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Story Publication logo November 30, 2011

Occupy Delhi: A Gandhian Take on Corruption


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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Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the Padmavati temple in Ralegan Siddhi. Image by Jon Sawyer. India, 2011.

The year-long battle in India to enact sweeping anti-corruption legislation is headed toward a third and perhaps decisive round. Barring a last-minute deal, we will again see tens of thousands of protesters in the streets, again the 24/7 media coverage—and again, in the center of the maelstrom, a 74-year-old community organizer from a tiny western village who is threatening to starve himself to death if the government doesn't enact the anti-corruption legislation he seeks.

Discontent with financial and political elites is a global phenomenon, from the streets of lower Manhattan across Europe to the roiling capitals of North Africa and the Middle East. India is no exception, with an anti-corruption campaign in 2011 that has stirred millions and unnerved the ruling Congress Party.

What's different about India is the sharp focus of the movement on a specific goal—creation of an independent anti-corruption body with real powers—and the movement's identification with a single leader. The individual is Anna Hazare, a former soldier with a seventh-grade education. His strategy? Hunger strikes, civil disobedience and the mass mobilization of non-violent street protests.

Those were hallmarks of Mahatma Gandhi, India's founding father and an inspiration for idealists across the world. Hazare is Gandhian in another way too—his insistence that India's route to a successful future lies not through industrialization or globalization but instead through reinvigoration of its village life and a reaffirmation of the principles of self-discipline and non-materialism.

In response to earlier Hazare fasts, the government has already blinked twice. In April it agreed to negotiate with Hazare's civil-society supporters on terms for the anti-corruption agency, the Lokpal. In August, after the breakdown of those negotiations led to the brief imprisonment of Hazare and then a second fast, it agreed to pass a strong version of the Lokpal in the current parliamentary session. Now the clock is ticking again, with the government fighting to reduce the Lokpal's power and Hazare threatening to fast again.

Who is Anna Hazare?

The community organizer who in early 2011 suddenly became the face of India's anti-corruption movement was unknown to most Indians and to almost everyone beyond. Over the course of the year he has become a daily staple in the Indian media, his hunger strikes and imprisonment fueling public outrage that was stoked already by corruption large and small—from national politicians raking in millions on the sale of cellular frequencies to local officials demanding bribes to issue a driver's license, a new-business permit, or even a death certificate when a family member dies.

With increased notoriety has come skepticism. Some say Hazare is too naive or too uneducated to play a national leadership role. Others question the civil-society leaders who have flocked to his side—and who may be more interested in their own political futures, they say, than in enactment of the reforms Hazare seeks.

Much of what has been written and broadcast about Hazare has focused on the movement's goals, its tactics, and its interactions with the national media and political elite. We chose to focus instead on his hometown, the tiny Maharashtra farming village of Ralegan Siddhi—and on what his friends and neighbors say about the way he has applied Gandhian principles over 35 years and the remarkable transformation in village life that he has achieved.

After serving 12 years in the army, Hazare returned to Ralegan Siddhi in 1975. There he set about to transform a village rife with problems. Piles of garbage filled the streets and few homes had toilets. People routinely relieved themselves on the side of the road. One well provided drinking water for the entire village; this well was lined with steps where people gathered to bathe and wash clothes. Diarrhea-related diseases were the norm and the infant mortality rate was high. A lack of irrigation meant that in a drought-prone region crops often failed. Primary schools were poor and the region had no high school.

Unemployment was high and alcoholism pervasive. Thakaram Raut, a 68-year old former headmaster, remembers that "people prepared their own liquor and did not know when to stop. They drank too much—they behaved like beasts."

Hazare had other ideas. And he had a stubborn streak. He didn't set out to merely improve Ralegan Siddhi—he planned to make it a model village. The results were impressive and long-lasting.

Hazare was born in Bhingar, a small village not far from Ralegan Siddhi. He was named Kisan Baburao Hazare—only later would he be called "Anna," an honorific term meaning "elder brother." His grandfather had been a constable in the British army, and his father worked as a vegetable vendor. Kisan's family moved to Ralegan Siddhi soon after his siblings—two brothers and three sisters—were born. An uncle offered to take Kisan to Mumbai so that he could attend school. Kisan completed the seventh grade before taking a job selling flowers. He later joined the army, where he was the only member of his unit who survived an attack during the 1965 Pakistan war. In his autobiography Hazare says he turned inward trying to understand why he had been spared while those around him lost their lives. Much influenced by the work of Swami Vivekanand, the Hindu mystic, he decided to dedicate his life to the service of others, to renounce material pleasures and to follow in the mystic's footsteps.

