The Untold Story of the Anna Hazare Phenomenon

Published: Tuesday, Aug 16,2011, 19:40 IST
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Swadeshi Patrika, Indian farmer, SEZ

None of the founding members of India Against Corruption, and that includes Anna Hazare, had even in our wildest of imagination thought that Anna’s fast would galvanise the country, and people across the country would stand up and identify with the cause like they eventually did, confesses Dr. Devinder Sharma

From April 5 to date, Anna Hazare is the news. He is being discussed, debated, applauded, accused, vilified and is also at times being crucified by the intelligentsia. The formation of the joint drafting committee to frame the Lok Pal bill continues to be the subject of endless debates and has been a victim of a visible smear campaign orchestrated by those whose extra-terrestial powers would be clipped once a tough law against corruption (mostly affecting people in high places) comes into place.

I find myself stranded somewhere in the middle as accusations (and also accolades) fly from almost all directions. Why in the middle because I am a founding member of India Against Corruption and has walked with the small but effective group to bring the fight against corruption onto the national platform. All these days I have maintained a little distance from the glare of the media that has given me enough time to take a deep breath and contemplate. At a time when all efforts (including from some known faces of the civil society) are aimed at digressing the issue of a strong Lok Pal bill, I think it is time to explain how and why the Anna Hazare factor emerged. Let me share with you some of the salient developments in the march against corruption.

I don’t remember the date but I can still recall when I received a call from RTI Activist Arvind Kejriwal. He asked me whether I would be willing to be part of the fight against the Commonwealth Games corruption. It was as simple as that. When he explained that his idea was to file a Public FIR against the bigwigs of Commonwealth Games organising committee, I agreed. Arvind and I have shared a mutual admiration for each other’s work and he probably knew that I would stand by him. To me it was a good idea, and I am always with those who want to do something rather than sulk and brood over a cup of coffee.

Arvind similarly reached to some of the better known and credible faces from amongst the civil society. He met noted social activist Swami Agnivesh and the former police officer, Kiran Bedi. It was Kiran Bedi who suggested that the group could also seek the support of Swami Ramdev. From what I know, Kiran Bedi called Swami Ramdev and appraised him of the initiative and the need to join the campaign. Swami Ramdev’s backing of the campaign against Commonwealth Games corruption was certainly a clincher. His huge following certainly helped in turning the tables.

But that was only the beginning. Meanwhile, we reached out to Sri Sri Ravi Shanker and also the Archbishop of Delhi. Both agreed to extend support. Later, I spoke to Baba Seenchewal in Punjab, and he too extended his support. Well, it was not only the spiritual leaders that we were garnering support from but a cross-section of the civil society also began to join the campaign. The numbers grew. You will find the names of the founding members on the website of www.indiagainstcorruption.org

While all this was going on, Arvind’s office was meticulously putting together the contents of the Public FIR. I was amazed at the work that had gone in when I was asked to sign on the 370- page FIR that was publicly filed at the Jantar Mantar Police Station. The turnout at Jantar Mantar had exceeded our expectations. I haven’t seen such a huge gathering at Jantar Mantar (in the heart of Delhi where most public rallies are allowed) all these years, and let us not forget to give credit to those who deserve it for making that possible. Swami Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman had given a call for reaching Delhi, and believe me his followers responded. Archbishop of Delhi too had brought in a large number of his followers.

At the Jantar Mantar rally, Swami Ramdev was the main speaker. Anna Hazare was present on the dais. When Swami Ramdev arrived (his flight was late), we didn’t have to go to submit the FIR. The officer-in-charge of the police station came out to receive the FIR from us. Later, I remember Anna Hazare telling Swami Ramdev that he (Anna) has been waging a battle against corruption all these years but now he can hope that it will reach its logical conclusion. Anna spoke in his usual passionate style telling how he had successfully got 6 Maharashtra ministers & over 400 corrupt officials removed by his relentless campaign against corruption.

A few weeks later, Sri Sri Ravi Shanker addressed a press conference in New Delhi with all of us extending his support.

India Against Corruption had arrived.

This is the visible part of the unprecedented campaign against corruption. The invisible part of the story would perhaps remain outside the ambit and gambit of the TV cameras. Arvind’s office had meanwhile turned in a war room. I am really amazed by the kind of work that his team of young activists had put in. They wrote the Jan Lok Pal bill draft, which kept on being revised every now and then. They entertained visitors (whose numbers had multiplied), answering umpteen number of phone calls, sms’, emails and comments on facebook. They prepared the banners and placardsand organsied subsequent meetings. Volunteers joined in and did a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy if you can understand what I mean. But it was all happening because the man who led from front – Arvind Kajriwal – had set in standards.

The Jan Lok Pall bill was meanwhile being prepared in continuous consultation with Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Santosh Hegde. People like Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and at times I and others also gave our suggestions and argued on what was going in, but the laborious part remained confined to the orginal four. That is why when the issue of representation at the joint framing committee came up, India Against Corruption fielded the same people who were involved with the process all these months.

Returning back to the Public FIR that was received at the Jantar Mantar police station, what is little known is that while the FIR was filed, it was never registered by the police. This was probably the first time that an FIR had been lodged on behalf of the public, but the powers-that-be were not amused. We did think about moving the courts to give a directive to the police, but the spate of scams that hit the country – Adarsh Housing scam in Mumbai and the 2G Spectrum telecom scam – to name a few, got us more and more involved in the fight against corruption. Two public rallies subsequently in the famous Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi helped build up the fight against corruption. Public sentiment was building up.

