Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Anna Hazare is not "Gandhian"

Anna Hazare’s supporters are trying to present him as a “veteran Gandhian.” The most vocal of them, the BBC, has termed him Gandhi’s “heir,” and one of its ersatz Indian correspondents even claimed to have found people here who consider him “a modern day Gandhi.”

Hazare himself has not been shy about invoking the Mahatma as model. The BBC report had a clip of him saying it is time to “Do or Die, just as in the independence struggle.” Karenge ya marenge was, of course, the phrase Gandhi coined for the fateful Quit India Movement in 1942

The “elite” English-language Press in India that usually takes its cues from Britain has not gone to the BBC’s silly extremes, but it has frequently termed Hazare “Gandhian” without once explaining what that means. There is nothing in his life to warrant it.

Kisan Baburao Hazare was born in 1940 to an unskilled worker in the small town of Bhinagar in Bombay Province. He was raised by an aunt in Bombay and stayed in school until the Seventh Standard; after that he became a flower vendor and later the owner of a flower shop. In 1963, he enlisted in the Army as a Jawan and spent the next 12 years driving a truck. During that time, he became an enthusiast of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas about village development, and after quitting the Army in 1975, became an activist in his father’s village, Ralegaon Siddhi, in Maharashtra.

His first initiative there was to found a Youth Association. It became his primary instrument for a variety of campaigns, most importantly, alcohol prohibition. Those who persisted in making and selling alcohol in Ralegaon Siddhi had their shops smashed; alcoholics who got drunk in other villages were beaten. Hazare lobbied successfully to get the Maharashtra government to allow villages to impose alcohol prohibition by majority vote. His young acolytes also drove tobacco, cigarettes and beedis from the shops of Ralegaon Siddhi.

There were also constructive reforms. Hazare mobilized the village to improve management of water runoff and undertake the planting of trees. He had village cows bred with other breeds to increase milk production, and organized a cooperative to market village produce in the nearby city of Ahmednagar. Caste issues were resolved peacefully, and a cooperative effort made to improve the living conditions and ease the indebtedness of the Dalits. The Youth Association arranged for group weddings to help couples avoid the onerous costs of their own ceremonies. The village school was rebuilt and expanded, its curriculum extended to the secondary level, and students instructed in traditional agricultural practices. These achievements won Hazare a number of awards, including the Padma Shri (1990), and the Padma Bhushan (1992).

His anti-corruption efforts began in 1991with an attempt to expose and end the collusion between forest officials and lumber merchants. In 1997 he accused the Social Welfare Minister of Maharashtra of corruption, and was sued for defamation. He lost the case and was sentenced to three months in prison. A public outcry freed him, whereupon he renewed the attack on the Minister, who subsequently exited the cabinet.

In 2003 Hazare accused four Maharashtra Ministers of corruption and went on a “fast unto death” to demand action against them. He broke it after 8 days when the Chief Minister ordered a judicial probe. The report of the investigation found incriminating evidence against three of the four Ministers. The report also noted financial improprieties on the part of Hazare: a Trust fund he managed had not filed an audit report in two decades, and he had reportedly spent Rs. 2.20 lakh of its funds for his birthday celebrations. (An industrialist friend is said to have repaid the Trust.) What that episode made clear was that Hazare was not entirely his own man. A second “fast unto death” in August 2006 lasted 10 days; it got the government in New Delhi to rescind its decision to exclude handwritten notations on files from the purview of the Right to Information Act of 2005.
The third “fast unto death” began on 5 April 2011 and lasted four days, in which time the government promised to act on a proposal, left hanging by successive governments since 1969, to create a Lokpal or Ombudsman. The fast set to begin on 16 August reflects “Team Anna’s” dissatisfaction with the terms of the official draft the government has submitted to Parliament.

Specifically, Hazare’s wants the judiciary, the Prime Minister and the lower ranks of the bureaucracy to be subject to investigation by the Lokpal; and he wants the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) moved from the Home Ministry to the ombudsman’s office. “Team Hazare” has not dealt with arguments against concentrating so much power in an unelected and unaccountable body. For “Team Anna” – itself unelected and unaccountable – to insist on assuming the prerogatives of Parliament in framing a critical piece of legislation is unbelievably arrogant. That arrogance has come through in Hazare’s increasingly shrill attacks on the government. Nothing about him is “Gandhian” in this situation.

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