Sunday, April 10, 2011

This is how Kishan Baburao Hazare became 'Anna'

In the mid-1970s, a former Indian Army soldier declared war on illicit distilling and gambling in his village, Ralegaon Siddhi, in Maharashtra. Some liquor shops complied with Kishan Baburao Hazare's orders but for the rest, it was business as usual. Hazare decided to get tough when three drunkards from another village thrashed a local man.

He caught the three men when next they entered the village, had them tied to a pillar and flogged them with his army belt till they sobered up and promised to go on the wagon. Soon enough, all the liquor vends in the area vanished.

"It's not easy to bring change. If you really want to do some good, it's sometimes necessary to be tough," recalls Hazare with a smile.

Anna Hazare doesn't look like the toughie he talks about. He is short, moves slowly and talks softly. Dressed in a white dhoti-kurta, a Gandhi cap on his head, Hazare sits cross-legged onstage. Resting on a pile of white cushions, he surveys the crowd that has gathered at the site of his fast at Jantar Mantar in the national capital. Sometimes he claps his hands, joining the drumbeat of supporters singing revolutionary songs. Sometimes, he takes quick gulps of water from a steel glass offered by an attendant. Then as the sun climbs higher, he lies down, trying to sleep even as crowds swarm the stage from where he is challenging the government.

"Look at this man. From which angle does he look like a fascist? He is 72 and on hunger strike to fight corruption and the politicians are calling him a fascist and a blackmailer. When politicians, cutting across party line, speak the same language, we have to be careful," says Ramesh Sharma, a social activist who has been camping at Jantar Mantar since Tuesday, when Hazare began his fast-unto-death to force the government to accept civil society's recommendations on the Lokpal bill. Indeed, politicians have been talking much the same language.Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari said Hazare had no locus standi on the issue because he was not an "elected representative" of the people; Mohan Singh of the Samajwadi Party accused him of employing "fascist tactics" and the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Raghuvansh Prasad Singh poured vitriol on him for "dictating" terms to the government.

Every time a politician opens his mouth against Hazare, he gets a few-hundred new followers, thousands of Facebook pages get updated and millions show their support for the man who has become a symbol of the fight against corruption. Bollywood actor Anupam Kher calls him a "selfless man who is risking his life for the sake of the nation"; Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy extends his "active support" to Hazare; Ravnish Singh, a jobless school teacher from Haryana sees "hope for the country" in him; student Shruti Khanna gets "inspiration from him to do something for the country"; and housewife Malti Rana from Faridabad feels as if "Gandhiji has come back to give us independence from the corrupt politicians".

Anna Hazare has never claimed he is Gandhi.The boy who left school after class VII, joined the army just before the 1962 war with China. He was shunted off to the border after he took on his superiors over corruption in ration supplies. "I was always a troublemaker. I used to have a temper. I could not see someone doing something wrong that makes others suffer. I would end up opening my mouth and get into trouble," says Hazare, who survived a massive Pakistani air raid on his convoy during the 1965 war. His comrades were riddled with bullets, Hazare survived. "That attack made me think about the purpose of my life. God saved me for a reason. I had to do something good and positive with my life," says Hazare, who returned to his village in 1975 and decided to clean it up with the help of young people. As Ralegon Siddhi moved to prosperity, Kishan Baburao Hazare became anna (elder brother) to the villagers.

Today, he is anna or elder brother for much of India. "There is a lot of anger among the people and they don't know how to express it. Suddenly they see an old man fasting to death not for any personal gain and they rally around him," says an IAS officer who just "walked by" Jantar Mantar to "soak in the atmosphere". The officer, who doesn't want to be named for obvious reasons, adds that "the government miscalculated the impact of his fast. In this country a selfless act of sacrifice can pull a lot of people."

Simplicity is Anna Hazare's greatest strength. Integrity is another major factor that distinguishes him from other public figures. "They are calling him names now but Raghuvansh Prasad and Mohan Singh have done nothing to fight corruption. Being honest personally is not enough, they are members of parties which are synonymous with corruption," says Ramesh Sharma, the social activist. "Lobbyists, arms dealers and political fixers can influence government policy but there is no place for an old Gandhian in this system."

Anna Hazare is a Gandhian with a difference. He is more like a street fighter who is not scared of taking on anyone because he believes his cause is just. And he is a man of many causes. At Jantar Mantar, groups of poor farmers from Maharashtra talk of him as a hero. For them he is a living legend. All his actions — the fight against the liquor mafia; the battle against corruption in government offices; the crusade for a Right to Information act in Maharashtra; the campaign against the Mumbai underworld—has become the stuff of legend. And now he has many new converts in his fight against corruption. "I read somewhere that corruption is a middle-class fad. That's wrong. The worst victims of corruption in India are the poor. My fight is for the people living in the countryside who have to pay bribes to get what is legally due to them," says Hazare. "I will continue to fight for the people."

Hazare has been an activist for 40 years but has never touched hearts and minds in the way he did during his hunger strike for the Jan Lokpal bill. In a matter of five days, Anna Hazare has become a much larger figure than when he arrived in Delhi on April 3. Now, with the Lokpal bill issue settled for the moment, the fighter in Anna Hazare must surely be looking for his next big cause.

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