Democracy is under siege in the most populous democracy of the world. The brazen repression of peaceful hunger strikes, staged by civil activists against corruption in New Delhi, is showing that the government elite, despite its populist tradition, does not hesitate to resort to bold suppression of freedom of expression to stem popular discontent, even if that means jailing an aging and nationally revered, non-violence guru, along with hundreds of his supporters.
Among the throngs of followers of human rights leader Anna Hazare, who for over two weeks have been staging demonstrations in a park near the headquarters of the Congress -the party which has been running the country almost uninterruptedly since independence- dozens of people have now donned patches of black cloth strapped across their mouths.
And those sealed mouths are shouting loudly in the name of social justice, stirring the sentiments of the whole nation and heralding new, widespread civil unrest.
Tensions are running high in many cities where 74-year-old Hazare’s supporters are organizing new civil action and many fear they may escalate still. In this climate, the news coming from Bhopal about the killing of Shehla Masood, a well known human rights activist shot dead in an execution-style murder, has projected a sinister shadow on the most recent events and the short-term future.
The black strap metaphor could not be clearer.
The black cloth is a recognizable symbol of protest and wearing it now means that the protest will go on. It also means that those mouths were virtually gagged when last Tuesday the police moved in force into Dighalipukhuri park, where protesters were encamped, to arrest Hazare, who was about to start a new and final hunger strike along with over 1,400 men and women “guilty” of gathering around the human rights leader to express their support. Furthermore the black cloth means that those mouths will stay shut by choice, and will not take in any food until the government–as Hazare demands–takes a decisive and tangible step to do away with corruption, which is sapping the energies of the country, creating new poverty and threatening to derail its growth.
From city slums to the Supreme Court in Delhi, from Bollywood stars to business circles in Mumbai, from religious groups to civil organizations, public opinion is voicing unanimously its condemnation of the government and spelling out its distrust of the Congress, founded by Jawarlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, the fathers of the nation, in the days of the insurgence against British rule.
Why the raids? Why arrest non-violent protesters and their leader, whose white clad, soft spoken and resolute image reminds many of Gandhi himself? Everyone is asking the question, even those who do not subscribe to Hazare’s crusade.
In the face of the dissenting chorus, authorities have realized the magnitude of their blunder and in a matter of a few hours were forced to backtrack. Their decision to free Hazare did not pay off as expected, however.
The human rights leader has only dug his heels deeper into the ground and actually turned the tables. First, he chose to stay in his cell at Tihar jail to continue his fasting there, until he would formally be allowed to carry on with his protest publicly and with no restrictions. Then he came to a compromise with the government, accepting to leave prison and to limit his fasting to 15 days, thereby renouncing his original plan to go on indefinitely, until death.
Hazare will not have it his way, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh simply stated in front of Parliament, weathering angry shouts from the opposition ranks, while defending police tactics and accusing the human rights leader of trying to circumvent democracy.
Hazare, the prime minister stressed, cannot “impose a draft” on the bill now currently under discussion in the parliament. The bill has been proposed by the Congress-led, centre-left government coalition after another long wave of nationwide protests in June and July had shaken the country, following media revelations about a series of scandals, which laid bare a pervasive system of corruption.
Along with Hazare, at the beginning of the monsoon season, Ramdhev, a highly esteemed yoga master and Hindu fundamentalist, had also launched a campaign against corruption, demanding the return of capitals transferred illegally abroad by the richer echelon of society and mobilizing thousands of people with hunger strikes and yoga sit-ins.
The bill now in Parliament revolves around the creation of a new public entity, a kind of ombudsman, with a specific mandate to fight corruption. Such an entity, though, would not have the power to look into every nook and cranny of society, and would certainly not be allowed to investigate members of the government and magistrates.
A law like this, Hazare insists, is a “cruel joke”. It defies its own purpose and if the government wants to show any real will of fighting corruption it should amend the bill, giving the new agency the power to investigate anyone, no matter his or her social position.
Singh may be right in saying that law-making is parliament’s business and that an individual cannot expect to impose anything on the representatives of the people. But still: why arrest a non-violent protester?
If he has imposed anything at all, despite his just humble origins, namely a very basic formal education and a past in the military as a simple private, Hazare has done so with the sheer power of his word and charisma, mustering masses to spread dissent, but without ever inciting violence.
Formally Hazare, who developed his pacifist civil philosophy while serving in war-torn Kashmir, has been charged of disrupting public peace.
But what peace are we talking about?
“The country is actually at war,” as novelist and social activist Arundathi Roi said in a recent interview, pointing out that from the northern borders with Nepal to deep into the jungles of Central India, wide sections of the country are run by Maoist guerrillas, who are recruiting on a daily basis new forces and making their way into other regions, where tribal communities are often up in arms and popular disaffection grows along with national GDP data.
India, many economists agree, is a showcase of the goods and ills of globalisation. It surely has been one of the fastest growing economies in the past couple of decades, even now, in times of generalized recession, with an expanding middle class. But one third of the population receives no share of the new wealth and remains under the poverty level, as it did twenty years ago. And the number of new millionaires is actually growing along with the number of the new poor. Like the many who may find a place in the work market, but earn hardly enough to pay the rent for a shelter in a slum, without running water and with open sewage.
The arrest of Hazare, some commentators suggest, proves how Indian culture is still deeply rooted in an old, feudalist and caste-based power mentality. More specifically, also, the arrest shows how threatened the government feels by the human rights leader.
After all, Hazare has often defined his civil offensive against corruption as a “second war of independence”–the first war of independence being the one led by Gandhi against the British Raj. The figure of the Mahatma is so respected in India that Nehru’s daughter, Indira, chose to change her family name in Gandhi, founding the Gandhi dynasty which has been running the Congress to this day.
But with his behaviour and principles, which many compare to Gandhi’s, Hazare has struck the very chord of civil awareness in India, conquering the hearts of his countrymen.
This may explain the deluge of comments of solidarity expressed in his favour by intellectuals, business executives and even cinema stars. And also the fact that social forces have started to mobilize in his name: rickshaw drivers in Delhi have proclaimed a strike and Supreme Courts judges announced a march for the coming days, while Hazare’s supporters are organizing sit-ins and hunger strikes in many cities.
It should now be clear to the government that repression alone will not do; that, by playing hard-ball, unrest may only swell. Even when driven by non-violent principles, history proves that emotions can flare up easily in India. Hazare’s release has now in a way eased animosities. But it will not stop the protests. Tensions remain palpable in central Delhi and in other cities where Hazare’s supporters are at work.
In Bhopal, protests have turned into angry but controlled mourning since Tuesday, when human rights activist Masood was killed in her car with a single shot to the back of her head.
Masood, who was leaving home for a nearby downtown park to join a gathering of Hazare’s supporters, was known for her investigative activities. Over the past few years she had denounced several cases of corruption and malpractice at all levels in the state of Madhya Pradesh, bringing to people’s attention instances of human rights violations and environmental laws. She was also involved in a judicial suit for harassment against the chief of the town police.
Her murder may not be directly linked to what is going on in Delhi, but it can certainly be ascribed to the violence with which demands for social justice and human rights are often met in India.
According to official numbers, since 2008, a dozen human rights activists like Masood have been killed in the country. Gandhi himself was killed for invoking equal rights for all, regardless of caste, race or religion.