Journal of Foreign Relations column –
While Britain reeled from the recent violence and looting, extraordinary events were taking place in India last week. On August 16, plainclothes police turned up at a suburban apartment in the capital, New Delhi, and took a septuagenarian activist, Anna Hazare, into custody. He was just about to begin a hunger strike as part of an anti-corruption movement. The decision to arrest Hazare and take him to the Tihar jail, a notorious high-security prison with inmates locked up for corruption and other serous crimes, triggered a public backlash not witnessed in India for decades. Demonstrations broke out across the country and were spreading rapidly. Within hours, the Indian government was beginning to back down. The official campaign to demonize and dismiss Hazare was crumbling.
What followed was a spectacular assertion of people power against a government described by India’s leading newspaper, The Hindu, as corrupt, repressive and stupid. The events in India reflect the same public sentiment of anger and frustration against the authoritarianism of the ruling elites elsewhere. But the manifestation in India, at least for now, shows that a different outcome is possible, provided there is leadership. Such leadership is lacking in many other places in these critical times.
A Gandhian, Hazare has received some of India’s highest honors and commands respect for transforming communities in his home state, Maharashtra. More recently, he has harnessed the widespread public discontent against official corruption and has become a thorn in the government’s side. In essence, Anna Hazare’s objective is to prevent an anti-corruption bill that the Congress-dominated coalition government plans to introduce in Parliament, under pressure of the gathering protest movement. Why? Because the government-sponsored bill would exclude the prime minister and other senior officials, in effect giving them immunity from investigation and prosecution under the proposed law.
The government, and some others in India’s parliamentary opposition, assert that only Parliament has the right to make law. Hazare and his supporters accept this. But they want the civil society to have a say. Their version of the bill would provide for a public ombudsman with powers to investigate all politicians and bureaucrats without the government’s prior permission. First introduced nearly forty years ago, the bill has consistently failed to secure the passage through Parliament. In the meantime, official corruption has become rampant on all levels of Indian society.
Emboldened by the exhibition of state power in other parts of the world, the Indian authorities decided to act against Anna Hazare. Vigorous attempts were made to prevent his hunger strike at a public park in the capital. Suggestions were made that he should stage his protest in his village in western India. His hunger strike was intended to be indefinite, but the authorities insisted that it ended on the third day. No more than five thousand people must gather and cars at the site must be limited. Hazare and his associates, who include many prominent activists, social workers, lawyers and a senior ex-police officer, refused to comply with these conditions. The issue became one of Indian citizens’ constitutional right to protest. The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, described by critics as the most corrupt since India became independent in 1947, wanted to stop the agitation gathering momentum. The object of Hazare’s movement was to mobilize mass support in the wake of high-profile corruption scandals.
Hazare represents a phenomenon different from violent expressions of public rage and the authorities’ thirst for retribution in Britain and other countries. Prior to his arrest, Hazare urged people not to resort to violence, not to damage property, and not to give up the struggle. He called upon his supporters to fill India’s jails and workers to go on mass leave for a day. News of Hazare’s arrest spread rapidly and demonstrations broke out in cities and towns throughout the country. However, as the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar remarked, not a single stone was hurled, not one glass pane broken. The movement had demonstrated the power of non-violence.
It took three days of political theater to settle the details of Hazare’s protest. Sensing the nation’s mood, the authorities first announced that he was a free man, only for Hazare to refuse to leave the prison. After frantic negotiations, the government conceded that the fast would take place in a public park in the capital and would be “indefinite,” although reports suggested it would last up to fifteen days, or until his doctors said his health allowed him to continue.
So Hazare’s hunger strike goes on in the full glare of publicity. His movement is attracting large numbers of Indians while the governing coalition is on the defensive. Questions about the future of the contested bill remain. For it is not only the government that is mired in scandals, but opposition parties, too. At the moment, the Congress-dominated government is under the spotlight. The opposition rightwing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, is ready to jump on the bandwagon. And the question is whether any political party would be willing to bring a law that might come to haunt it one day. But the people of India have made a clear statement. Any official attempt to infringe the right of peaceful protest is a step too far.