It was at one such moments when we were thinking as to what should be the next step to bring the issue to the fore, Anna Hazare expressed the desire to go on a fast unto death. The founding members of India Against Corruption were not for it. He was already in his 73rd year and we knew that we can’t afford to risk his life. Corruption is not an issue that can be resolved with a fast, and therefore we tried to convince him to give up the idea. He wrote a letter to Prime Minister who invited him for discussions. Anna went to meet Dr Manmohan Singh who promised to set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) under Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. But remained noncommittal on the central demand of a joint drafting committee for the Lok Pal bill.

Finally after a lot of deliberations, India Against Corruption agreed to Anna’s proposal to sit on a fast-unto-death unless the govt accept the proposal to draft
the Jan Lok bill jointly with the civil society.

A few weeks after Anna’s meeting with PM, he received an invite from the govt for discussions with a sub-committee that was constituted by the GoM headed by Pranab Mukherjee. The sub-committee under the chairmanship of Defence Minister A K Antony, comprised Law Minister Veerappa Moily, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal and the Minister of State for parliamentary Affairs, V. Narayanasamy. Four of us representing India Against Corruption – Swami Agnivesh, Sunita Godhara, former Asian gold medallist in marathon, Justice (Retd) D S Tewati, former chief justice of Calcutta and Punjab High Courts and I – went to meet the sub-committee.

We had a long discussion with the committee and we offered to convince Anna Hazare not go ahead with the fast if the subcommittee could give us an assurance that the government would consider the proposal to have a joint drafting committee. Kapil Sibal tried to tell us that setting up a joint committee would be unconstitutional and set a bad precedence. He cited the example of what he had done by inviting civil society members for seeking their views when he framed the Right to Education bill. This is what we didn’t want knowing the way he had very cleverly brushed aside the suggestions of the civil society members in the final draft of the Right to Education bill. Antony did say that the government needs support from civil society in framing a Lok Pal bill which will be a ‘landmark legislation’. I had to remind him that a landmark legislation needs landmark decisions, and the setting up of a joint drafting committee would be one such landmark decisions required. What was clear to us was that the government wanted to buy more time.

Already 42 years had passed since the first effort was made to have a Lok Pal bill.

Before we emerged out of the meeting what came as a surprise was the way the government had in addition invited five more civil society representatives to the meeting. Nothing wrong you would say, but in my thinking it clearly indicated the official way of sabotaging people’s movements. In fact, I found Kapil Sibal to be more than keen to give the other invitees chance to take the floor (again this is a usual way of diverting focus from the real issue under discussion). It was therefore clear to us that the government wouldn’t let the civil society engagement in the law making process be as smooth as we were asking for.

The build up for Anna Hazare’s fast had already begun. We were flooded with response from across the country. Arvind’s team was finding it difficult to keep up with the pressures. They were spending sleepless nights in the office. The new media was flooded with requests and support. I remember seeing requests from people offering to hold fasts at some 180 plus cities/towns across the country. Over 5.5 lakh people extended support, and thousands offered to sit on fast in batches. I had not seen such an encouraging response from the masses for quite some time. But let me be honest, none of the founding members of India Against Corruption, and that includes Anna Hazare, had even in our wildest of imagination thought that Anna’s fast would galvanise the country, and people across the country would stand up and identify with the cause like they eventually did.

A few days before the fastbegan, I was among a score of people invited to participate in a discussion on the Jan Lok Pal bill in one of the committees of the National Advisory Council (NAC). It wasn’t a worthwhile experience to talk about. The people who organised the discussion appeared to be speaking the same language as that of the sub-committee appointed by the Prime Minister.

Anyway, what pains is to find that once the fast began, some members of the NAC wrote and commented on Anna Hazare’s fast calling it undemocratic and the demand of joint drafting committee as unconstitutional. This was unfortunate and was more out of the negative feeling (and outrage among those who think they only represent the civil society) of being left out. The joint draft committee is ‘undemocratic’ because they are not in it. If they were included, everything would havetermed as democratic. I don’t known when will civil society leaders discard their unsustainable egos and learn for once from politicians. The Communists fight bitterly against the Congress in general elections. But when the results are declared and they land up with a hung Parliament, they join hands, draw a common minimum programme and run the country for the next five years. If the civil society leaders were to get into Parliament and form the government believe me they will not be able to rule the country for than a month!

Coming back to what made this campaign successful, I must tell you that I have been on the forefront of another successful people’s campaign in recent times. The campaign against the commercialisation of what could have been India’s first poisonous GMfood crop — Bt brinjal — was also driven by ordinary people. It had taken us four years to build up that campaign, move on from being an NGO activity to people’s campaign. I vividly recall when I sat down with two of my colleagues (Usha and Sridhar from Thanal) in Thiruvanthpuram and discussed the need to launch a campaign against Bt brinjal, we too had not visualised that one day we would succeed in getting a moratorium on Bt Brinjal

The lesson I have learnt is that if you strongly feel about something, pull up your socks and do something. I hate those people who sit in their drawing rooms and over a glass of beer or coffee go on discussing corruption or other ills in the country but do nothing. The same breed of people were also telling us that nothing would come out from the campaign against corruption. Even now there are a large number of people who go on giving endless advice and some of them have been predicting that Anna’s movement will eventually fall. Don’t get disheartened. Just ignore these morons and do something. Remember, all changes in history actually began from the vision, dream and perseverance of one (wo)man.

Anna Hazare began his fast at Jantar Mantar on April 5. Along with him, some 150 volunteers also sat on a fast unto death. The rest is history...

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