For a man who sums up his philosophy as being of service to his fellow humans, 74-year-old Anna Hazare is a bit of a contrarian. The Indian army veteran and Model Village innovator was detained in Delhi’s Tihar jail last week. He was nabbed while leading a parade to a park where he planned to stage “a fast unto death” in protest of rampant corruption in India. When his warders said he was free to go, Hazare refused to vacate his cell. He demanded a 15-day hunger-strike permit. Absent the permit, he would waste to nonexistence behind bars. After three days, officials gave permission for a fast at the Ramlila Maidan playground, a rallying site near the Delhi Gate.
Hazare might have declared mission accomplished and sat down to a celebratory curry. But at least five morsels of discontent stuck in his craw.
1) He is a man of his word. Back in April, Hazare ended a four-day hunger strike after the government set up a committee to create an anti-corruption ombudsman. “If the law doesn't get enacted by August 15,” he said at that time, “there will be another campaign.” No anticorruption ombudsman has been appointed. Putting a strip of naan into his piehole would be a serious loss of face.
2) Billions of rupees are at stake. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, ranks 78th on Transparency International’s corruption index. India is less bribe-happy than Pakistan or Nepal, but more mired in graft than China, Thailand or Brazil. India’s corruption flourishes in both the private and government sectors—bribes will eat up one-third of a small business’s income and are mandatory for school applications, doctor appointments, a drivers license, a birth certificate, a death certificate. Greasing palms can no more be avoided than air pollution can. “Bureaucratic and petty corruption is extreme in India,” said Transparency International’s research director, Robin Hodess, who may have a gift for understatement.
'It would be my good fortune to die for the country. You can cut off my head, but not force me to bow down.'
3) Peer pressure and its opposite. A hunger strike is an interactive spectator event in India. Flag-waving crowds and throngs of TV cameras greeted Hazare outside Tahir jail on Friday. Sunday saw 50,000 supporters swarm into the park where Hazare was not picnicking, and chant, “Anna, you keep fighting! We are with you!” Copycat protests sprang up across India, as did protests to the protests. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Hazare of being deliberately confrontational, undemocratic and “totally misconceived.” The country’s dalits, or untouchables, shared Singh’s view. “Dalits face corruption not from bureaucracy but from civil society where caste system is the biggest oppressor,” said Common Concern, a group of dalit intellectuals. “And this civil society wants to overturn the Constitution which has given us respite from caste system. You cannot discredit the Constitution.”
4) Hazare is a victim of his own success. In August 2003, hungry for a Right to Information act, Hazare embarked on a “do or die” fast at Azad Maidan, Mumbai. Within 12 days, the government of Maharashtra had drafted a Right to Information bill, persuaded India’s president to sign it and enacted it into law. Politicians subsequently reneged on the intent of the law and proposed a string of neutering amendments, an action Hazare refused to stomach. He immediately refreshed his fast unto death, and the Maharashtra public launched agitation campaigns of their own, including nine instances of Rail-roko-andolan, or train blockade. On the ninth day of Hazare’s hunger strike, legislators abandoned their plan to amend the Right to Information.
5) Hazare’s fast to the death probably won’t kill him. “It would be my good fortune to die for the country,” Hazare told the AFP. “You can cut off my head, but not force me to bow down.” Perhaps so, but authorities are required to intervene if Hazare’s life is at risk. Suicide is illegal in India, although a small sum of money passed to the correct hands can ease the transition.