful.

The purpose of this agitation was to pressure the state to institute an ombudsman-like institution, called the “Jan Lokpal bill,” to fight and eliminate corruption. The larger objective of such a body would be to protect citizens from exploitative structures thereby streamlining and helping to improve governance.
Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, a huge open-air venue, was the site for these 13 days while Anna Hazare’s fast-unto-death lasted.

It was a spectacle, festive and celebratory while serious in intent, with thousands of everyday middle class folks, usually apolitical, out on the streets, sloganeering, taking out processions and candlelight marches. Those who didn’t actually follow this pied piper onto the streets sat glued to their television sets locked in fierce word battles with friends, family and foe alike. Corruption as a mainstream issue, deeply embedded in all levels of bureaucracy, administration and society, strode centre-stage through this movement, all classes of people ideologically charged and expressing their views one way or another. Although the sense of festive inclusion all around was new, fascinating and powerful, it was also problematic.

Strangely enough, this anti-corruption protest unified while it polarized. Clear lines were drawn between those who saw this movement as legitimate and necessary, and others who perceived in it as a serious threat to a duly constituted parliamentary democracy — and the dangers of setting a precedent so all groups and causes could potentially assert their rights to demand what they alone consider just.

These protests brought a question to my mind. In a land of teeming multitudes and deeply divergent aspirations, does even a large group of protesters truly represent the entire nation? If all parties blindly seek what they believe to be the right way to go, without caring for consensus, doesn’t that make them all equally guilty? Is consensus even possible in such a divided scenario, and more importantly, how desirable is it? There are several other sticky questions raised by the Jan Lokpal bill issue, for instance the efficacy of a bill or law to address large embroiled and challenging situations. Or, for that matter, the fact that corruption is not always outside us but when we are willing to offer small sums of money for bending rules or expediting personal tasks we become complicit in the corruption process.

The unambiguous gain from this recent civil furor in India was the opening up of this important issue to street debate. It was refreshing an issue such as this did not begin and end in the ivory tower of classroom discussion but actually became part of mainstream conversation.

Alka Kumar is a volunteer contributor to the Manitoban.