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Story Publication logo December 7, 2011

Bigger Than Protest: Anna Hazare's Transformative Plan for India


Anna Hazare speaks with supporters in Ralegan Siddhi in India.

Anna Hazare, inspired by Gandhi, transformed a village—Ralegan Siddhi, his hometown. Now, 74 years...

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Although Anna Hazare does not like to be compared to Gandhi, he regularly evokes his image and message in protests and public messages. Image by Jon Sawyer, India, 2011.

(Second of two articles)

On the afternoon we visited Ralegan Siddhi, the home town of Indian activist Anna Hazare, about 100 supporters and students sat on the ground beneath a peepal tree in the courtyard of the gated Padmavati temple compound, where he has lived since returning from his August hunger strike in New Delhi.

Hazare sat on a raised platform, just to the left of a sculpture of Mohandas Gandhi, the inspiration behind Hazare's work in this small town. The 74-year-old Hazare has a Gandhian look himself, dressed in white homespun cotton and a white topi cap, though whereas Gandhi's smile often had a certain mischievous quality, Hazare is usually earnest and often stern. He was seated at a table filled with microphones, on two bright-red vinyl chairs that have been stacked together to add height.

He talked for half an hour, on subjects from high politics -- his defiant pledge to continue the anti-corruption campaign until it succeeds, even if it takes 12 years -- to a warning about students who waste time smoking and drinking. "Have you ever heard that someone was a drinker and became a powerful person?" he asked. "We should think about what we are doing. What should I be doing? Think about it!"

After the public talk we followed him into the temple compound room that has become his new home. (Before becoming famous, he had lived for 35 years in a plainly furnished 10-by-12 room at the back of another temple down the road.) Barefoot, Hazare sat cross-legged on a bed with a blue-and-white striped mattress, answering questions in between reading or signing a steady stream of papers his aides would bring in.

The room contained otherwise only a few plastic chairs, a small television, a spinning wheel, and a ceiling fan whirring overhead.

"I do not like to be compared to Gandhi," Hazare declared. "No one can understand Gandhi and no one can be like him." Still, he refers to Gandhi frequently and with reverence. "Those who are non-violent but do not have character will not succeed," he said.

Hazare's dream is to reduce inequalities, protect the natural environment, and preserve its resources. But he insists he wants to do this without joining the government. "Those in government lose their vision for the future," he said.

His plan is no less lofty than his goals. "Education that does not develop social responsibility," he said, "is not true education. What we have to teach is the practice of being human."

Hazare, whose push for sweeping anti-corruption legislation has included two hunger strikes and inspired massive protests, wants India to start where he did: locally. "We must concentrate our work in the villages. It's what Gandhi said -- that villagers should not move to the cities. If there is food, health, employment in the villages, then the people will stay. Gandhiji always said if you want to change the economic structure of the country you should change the rural economics. If you want to change the rural economics then you have to start within each and every village. If the village creates jobs then the people won't have to go to the city to look for work."

"We should take action," Hazare told us. "That's what Gandhi says: 'My life is my message.' We must prove our words by our actions." He ended on a cautionary note: "If political leaders do not follow the words of the masses, they will not stay in power. People should realize that we have the power. This is our government. But while we know that power is in the minds of the people we should not abuse that power just to force the government to collapse. That would just mean that someone else would come into power."

Hazare claims he has no political ambitions. He holds no title, he says, and seeks none. Over two days of interviews in Ralegan Siddhi, it became clear that he commands so much local respect that any title would be superfluous.

"Anna is like a god," effused Pravin Vishnvanath Kose, a clinic doctor. "He only thinks about others." Meerabai Mahamuni, the headmistress of the school next to the temple where Hazare used to live, said she is proud whenever she sees Hazare on television. When Hazare came out to address supporters on the day of our visit, he was greeted before and after by admirers who fell to their knees and kissed his feet.

In three weeks of travel across northern India, we heard repeated praise for Hazare as well as some criticism. In Ahmedabad, capital of Gandhi's home state of Gujarat, graduate students at the prestigious Institute of Management gave mixed views. "Somebody has to take a stand," said Roahn Arora. "We've all faced corruption -- if not me, then my parents. Something has to be done." But another student, Arshdeep Kaur, warned that protests like Hazare's could be counterproductive for Indian democracy. "It only causes instability," she said. "One must work through the system."

In August, prominent novelist Arundhati Roy summed up skepticism toward Hazare in a widely read column in The Hindu. "While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not," she wrote, decrying "the props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism" of his movement. "They signal to us that if we do not support the fast, we are not 'true Indians'." She warned that the anti-corruption administration Hazare was pushing for would merely establish "two oligarchies, instead of just one." Still, she agreed on "the utter failure of India's representative government," which Hazare's movement is dedicated to reforming.

Historian Ananya Vajpeyi, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, suggested that Hazare's emergence this year shows that Gandhi's legacy is alive and well. "A big premium is placed in India on the idea of renunciation, and how much authority attaches to anyone who renounces material possessions, wealth, and the attachment to worldly goods of all kinds." This could be especially appealing to middle-class urbanites like those who flocked to his rallies this spring and summer but have little in common with the villagers of Ralegan Siddhi. The question for those audiences, for "modern" India, is whether the focus on the village is still relevant. Could Hazare's reforms in Ralegan Siddhi be replicated in other parts of India? Could a Gandhian have influence in India's new economy?

"India has gone the capitalist route," Vajpeyi explained. "People are worried about corruption because they have found new wealth. Yet most of the population (soon to be the largest in the world) is still very poor."

These disparities in wealth and opportunity, Vajpeyi suggests, have helped make the once obscure Hazare a sudden national force.

"Seventy, eighty years ago the central question was a political question: Can we be a nation-state? Can we be an independent polity? Can we get rid of colonialism and imperial rule?" she said. "Now the question is what is our economic model? It is the intended and unintended consequences of such drastic economic shifts that we see being played out in terms of social, political, and cultural responses and movements.

"I think the time is coming for India to heed Gandhi in a way that it hasn't necessarily done," she added. "He was put on the backburner for a really long time by the mainstream, by the people who actually rule this country -- even though it was the Congress Party, the organ of the nationalist movement that drove independence, that has been in power for the most part since."

Gandhi's image floats on giant banners over the stages where Hazare mounts his fasts, in opposition to the Congress Party that Gandhi once led.

Whether Hazare's achievements in one small village can be applied to a nation as vast and diverse as India is very much in debate. So is the idea that Mohandas Gandhi, the founding father of India who is most often honored in the breach, can find new footing in today's India of breathless urbanization, industrialization, and globalization. What is perhaps most remarkable about Hazare is that he has once more made those questions real for India.

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