x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Indian activist forcefully true to his cause

Indian activist rallying thousands against government corruption has a long history of leading change to help others.

NEW DELHI // Even in 1986, well before he became India's most prominent anti-corruption activist, Kisan Baburao Hazare had the ability to surprise people with his devotion.

That year, Sanjay Pathade, a 19-year-old who had just completed his studies, read about Mr Hazare winning a government award for his work in reforesting Ralegan Siddhi, a village in the state of Maharashtra. "I'd read all this about Anna," said Mr Pathade on Thursday, calling Mr Hazare by his honorific of "elder brother". "So I decided to go see him."

As he remembers it, Mr Pathade went into the village expecting "that Anna would have a house with a gate, and that I'd have to ask a watchman to let me in." Instead, Mr Pathade was directed to a small room in the compound of a temple, where Mr Hazard has lived for decades.

"I stayed with him for a day, and I was so impressed by the normal villager's clothes he wore, and the way he spoke to me," said Mr Pathade, who has since taught at a Ralegan Siddhi school set up by Mr Hazare and recently wrote a biography about the activist. "The villagers tell me that even 35 years ago, when Anna first came here, his character was exactly the same." Mr Hazare transformed Ralegan Siddhi into his vision of a model village. Now the diminutive 74-year-old man with an innocuous smile and a wardrobe of white is using those qualities to shake the Indian government out of its complacency over corruption, and to press for his version of an anti-graft bill.

His methods - demonstrations, vows of silences, public fasts - have invited comparisons to perhaps the most influential Indian leader of all. "Anna reminds us of Gandhiji," Manmeet Kaur, an 18-year-old at a New Delhi demonstration attended by thousands last week, said. "He is the strongest person in India now, [and] like Gandhi, can defeat the government without any violence."

Born into a poor family in Maharashtra, Mr Hazare attended school for seven years while living with an aunt in Mumbai before he quit to sell flowers for a living. In 1962, he enlisted in the army, and he drove lorries through the India-Pakistan war of 1965.

"He told me that he became suicidal at the time, because he was seeing so many of his colleagues die," said Sarma Sastrigal, who founded a public opinion forum named Vigil in Chennai in the 1980s. Mr Sastrigal met Mr Hazare several times during that decade.

"In that mood, he left for Ralegan Siddhi. But on the way, he told me, he picked up a book on [the 19th century religious reformer] Vivekananda, and that changed his life."

According to the accepted narrative of Mr Hazare's life, that book inspired him to attempt a transformation of Ralegan Siddhi, from a poor, drought-ridden, rocky village into a green, prosperous oasis.

"He planted trees in alliance with farmers, and he developed the village's water management system," said Mr Pathade. "He realised then that a little cooperation went a long way."

Mr Sastrigal visited Ralegan Siddhi in 1989, after he read about Mr Hazare in The Indian Express newspaper. "In that district, this village was the odd one out," he said. "It was so green. And back then, people wouldn't even have locks on their doors, because crime was so low. No shop sold cigarettes or alcohol, and for a village known for its alcoholism, that was something."

Ralegan Siddhi's progress has been hailed by numerous agencies, including the World Bank, The Energy and Resources Institute, and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

But the details of Mr Hazare's vision for his village have come in for criticism, esecially his views on alcohol in particular. Ganesh Pangare, head of the water programme for Asia at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Bangkok, worked closely with Mr Hazare in his watershed development activities in Ralegan Siddhi, and he remembers Mr Hazare's intolerance.

"If he told somebody two or three times not to drink, and that person then came in drunk, Anna has slapped him, to make an example of him," Mr Pangare said. "He isn't autocratic in the way that Hitler, say, was. But he's a leader, and he leads forcefully. He has a mind of his own, and he can't be influenced easily."

Mr Pathade recounts how, in the course of his work developing Ralegan Siddhi, he latched onto the endemic problem of corruption.

"In 1989, he started to focus on corruption, when he got 17 officials removed from Maharashtra's forest ministry," Mr Pathade said. By his count, Mr Hazare has fasted for a total of 113 days, spent more than 150 days in vows of silence, and been responsible for the sacking of six Maharashtra state ministers and over 450 senior bureaucrats.

Mr Hazare was cited in a 2005 report, by former justice P B Sawant, for misusing trust funds. Mr Sawant, in a recent interview to the Press Trust of India, said that Mr Hazare had diverted money from his trust to celebrate his 61st birthday. "You can't use money of the trust for your own purpose," he said. "That amounts to corruption."

Mr Hazare, in response, has said that the trust's money was returned.

Mr Sastrigal, who once admired Mr Hazare greatly, admits that his esteem has been tempered by the events of recent months.

"Saying that it has to be my bill or no bill - that's not the attitude to take," Mr Sastrigal said. "All said and done, Anna Hazare has never been selfish. He's always been sincere to his cause."

 

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae