The mutiny for just causes

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Why Anna Hazare’s battle against corruption should also be every Indian’s fight, says Revati Laul

Game changer Hazare has succeeded in mobilising the masses against graft
Photo: Vijay Pandey

AS MAHENDRA Singh Dhoni’s face knotted in intense concentration, 1.2 billion Indian eyes were on him. At Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, it was the most critical match of all. The World Cup final. Do or die. DO or DIE. And yet, not far away from the stadium, another Team India was in a twist over an even more crucial match. The final push in a war against corruption. As Dhoni fought for glory, the other Team India was busy circulating SMSes. This was the text:

“On 5 April, Anna Hazare is going to fast unto death to urge the government to table the Lokpal Bill, India’s first anti-corruption law. If you want India to be corruption free, please fast on 5th.”

The 73-year-old Gandhian, activist and champion of the RTI had elected to be captain of the crucial do-or-die match. Where he would fast indefinitely until the government agrees to table an anti-corruption law drafted with the help of Hazare’s team. A law that arms an independent people’s tribunal to investigate, try and prosecute all politicians, bureaucrats and judges for corruption.

But this is not just Hazare’s war against the Government of India. What unfolded over the past few months was the structuring of a collective pitched battle by citizens groups across the country against the State. Hazare is only its most prominent face.

The PM told Hazare that his demand for jointly drafting the Lokpal Bill was unacceptable

Like the World Cup that India waited for and finally won after 28 years, the anti-corruption law has also been through a long incubation. Drafted first in 1968, it was introduced in Parliament eight times, but surprisingly, there was never enough political will to pass it.

So what made Hazare think that gambling with his life would put pressure on the government, when nothing had happened for 42 years? Same answer as the World Cup. Team effort. Or in the language of a Gandhian — mass mobilisation.

Out in the open People rally in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill outside Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

Groups of concerned citizens had been meeting under the umbrella organisation called India Against Corruption for some months now, ever since the tsunami of scams hit India. Since this included the people who started the RTI movement — Arvind Kejriwal and Aruna Roy — Constitutional law expert Shanti Bhushan, his activist lawyer son Prashant and Kiran Bedi, the solution thrown up was that India needs a strong anti-corruption system. Currently, 18 states in India have Lokayuktas, retired judges who can investigate corruption, but they are only an advisory body.

The Central Vigilance Commission that examines corruption charges can also only make recommendations. And the CBI, which has the power to make arrests and chargesheet people, comes under the Home Ministry, so it’s not seen as an independent body.

The government draft of the Lokpal Bill pending in Parliament, Team India discovered, was geared to create more of the same — a body that is either only advisory or not independent. So Team India prepared an alternative draft. They called it the Jan Lokpal Bill. In this draft…

• The Jan Lokpal can initiate investigations of corruption based on information provided to it, probe charges, issue search warrants, and set up special courts to try and prosecute those found guilty of corruption.

• The Jan Lokpal can probe anyone, including the prime minister.

• The Jan Lokpal office headed by a chairperson will consist of an 11-member panel at the top, four of whom will be eminent retired judges. The members will be chosen from among a select committee of those who have held the highest Constitutional positions in the country but with a clean track record.

• The Jan Lokpal will have officers in all government departments at the highest level acting as independent ombudsmen, answerable only to the Lokpal.

• It will be financed from the Consolidated Fund of India and has the power to not only investigate, like a police officer, but also to set up special courts to try those found guilty of corruption.

• This draft also factors in loopholes in the present system where unaccounted money of corrupt individuals is transferred to other family members. In the new draft, all public servants have to declare the assets and properties they and their families own. Any undeclared assets will be deemed to have been gotten by corrupt means and will be acquired by the Lokpal until the person’s name is cleared. This is to ensure that someone charged with corruption cannot continue to enjoy the fruits of that corruption as the case drags on in court.

Eighteen states have Lokayuktas who can probe graft, but they are only an advisory body

The draft was sent to the law ministry, the prime minister, leaders of all major political parties and all the chief ministers in December 2010.

Team India also asked repeatedly to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — who has been repeatedly stating in Parliament that his government is fighting corruption — to discuss the new draft. The citizens’ groups were full of hope. But after the requests were ignored, Hazare declared he would pull out the only weapon an ordinary citizen of this country can use against the State. His life.

Stay away Politicians such as Uma Bharti were refused entry at the Jantar Mantar venue

IN FEBRUARY, he declared he would soon go on a fast unto death. Soon after his declaration, a meeting was set up with the PM in the middle of March. At that meeting, Manmohan Singh told Team India that their main demand — to be allowed to jointly draft the anti-corruption bill with the government — is not acceptable. But their advice was very welcome.

