India’s new hero fasts against corruption

Indian politics is in the spotlight, as activist Anna Hazare continues his Gandhi-like campaign against corruption. He has mobilised the masses to demand transparency in politics.

With his distinctive Gandhi-style hat, crisp white kurta pajama and large square glasses, Anna Hazare perfectly suits his new role as the hero of Indian dissent.

Since April, the 74-year-old has embarked on several high-profile fasts: to death, he says, or until his demands are met. His crusade is against corruption: it has captured India’s imagination and thrown its government into near-crisis.

Corruption is a burdensome reality of life and politics in India. It is thought at least half the population are forced to make bribes – to policemen, health inspectors, even headteachers – to go about their daily lives with ease. Corporations are widely known to pay off politicians to secure special favours.

Hazare’s campaign calls for the appointment of a Lokpal: a national ombudsman, charged with the investigation and prevention of corruption in every part of government. With the support of India’s growing middle class, this campaign has quickly taken off.

His public fasts attract huge crowds, the chant ‘I am Anna’ is the signature of the anti-corruption movement, and sales of his trademark topihave rocketed. Some even worry the campaign started to take on the qualities of a personality cult.

This isn’t the first time Hazare has fasted for a cause. Back in 2006, he underwent a hunger strike for the Right to Information Act, which grants citizens the right to request information from any public authorities. This year, his longest fast for the Lokpal was 13 days.

In this fight, however, it seems one strike is not enough. On several occasions the Indian government has pledged to meet Hazare’s demands, but later failed to meet his expectations – so he starves himself again.

This month, his proposals will be debated in parliament. If the strong measures demanded aren’t adopted, Hazare says, he will continue his familiar course.

Real democracy?

Despite his success, some people are turning against the methods of Hazare’s campaign. India, they say, is a democracy: all citizens have the a vote, and have elected their representatives to make choices. By attempting to dictate decisions by holding government to ransom with a hunger strike, some think that Hazare undermines the very process of democracy he claims to support.

The state of Indian corruption, others argue, demands strong action like this. With politics so deep in the pursuit of profit and separated from the reality of the electorate, a campaign that seizes the imaginations of normal people in the fight for integrity and democracy can only be a good thing.

You Decide

  1. Do protests like hunger strikes have a place in an free democracy?
  2. In very corrupt societies, officials often think: 'everyone else is profiting from this. Why shouldn't I?' Is this a good justification? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Do some further research: what kinds of corruption are there? Where and why does corruption take place? Which sections of society are particularly at risk? Present your findings as a poster.
  2. Design a campaign for anti-corruption measures in India or in your own country. What strategy would you use to make sure people are really drawn in by your cause? Are there any particular issues you could highlight to mobilise popular support?

Some People Say...

“Motives are never 100% pure – it is the result that counts.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who is levelling this criticism at Hazare?
Several pundits have made criticisms, but many have been politicians, who are being campaigned against. They in turn have been accused of running a smear campaign against Hazare.
What accusations have they been making?
It seems anti-corruption campaigners are not immune from corruption themselves. High-profile campaigner Kiran Bedi is said to have overcharged expenses to fund her own organisation, and another close supporter is being pursued for unpaid taxes.
That's embarrassing!
Indeed. The claims seem to suggest that 'power corrupts'. And Hazare has been accused of snobbery against the poor of India, after comments that most Indian people did not understand the value of their vote.

Word Watch

Anna
A girl's name in most Western countries, but a boy's name in India, coming from the Sanskrit word for 'grain'.
Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of the Indian Independence movement. Revered for peaceful methods of protest, Gandhi is a hero in India and an icon of freedom and democracy.
Kurta pajama
Traditional male dress in India – a long tunic worn over trousers.
Right to Information Act
Applied across India in 2005, the Right to Information Act gives citizens the right to request information from the government.
Ombudsman
An individual or agency acting as an intermediary between two parties, to ensure proper conduct, or that certain obligations are fulfilled.

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