Mumbai: Anna Hazare is a veteran of many battles—as a former soldier and then as a social activist who has forced at least half a dozen Maharashtra ministers to quit on corruption charges, though he also has detractors who disagree with his pressure tactics.
Hazare is now fighting possibly the biggest battle of his life, by launching an indefinite hunger strike in New Delhi to press for an early enactment of a Lokpal Bill, legislation that would create public ombudsmen to investigate corruption charges against public servants.
Born Kisan Baburao Hazare, the 72-year-old activist hails from Ralegan-Siddhi, a small village from Parner taluka in the bone-dry Ahmadnagar district of western Maharashtra. He joined the army after completing school as there were hardly any other employment prospects in the area those days.
He survived a shell attack by Pakistani forces in the 1965 Indo-Pak war and that changed his life forever. In hospital, he thought he was kept alive as God wanted him to work to better his village.
By the time he retired from the army in 1975, Ralegan-Siddhi had become notorious for hooch dens and was fractured by caste and clan divisions. But the people were still deeply religious.
Hazare decided to use this to his advantage and started a movement for the reconstruction of dilapidated Yadavbaba temple in the village. Those involved in the reconstruction work had to vow that they would not only give up consuming hooch, but also have nothing to do with illicit liquor trade.
After inspiring villagers to embrace prohibition, Hazare brought them together for activities such as social afforestation and watershed management, and helped them create sustained source of income through agriculture.
A bachelor, Hazare donated the land his family owned and pension he receives from army to help build a school and hostel for students from adjoining areas.
By the late 1980s, Ralegan-Siddhi acquired the reputation of a model village and started attracting visitors from all over the world.
Around the same time, Hazare also had his first tryst with serious agitation on socioeconomic issues by supporting farmers of Ahmadnagar who were demanding reliable power supply for their water pumps.
But he got nationally known after he launched an indefinite hunger strike in Alandi, an important pilgrimage for the Vaishnavaite sect of Maharashtra, in 1994, against corruption in forest department. He withdrew his 12-day hunger strike only after extracting a firm assurance from then chief minister Sharad Pawar.
After this, Hazare led many anti-corruption agitations which forced ministers such as Mahadev Shivankar and Shashikant Sutar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena government to resign in late 1990s. Later, during the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party regime, his agitation forced ministers such as Swarup Singh Naik not only to resign, but also serve a jail sentence.
According to Maharashtra information commissioner and veteran journalist Vijay Kuvalekar, who worked with Hazare in the past, Hazare enjoys tremendous goodwill. “He is not a man who is fighting to serve some vested interests. His only ambition is to eradicate corruption from our system,” Kuvalekar said.
Hazare has sometimes been accused of launching his anti-corruption agitations based on half-baked information. There have been occasions also when he left agitations midway after getting empty assurances. One such agitation even saw him going behind bars.
A defamation suit filed by Baban Gholap, the minister in the Sena-BJP government, was upheld by a Mumbai court and Hazare was sentenced for seven days, but was released only after a day after a public outcry.
Denying these charges Kuvalekar said: “Hazare knows how our system works and he is not interested in destroying the system, but strengthening it and making it work for the common man. Suspension of any agitation doesn’t mean he has given up on the issue.”
Suhas Palshikar, a professor of political science from Pune University and psephologist, said: “Hazare’s agitation lacks popular support and mass mobilization.” He added: “His stand that he is morally right and the government must accept his demand is highly undemocratic.”
According to Palshikar, there is a need for Lokpal Bill to clean up the system, but there had not been any popular agitation for it in the country. “It’s wrong to take such extreme positions.”
“The media also needs so-called saintly figures to show ordinary politicians in contrast, but I really wonder in absence of any popular sentiment and mass organization behind Hazare’s agitation, how far government will come forward and offer a compromise formula,” he added.
But not everybody is critical of his hunger strike on the Lokpal Bill. Vinay Prabhakar Sahasrabuddhe, director general of Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, a think tank promoted by the Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh, said Hazare’s contribution to the field of rural rejuvenation and the fight against corruption is immense.
According to him, Hazare needs to stand firm and take his agitation to its logical conclusion.