On a visit to Ralegan Siddhi we saw first-hand the fruits of Hazare's work over three decades, and we heard the villagers extol his virtues as they recounted the transformation of the village. Hazare's first focus was to repair the Hindu temple. He won friends and before long gained enough support to ban alcohol and tobacco. Nandkumar Marpari, a 42-year-old sari shopkeeper, tells us that no one now sells alcohol, drinks, or smokes. Marpari's father once owned a liquor store but Hazare convinced him to close it down and take up farming instead. Marpari tells us that when alcohol was first banned Hazare would give "offenders" three warnings. After the fourth offense "we tied people to the light poles and beat them." The beatings stopped 15 years ago but the pole still stands as an admonishment. The village has stayed dry.

Bore wells were dug and hand pumps installed. Now nearly every house has both a water tap and a toilet. The wastewater flows not to the road, but into soak-pits. It was Hazare who urged the government to help the poorer families by paying 50 percent of the cost. And it was Hazare who saw that those who did not build a toilet would not receive certificates needed to obtain electricity or SIM cards for their mobile phones. Villagers say Hazare didn't stop there—whenever he saw people defecate in the open he would clean up after them. The people felt guilty and changed their ways.

Our host Balasaheb Shindi was a retired school teacher and like so many of the older generation he has remained civic-minded, active in the planning and fundraising for a new school. His house just outside of Ralegan Siddhi is bigger than most. It is one of the few two-storied houses—with a toilet and sink on each level, as well as a shower with hot water heated by solar panels on the roof. We eat sitting on mats on the floor while watching television. (India is defeating England in a cricket match, part of a streak of wins this fall that the Indian tabloid press touts as a "brown-out").

Shindi shows us a village that is both clean and prosperous. Farmers built bunds—small dams made of cement or soil—and they created watersheds to improve water drainage, raising the water table so that crops grow more abundantly. Onions from the village are now trucked to Mumbai and other cities. After tree felling was banned and animal grazing restricted, an extensive tree plantation program was started. One family installed a bio-gas plant using cattle waste to produce fuel for cooking. Others installed solar panels. Residents are experimenting with rainwater harvesting and watershed recharging, a process that involves pumping water from a large well back into the watershed.

Many families had 10 or more children before Hazare started to encourage family planning. Now we're told the average family has two or three children. Hazare also advises parents not to go into debt by planning a lavish wedding or providing a dowry for a young bride; instead community weddings are organized three times a year so that the costs of the festivities will be shared. Child marriages have come to a halt. Women have started their own small businesses and pool their resources, meeting monthly in savings groups.

The sari shopkeeper tells us that Hazare never married and is celibate—a brahmachari. Like Gandhi he calls on his "inner strength" to achieve great things. Primary school teacher Rajendra Shitole quotes one of Hazare's favorite sayings: "If wealth is lost, nothing is lost. If health is lost, something is lost. But if character is lost, all is lost."

Sweat equity—and Hazare's charismatic leadership (laced with a thinly disguised authoritarian streak)—have made all these reforms possible. Hazare has refused to accept outside donations or funds from non-profits. Villagers make their own financial contributions to support development and they share in the labor, including the construction of new buildings.

Hazare's first hunger strike was aimed at getting Ralegan Siddhi's fair share of state funds intended for schools. The fast succeeded; the result was the village's first high school. He supports the teachers, encourages student attendance, and is well loved by both groups. The school day is long—all students participate in physical exercise, sports, and the cleaning of the school premises. The literacy rate in the village is now nearly100 percent—village schools excel in math, biochemistry and the arts (dancing, singing, and drawing). We are told repeatedly that girls also attend secondary school and that girls and boys receive the same education.

We were in Ralegan Siddhi in mid-October. On the afternoon we visited, Hazare spoke to about 100 supporters and students sitting on the ground beneath a peepal tree in the courtyard of the gated Padmavati temple where he has lived since returning from the August protests in New Delhi. (Until this year he had lived for three decades in a simple room, 10 by 12 feet, at the back of the Hindu temple he helped restore.) Hazare is on raised platform. Just to the right is a sculpture of Mohandas Gandhi, the inspiration behind Hazare's work in Ralegan Siddhi. Hazare has a Gandhian look himself, dressed in white homespun cotton and a white topi cap. He is seated at a table filled with microphones, on two bright-red vinyl chairs that have been stacked together to add a bit of height.

He talks for at least half an hour, on subjects that range 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 asks. "We should think about what we are doing. What should I be doing? Think about it!"

