On June 15, 2016 Anna Hazare turns 79, a ripe age for anyone. His status within Maharashtra notwithstanding, Anna made his mark on the national stage only with the 2011 anti-corruption protests in Delhi.
The moral high ground has been a force in India’s public and political life from Gandhi, to Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. Anna Hazare became an inheritor of that tradition. Never entering the complicated world of electoral politics, Anna has still managed to have an immense influence on it, most obviously with the Aam Aadmi Party.
But Anna’s political career and practice did not begin in Delhi or even Mumbai. It began in his native village, Ralegan Siddhi. It is in this hamlet that we can see what Anna Hazare’s worldview and politics stand for and like the man himself, it is not an uncomplicated story.
Ralegan Siddhi: A Gandhian Utopia?
Anna is a self-confessed admirer and follower of Gandhi. One of the pillars of Gandhi’s philosophy was a deep suspicion of modernity, best articulated in his 1909 monograph Hind Swaraj. For Gandhi, the best possible future for India lay in autonomous village republics governed by ‘tradition’.
On the face of it, Anna has tried to make Ralegan Siddhi a paradise in the Gandhian mould. In fact, his trust in the village is called the Hind Swaraj trust.
With hardly any water, Ralegan Siddhi was parched and far from prosperous. With consistent campaigning and eventual support from the administration, Anna managed to begin a watershed development programme in the parched village.
Nearly 1,000 acres of additional land was brought under cultivation, moving the village out of poverty.
The village also has good schools and a bank, which function well. Anna also campaigned against untouchability and Dalits were given the right to draw water from the village well.
These successful experiments and movements got Anna many honours, including the Padma Bhushan.
Anna Hazare’s website highlights all these achievements. It also focuses on another set of goals though – the eradication of ‘social evils’ like liquor and tobacco from Ralegan Siddhi.
And that shows us a different side of Anna Hazare.
The Other Side of Anna
By all accounts, alcoholism was a major problem in Ralegan Siddhi till Anna’s reformation programme began.
According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Anna’s battle against alcoholism and tobacco used violence and intimidation. Anna himself admitted to beating ‘drunkards’ who had flouted his ban on liquor consumption. This was not an isolated incident, rather part of a systematic approach.
While alcohol can be toxic, extra-judicial punishments by unelected, unconstitutional authorities, reminiscent of Khap Panchayats are just as disturbing.
And unfortunately, the paternalism and vigilantism that Anna displayed in Ralegan Siddhi was something that marked many of his statements even when arrived on the national stage.
A Gandhian, but Not Quite Gandhi
Anna Hazare has borrowed quite a bit from Gandhi. The ideal of the village, a suspicion of modern life and institutions. He also uses many of Gandhi’s techniques, most often the hunger strike to rally public opinion and put pressure on the government.
But there is enough about Anna that Gandhi would not have liked.
In 2012, Anna said that those found guilty of corruption should be hanged. While defending the statement in an interview to what was then Headlines Today he said, “That is why I have said that, today, in many things, along with Gandhi we have to look towards Shivaji.”
In 2011, Anna has said “When a man’s power of tolerance runs out, then whoever is in front of you, if a slap is given, then the brain is put back in place. That is the only road open now.”
One of the pillars of Gandhi’s thought was non-violence, which is clearly something Anna lacks.
Gandhi was also a man of nuance and understanding. Going by his simplistic understanding of ‘corruption’ and the way he thinks the problem should be dealt with, Anna does not share those qualities.
Perhaps that is why Gandhi handed over the reins of the Congress and India to Nehru, who established democratic institutions and practices. And Gandhi did so willingly and with grace.
Arvind Kejriwal continued what Anna began in Delhi, and like his mentor, he doesn’t seem to understand the importance of institutions.