If the argument is that citizens’ groups cannot draft laws, Kejriwal points to the fact that the Maharashtra government had already passed seven laws in the state by forming joint working groups of citizens and politicians.

And so, on the morning of 5 April, Operation Clean-Up India was launched. By now, the war on the ground had also gone viral. The SMS campaign picked up nearly six lakh supporters. Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with support. Hazare and the citizens’ groups became the much needed vent for 1.2 billion frustrations.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev pledged their support. So did Maulana Mahmood Madani and his Jamiat-ulemae- Hind, the Archbishop of India and also Swami Agnivesh.

“Corruption has become so endemic and dangerous that it is destabilising the entire country’s economy,” said Swami Agnivesh. “There are estimates that the black money in circulation in the country runs into Rs 100 lakh crore. Another Rs 300 lakh crore is believed to be stashed away in foreign accounts. If we add this up, it’s Rs 400 lakh crore. We could be richer than America. But we’re among the poorest nations. It is corruption that has made our democracy hollow.”

Former top cop Kiran Bedi, who also joined Hazare at Jantar Mantar in the people’s war, said this is the real World Cup. “We were so hungry for the World Cup. Why are we not as hungry for anti-corruption? If the money stops getting stolen, you’d have the money for food security. You don’t have money for health. We are the poorest in health,” Bedi points out.

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Shape of The present Lokpal bill

Composition
The Lokpal is a three-member body consisting of a Chairperson who is a former Chief Justice or judge of the Supreme Court and two members who are or have been judges of the Supreme Court or Chief Justices of High Courts.

Jurisdiction
It covers the Prime Minister, ministers, Members of Parliament but the Lokpal is not to inquire into allegations of corruption against any member of either House of Parliament without the recommendation of the Speaker or Chairman of Council of States, as the case may be. It cannot act on its own even when it prima facie finds a strong case for inquiry.

Procedure
The Lokpal will conduct an inquiry. If it finds that any of the charges have been proved, a report of the finding will be sent to the Speaker and Chairman of the Council of States, and they alone will determine what action is to be taken. The presiding officers have to place the report before both the Houses of Parliament. The Lokpal will then be informed as to what action is taken or proposed to be taken, which includes the rejection of findings.

Limitations
The Lokpal is forbidden to inquire into any complaint made five years after the commission of the offence. There is no similar limitation under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

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FOR THE first time in independent India, these voices matched exactly what the people at the receiving end of the system were feeling. People like Vikram Lal, chairman of the Eicher Tractors group, who retired from the world of business 15 years ago and started Common Cause, a public interest group. He calls this the second war of Independence. “I don’t think there is any other way of doing it, except an office or a set of people who can actually intervene and don’t have to fear retribution.”

Lal says he cannot even begin to imagine what a small farmer or trader or businessman has to deal with when even he, a second-generation successful entrepreneur, encountered his fair share of armtwisting by the government that he was able to resist.

“The Haryana chief minister personally invited me to Haryana Bhavan in Delhi and said, ‘We need money. We have to fight elections.’ I replied that we don’t have any black money. That got him so upset. He threatened me and lashed out. Promptly, the electricity board chap came to our factory and pulled out the grips of the power coming in, so we ran around like headless chickens trying to fix this. Nothing worked. So I finally decided I would go to the press.”

Lal luckily had access to Arun Shourie, who was then the editor of IndianExpress. After a few phone calls to the CM’s office, Lal had his electricity back at his factories.

Anna Hazare and the citizens’ groups became the much needed vent for 1.2 billion frustrations

It’s experiences like these, of people both rich and powerful and poor and powerless, that finally built up the momentum on 5 April for a people’s movement against corruption.

“You can’t remain in the system and change the system,” says Kejriwal, talking about his own career as an income tax official, before he became a full-time activist. “The bureaucracy is there to maintain status quo. You try to change the system, the system will throw you out.”

And so 129 people sat with Hazare at Jantar Mantar, fasting alongside him. There was 25- year-old student Reena Malik, whose entire group of friends was fasting. She hasn’t told her parents yet. But she and her friends from Gen Next are fasting with Hazare because they believe in change. In the power of the people. So does Bharatnatyam dancer and former economics professor Jamuna Krishnan.

Mayur Sharma, the face of a popular television food show, was also present and said how deeply he felt for the cause. “I got so excited about this that I actually went out there and posted this all over Facebook. The only mild confusion was that I thought ‘Anna’ Hazare was a lady!” He was immediately corrected by fellow Facebookers, to whom he says, “I didn’t know who Anna Hazare is, but I stand by the cause.”