The tone of patient moral exhortation continues in an interview immediately afterward in the room at the temple compound that has become his new home. Barefoot, Hazare sits cross-legged on a bed with a blue-and-white striped mattress, answering questions in between reading or signing a steady stream of papers that aides bring in. His look and manner are Gandhian. Only the glasses are different—in place of the Mahatma's wire rims there are large horn-rimmed glasses. There is another difference: Whereas Gandhi's smile often had a certain mischievous quality, Hazare is usually earnest and often stern.

The surroundings are simple—a few plastic chairs, a small television and a Gandhian spinning wheel in the room, but no other furniture. Overhead a ceiling fan whirs.

"I do not like to be compared to Gandhi," Hazare tells us. "No one can understand Gandhi and no one can be like him." But throughout his conversation he refers to Gandhi with reverence. Leaders of society should admire Gandhi—and, like Gandhi, they should be non-violent, but they must also have strong character. "Those who are non-violent but do not have character will not succeed."

Hazare says his dream is to reduce inequalities, to protect the natural environment, and preserve its resources. He wants to accomplish his goals for the next generation without becoming part of the government. ("Those in government lose their vision for the future," he says.) He sees no need to overthrow government. The focus must lie in getting the work done, he says, and in educating the youth.

Basic literacy is not enough. "Education that does not develop social responsibility," he says, "is not true education. What we have to teach is the practice of being human." Children will look up to their parents to see what they do and how they speak. They also watch how their teacher behaves, what he eats and what he drinks. Teaching involves more than following a syllabus. Completing a syllabus does not build character. "That's not the route to make a man. The student sees the whole teacher and tries to become like him."

Hazare believes that the key to the country lies in the development of the villages. "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 tells us. "That's what Gandhi says: 'My life is my message.' We must prove our words by our actions." He ends 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. In two days of interviews in Ralegan Siddhi it is clear that he commands so much local respect that any title would be superfluous.

"Anna is like a god," says 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, says she is proud whenever she sees Hazare on television. When Hazare comes out to address supporters on the day of our visit he is greeted before and after by admirers who fall to their knees and kiss his feet.

Dagdu Mapari, now a clerk in the secondary school and president of the cooperative bank board, started working with Hazare in the 1970s after hearing him give a talk. Mapari joined him in his first hunger fast to raise money to start the school. He helped Hazare and others destroy distillery equipment and he asked villagers to stop its production. "Alcoholism leads to poverty," he explains. Almost 40 years later Mapari is still a strong supporter. His bank provides low-interest loans to farmers; any interest collected goes to support the development of the village.

In three weeks of travel across northern India we hear similar sentiments repeatedly. But in other conversations the reviews are more mixed. In Ahmedabad, capital of Gandhi's home state of Gujarat, we meet graduate students at the prestigious (and Louis Kahn-designed) Institute of Management. "Somebody has to take a stand, says Roahn Arora. "We've all faced corruption—if not me, then my parents. Something has to be done." His classmate Arshdeep Kaur seems to hail from a different planet: India is a fully formed democracy, she asserts, and has no need for protests like Hazare. "It only causes instability," she says. "One must work through the system."

Novelist Arundhati Roy assailed Hazare in an essay published by The Hindu in August. There is nothing "Gandhian" about the massive, centralized anti-corruption bureaucracy Hazare favors, she wrote, and Hazare's alleged sympathies for right-wing Hindu parties (which he denies) run directly counter to Gandhi's lifelong opposition to discrimination based on religion or caste. But while Roy voiced foreboding as to where Hazare's campaign is headed she did not question his basic premise as to what has brought this movement on: "This awful crisis has been forged out of the utter failure of India's representative government, in which the legislatures are made up of criminals and millionaire politicians who have ceased to represent its people," she wrote, "in which not a single democratic institution is accessible to ordinary people."

Historian Ananya Vajpeyi, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, suggests that the lesson of Hazare's emergence this year is that the Gandhian 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 is part of Hazare's appeal, she suggests, especially to the middle-class urbanites 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 whether the focus on the village is still relevant? Can Anna's reforms be replicated in other parts of India? Can a Gandhian have influence in India's new economy? "India has gone the capitalist route," she says. "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."

It is those disparities in wealth and opportunity, Vajpeyi suggests, that have made Hazare a sudden national force. "Why today? Why did Anna Hazare come to the fore today?" she asks. "Why do we have an anti-corruption movement today? Why are these questions being asked today?

"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? 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."

It is the same disparities in wealth and opportunities, she adds, that have given Gandhi new relevance.

"Gandhi's impressions and his warnings are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago," she said. 'I think the time is coming for India to heed Gandhi in a way that it hasn't necessarily done. 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."

And so Gandhi's image floats on giant banners on the stages where Hazare mounts his fasts, in opposition to the Congress Party 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 remarkable about Anna Hazare is that this most unlikely of leaders has made those questions real, for India and for the world.


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