[This piece is based on my extensive field work on Anna Hazare and his movement in Ralegan Sidhi over some years and is also a part of my forthcoming book Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics. MS]
The anti-corruption movement, spearheaded by Anna Hazare, and the passage of the Lokpal Bill have generated unprecedented interest amongst a wide spectrum of society about the ideas, politics and organisations of civil society in general, and Anna Hazare in particular. Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade merits attention not only for its importance in ensuring a corruption-free society, but also due to its multifaceted nature. Hazare’s politics however has to be seen in a larger framework and in a wider historical context. Howsoever laudable the goals of anti-corruption movement in India today, the movement is not beyond the categories of gender, caste, authority, democracy, nationalism and ultra-nationalism. Far from transcending them, the movement is transforming and being transformed by the implicit deployment of such categories. I wish to place Hazare in the larger context of his environmental journeys, where the elusive but crucial element is one of authority that is exercised due to a large degree of consent and conservatism. Yet, almost all accounts on him, largely celebratory in nature, do not examine the ideology and politics of his works. These are crucial not only to critically assess the present and the future of our anti-corruption movements, but also to interrogate certain brands of civil society activisms and environmentalisms.The rural environmental works by Anna Hazare in Ralegan Sidhi village in Maharashtra have been hailed widely, which are fed by, and feed into, certain dominant political cultures of the state. Though developmental and environmental works form the core of his ideological structures, they include other important issues. A belief system of force and punishment, liberal use of Hindu religious symbols, strict rules and codes, evocation of nationalism and ultra-nationalism, ‘pure’ morality and caste hierarchies, with a marginalisation of women, Muslims and Dalits, form the core of his village regeneration. The basis for the authority of Anna comes from a belief system, where the people following him consider it their natural duty to obey, and the exercising person thinks it a natural right to rule. Thus a former village sarpanch of the region states: ‘Whatever Anna says, we do. The whole village follows his words. Anna’s orders work like the army.’ For another villager, ‘Annajee is like God.’ The absolute recognition of an authority locally works in several internalised ways.
In the process of social transformation, Anna believes that advice, persuasion or counselling do not always work and occasionally force has to be applied. Force can be applied in many forms, physical and social, and often the simple persistent fear of its application regulates society. Force gives a safe and solid grounding to socially accepted values. It is not only Anna Hazare who proposes flogging and fear as essential parts of a green village; it has its wide audience in the village.
In an environmentally sound Ralegan Sidhi, religious symbols are core vehicles for transformation and imposition. Its embodiment in certain places/people legitimises them. The command-obedience relationship also gets its rationale from the belief that a God or a temple is ‘supreme’ and any decision taken in front of them must be obeyed. According to Hazare, Lord Rama set an ideal before every citizen of how to conduct everyday life by his own example. There is need for Lord Shri Krishna to reincarnate and save the country.
It is not only environmental rules, but also rules governing the entire socio-political life of people that make an authority acceptable. Those who make these rules and those who obey them are legitimate; others illegitimate/illegal. Anna Hazare is deeply concerned with rules and norms with a definite model:
“The daily routine enforced in the army such as getting up early in the morning, jogging and physical training thereafter, cleanliness of body, clothing, living quarters and the neighbourhood etc. led to development of a disciplined life, benefits of which I am availing of even today. The habit of giving due respect and regard to the seniors by age, post, or competence was inculcated in us…. This has helped me in conducting the village development work at Ralegan Siddhi according to the rules and regulations decided by us by common consent.”
Others reciprocate this language. Villagers normally say that their village works like an army. As a commandant, Anna orders and we follow. Army discipline is the ideal. The path of rural development here depends in a large measure on many other ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. No shop in Ralegan can sell bidis or cigarettes. Film songs and movies are not allowed. Only religious films, like Sant Tuka Ram, Sant Gyaneshwar can be screened. Only religious songs are allowed on loudspeakers at the time of marriages. It is emphasised in the village that the villagers themselves decided not to sell bidis in their shops; they themselves do not watch films or listen to film songs. However, the language of acquiescence can be highly brahaminical and hegemonic.
Anna Hazare wants to build India into a strong, powerful nation. Narratives of war, army and enemy remain the core references in much of the discourse on nation and rural development. Here, expressions like ‘national regeneration’, ‘wholesome crop of national glory through comprehensive rural development’ are coupled with others like ‘We have to hold the nation. Otherwise, Pakistan will grab it. That is why we consciously send our sons to the army.’
The concept of morality and subsequent codes/behaviours/practices based on it are important elements in the notion of development. Anna’s concern with the moral is couched in his discourse of the nation that exercise control over the private and the public, the personal and the political. For school children there is moral education and practice, comprising physical training, body building, patriotism, obedience, samskars and Hindu culture. Doing surya namaskar and chanting Om is regular for the students. For women, it is stressed that they should certainly look after the household but they must also participate in activities intended to help their community and country. It is stated, ‘Woman is the Universal Mother, The Great Mother. Many such Great Mothers have given birth to Great Sons — Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Swami Vivekananda for instance.’ She is also a symbol of purity, sublime as well as innate strength. It is significant that much of the problematisation of morality of children, youth and village is done in the context of influence of western, modern culture. ‘Western lifestyle’, ‘modern development’ and ‘invasion of western culture’ invariably emerge as repeated expressions, signifying the collapse of morality in modern India.
In Ralegan, there are a few Mahars, Chamars, Matangs, Nhavi, Bharhadi and Sutars. Since the beginning of his work, Anna has been particularly emphasising the removal of untouchability and discrimination on caste basis meted out to people, who are popularly referred to as Harijans here. The concept of ‘village as a joint family’, or all inhabitants of the village as ‘almighty God’, has prompted the villagers to pay attention to the problems of Harijans. The integration of Dalits into an ideal village has two components in Ralegan. One is to assume that they were always there to perform some duties and necessary services and that their usefulness justifies their existence in the present. The other component is hegemonic, designed to get Dalits into a brahaminical fold. It is not only manifested in the way food or dress habits are propagated; it is prevalent in several other forms.
In spite of the apparent diversities that characterise the various elements that make up Anna Hazare, there is an underlying thread of unity in his ideological positioning. Not only is this authority deeply rooted in the dominant socio-political tradition of the region; it is often blind to many basic and universal issues of rights, democracy and justice. Personal moral authority, while contributing in harnessing water and other natural and human resources for the betterment of economic conditions of the villagers, simultaneously also raises significant questions about its relationship to the making of a democratic, critical community, free from burdens of force, punishment, coercion, obligation, patronage, charity and piety. The present movement led by him too reflects some of these elements. Placing Hazare in a larger context posits in front of us several such questions.