Among the crowd, another unlikely supporter, was a Fabindia-clad Jasbir Singh Grover. A former civil engineer from Delhi Development Authority, a government office he confirms is highly corrupt.

“Throughout my life, I have been experiencing (this), I was surrounded by corrupt people. This day, I am seeing messiahs in these people’s faces. That is why I have come.”

These powerful emotions ran through many of those on fast or out in solidarity. It was fire enough to make Col Arjun Jang Bahadur fly down from Bengaluru only for this. Exactly the sentiments of Ambika Menon, 75, who came down from Kochi. Her friend in Delhi who is hosting her is worried, so Ambika explained with a glint in her eyes, “I got my insurance card two days ago. And a list of hospitals in Delhi.”

Shambhu Sadashiv Patel is also 75 and fasting indefinitely with Hazare. An activist working in Nandurbar in Maharashtra, he has fasted many times before. “If my mind is at rest, my entire body is fine. A man’s mind must always be at rest,” he said.

‘I didn’t know who Anna is, but I stand by the cause,’ says popular television host Mayur Sharma

A day of fasting saw hundreds of supporters gathered around Hazare in Delhi and in 200 other cities. After a brief evening rest and a quick check on the pulse rate by doctors, he was back, relentlessly answering the media’s endless stream of questions. “We have to speak quickly,” he explained, “I’ve got to go live in five minutes on Zee.”

There was only one question to ask. How difficult is it, at 73, even for a man who has fasted many times before. The first two days are the most difficult, explained Hazare. But there is no concept in his mind of “this is mine” or “this is for me” any more. It’s always a greater common good that drives him. When his willpower and strength start to flag, “I read Swami Vivekananda’s teachings over and over,” he says.

“If a large number of people join this battle, it’s huge political support,” explains Kejriwal.

Every tweet, each SMS, each person that comes to Jantar Mantar or a site of protest across the country makes up the mass base of a tough political battle. Team India has sent out a message to the establishment: You have held us and our money, trust and votes to ransom for far too long. Now, it’s our turn to play the ransom game. This is only the first innings in a political Test match that seeks to change India forever. Anna Hazare and Team India have batted. Now, it’s the government’s turn.

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New-Age Gandhian

Influencing State policy is old hat for Anna Hazare. He forced the passage of the RTI Bill, says Revati Laul

HE’S 73. He’s short and stout. His voice falters and it’s difficult to see the expression in his eyes behind his thick glasses. Yet, Anna Hazare has, for the first time since the JP movement in the 1970s, been a leader who has successfully mobilised the masses against corruption.

Hazare’s experiments with mass movements began in 1997 in Mumbai, where he campaigned aggressively to introduce the Right to Information (RTI) Bill in the Maharashtra Assembly. The state government had exactly the same fears that the Centre is now exhibiting: Loss of control, and thereby power. Aer years of listening to empty promises, Hazare went on a do-or-die fast. On the 12th day of the fast, the state government sent the Bill to the Centre and it became law.

But Hazare is not just a man who fasts to get the job done. He is a social worker who was awarded the Padma Bhushan for developing his native village — Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra. The UN and the World Bank cite his work as an example of people’s participation in sustainable agriculture. Hazare used rainwater harvesting techniques to change the ecosystem in a village from one where barely 350 acres were cultivable and people were destitute to one of the richest villages in the country 25 years later. Needless to say, in his village, he is a revered figure.

Stories of his fearlessness and blunt talk abound. One of his colleagues speaks fondly of a time when Hazare’s activism had led to four NCP ministers in Maharashtra being accused of corruption. They filed a counter charge of corruption and racheted it up in the Assembly so that enemies both in the government and Opposition demanded Hazare’s arrest. He told his worried colleagues to relax and wait. Sure enough, two days later, the din around his arrest died down and he asked the MLAs pointedly: “Why has the noise died? Why aren’t you asking for my arrest any longer?”

In Hazare’s village, people have put their lives on hold ever since he went on fast. Many are fasting alongside and the village has collectively decided not to celebrate any occasion until their Hazare has won.

His speeches are fiery and full blooded. He likened this government’s apathy to introduce the Jan Lokpal Bill to the repressive British Raj. His political philosophy is clearly Gandhian, but he draws his inspiration from Vivekananda. Which is why, a man who started out as a soldier in the Indian Army during the 1962 war with China, has no qualms about writing to the PM to say: “You are the sevaks, the people are the maliks.” The government should consider itself warned.

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revati@tehelka.com