Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement has caught the imagination of the nation which was exasperated with a series of scams.
Sopan Correspondent/New Delhi
The man who once attempted to end his life and escaped the clutches of death is the new saviour who is now here to redeem the nation from corruption. Emulating Mahatma Gandhi to near perfection in preaching non-violence 74-year-old Anna Hazare is no less than a hero for people across the nation.
Born on June 15, 1937, Anna had a checkered life. He couldn't figure out what to do with life and even decided to end his life. He even jotted down the reasons for his decision to commit suicide on two pages. He had several questions on his mind but could not find answers to them.
But he got the answers he was seeking when he read a book on Swami Vivekananda, which he purchased from a railway station in New Delhi. He realised that service of mankind is service of god. Henceforth, he dedicated his life for the betterment of the society.
Anna joined the Army in the year 1962 during the Indo-China war after the government appealed to the youth of the country to join the force. Patriotic to the core, Anna served the force with total dedication for 15 years and left the force highly decorated with nine medals.
Anna's close shave with death came in the year 1965, when Pakistan launched an air strike on Indian base in which all his fellow soldiers died except him. He was survived with injuries on his head after a bullet hit his head. Anna took it as a divine sign and realised he had a purpose in life.
After taking voluntary retirement from the Indian Army, Anna decided to go back to his native-Ralegan Siddhi, a drought prone village in Maharashtra. Witnessing the misery of the villagers, he encouraged the residents to conserve rainwater, making Ralegan Siddhi a self-sufficient model village in Ahmednagar district.
He gave shape to Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA) in 1991 to fight corruption. After it came to light that at least 42 forest officers swindled the Maharashtra government of crores through corrupt practices, Anna brought it to the notice of the government but all his efforts went in vain as no action was taken against the culprits. But he continued to turn heat on corrupt ministers. Using hunger strike as his weapon, he was instrumental in the removal of six ministers in the Maharashtra government.
The Right To Information Act (RTI) was sanctioned by the President of India in 2003 after Anna went on an indefinite strike at Azad Maidan.
Today, Anna is a beacon of hope for the millions of fellow Indians filled with years of pent-up frustrations on the issues of corruption. With his characteristic ways of "aggressive non-violence", Anna has taken a vow to obliterate corruption from the country's roots and is on indefinite fast at Ramlila Maidan for a strong Lokpal, while fighting relentlessly against powerful political forces. Anna has become the new voice and leader of millions of Indians in all walks of life in possibly the greatest public uprising against corruption since the time of Independence.
Since he returned to Ralegaon Siddhi in 1975, Hazare has spearheaded a movement that has changed all this for ever. Today, Ralegaon Siddhi is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound. Its fields are heavy with grain; there's a bank, a boarding school, biogas plants; some of its farmers drive around on mopeds. Even more remarkable is the social transformation that Hazare has wrought. No one drinks in Ralegaon Siddhi. There are only a handful, who smoke in the village. There hasn't been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened.
It's hard to believe that Hazare could be responsible for all this. He's a short, thin, mild looking fellow; the kind of person you wouldn't look at twice. Nor is his background the stuff from which leaders are supposed to be made. The son of a poor farmer, Hazare never got beyond the seventh class in school. As a young man his fiery temper constantly got him into trouble: once he had the Bombay police after him when he beat up a cop who had been harassing hawkers. He was known as a troublemaker in the army too. Soon after he enlisted, he discovered that a senior officer was embezzling mess funds. He publicly questioned the officer and was posted to far-off NEFA as a punishment.
Anna Hazare is always unfazed by criticism. "Rural India is a harsh society," he says, "if you want change, it's sometimes necessary to be tough."
Anna believes, social reforms must be based on a deep religious faith. Today, as in the very beginning, the village temple is the heart of Hazare's movement. Anna himself lives there, in a small room cluttered with files and documents. All day long, the temple is crowded with people attending prayer sessions, religious discourses, and meetings.
In the 1990s, Anna turned his attention from development to fighting corruption in political and public life. In 1991, he founded an organization called Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA), or the public movement against corruption.
The group's biggest success to date has been the adoption of the Right to Information Act - first on a state level in Maharashtra in 2003 and on a national level in 2005. Hazare and his followers had advocated for such legislation for several years, and when the bill was stalled in the final stages of adoption, Hazare went on a hunger strike to force the president to give his assent to the legislation.
In 1998, Anna's attempts to highlight the corruption of government officials got him briefly arrested when he leveled corruption allegations against three ministers in the state government of Maharashtra. One of them sued him for defamation, and he was sentenced to three months in jail. He served only one day before being released on order of the chief minister of the state, after an outcry by social activists.
Over the years, Anna has received numerous awards for his development and social activism work, including the Padma Bhushan award for social work, handed out by the Indian government, in 1992 and the World Bank's Jit Gill Memorial Award for Outstanding Public Service in 2008.
However the Gandhian's life and act do not go without criticism. His most recent cause the Lokpal that has brought him so much attention, as it has stirred the whole nation. He wants that the proposed ombudsman should have power to investigate and prosecute everyone from low-level government officials and bureaucrats to judges and the Prime Minister.
Still not all of it has been positive. Despite the vast popular support Anna has plenty of detractors. These people see him as a self-appointed, self-righteous vigilante whose heavy-handed, media-savvy tactics have attracted publicity-seeking posers and detracted from the good work of the many other activists advocating for political and social change in India. His critics say that while he might dress in the style of Mahatma Gandhi and employ similar hunger strike tactics to further his cause, his political agenda is far less sophisticated and his positions, such as his support for flogging and his call for corrupt officials to be hanged, are downright contradictory to the ideals of non-violent resistance Gandhi advocated.