Anna Hazare: A fasting activist turns a national icon

By Manish Chand and George Joseph, IANS,

New Delhi : He drove a truck for the army during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, but when Anna Hazare broke his fast on day 13 Sunday after the Indian parliament agreed to his three demands for a stronger anti-graft legislation the school dropout had won for the people a war against the powerful establishment.

Support TwoCircles

It was a civic-government standoff, broadcast live to the nation by the incessantly chattering 24×7 TV news channels, and at the centre of this spectacular reality show was a frail and fasting 74-year-old man who became a veritable nightmare for the ruling political class, but a hero of the urban middle class reeling under pervasive corruption and an unresponsive system.

Heroes are born in trying times, and in Hazare, who once sold flowers for a living, middle India has found an icon who echoed their growing disgust with scandal after scandal. Filmstar Aamir Khan spoke for many in India when he told Anna supporters amid singing and chanting that “Anna is the real hero”.

“Anna has inspired us all. He has acted as a symbol of public aspirations and a bridge between the old and the youth against the increasing corruption,” says Goverdhan Singh Jamwal, 84-year-old major general, who took part in the Hazare movement.

Hazare, who has deftly deployed Gandhian weapons of fasting to protest against corruption and injustice in his native village of Ralegan Siddhi and in Maharashtra where he has taken up diverse causes, came into the national spotlight in April when he fasted for five days for a strong Lokpal bill. It forced the government to form a 10-member panel to draft the legislation.

Four months later, Hazare undertook another fast for the same cause when he saw that the government had not agreed to all their conditions and this time he captured the people’s imagination – thanks to 24X7 TV coverage of his movement – like few have in the last few decades. He became a national icon when he was arrested Aug 16 before he began his fast and was put in Tihar jail and was released under mounting public pressure.

After 12 days of fasting and sustained media attention, fed astutely by his SMS-wielding tech-savvy minders, Hazare may have got unprecedented national limelight now, but the diminutive activist, clad in the traditional white kurta-pyjama and a Gandhi cap, has been a quiet revolutionary back in his home state Maharashtra for decades.

Much like Mahatma Gandhi, Anna Hazare — born Kisan Baburao Hazare — began his activist life in a humble way.

His first target was his own village, Ralegan Siddhi in Ahmednagar district. It was a miserable and drought-prone place with insufficient rainfall and lacking any economic base. In 1975, he launched watershed development programmes and persuaded people to change their ways and managed to transform the barely breathing village to one Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of.

Years later, India honoured his work by awarding him a Padma Shri in 1990 and a Padma Bhushan in 1992. But, unlike many, he would not rest on his laurels. He unleashed a war on corruption, launching the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan.

In 1989, Anna undertook a nine-day fast to support a farmers’ stir to draw attention to the agrarian crisis and power shortage in the state. The government accepted most of the demands.

In 1995, his anti-corruption drive against the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Maharashtra led to the resignation of three ministers – Shashikant Sutar, Mahadeo Shivankar and Baban Gholap.

In 2003, when Maharashtra had a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government, the tireless crusader went on fast against four ministers, Sureshdada Jain, Nawab Malik, Vijay Kumar Gavit and Padamsinh Patiln, whom he accused of being corrupt.

Hazare’s reputation as a man of integrity gave him clout that his detractors find difficult to battle.

A self-made man with no airs, his father was an unskilled labourer. Out of school, Hazare sold flowers and set up a floral shop in Mumbai before the Chinese attack of 1962 led him into the army.

It was while in the army that he was exposed to the works of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, spiritual philosophers and leaders who captured his imagination.

As an activist, Hazare also fought for the rights of tribals, the lowliest of the lowliest.

But he realised that nothing could be achieved until people were empowered. And so he campaigned extensively for the right to information, travelling for more than 12,000 km in Maharashtra, creating awareness about the legislation.

Now Hazare, using the satyagrahi’s time-tested weapon of hunger strike, has spawned a mass movement that has forced the government to accept his demand for a stringent anti-corruption law that could bring cabinet secretary as well as a lowly clerk within the ambit of Lokpal bill.

It’s not often an individual morphs into a mantra, but Anna Hazare has become one, inspiring the apathetic middle class to shed its indifference and become proactive catalyst of change.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at [email protected])