Gandhi's echo


Gandhi has an echo, and his name is Anna Hazare.  The elderly social activist has just completed a 96 hour hunger strike to focus India’s attention on the issue of corruption - as if it may have slipped unnoticed between the sofa cushions had he not been around.

Last weekend, on a rickety stage in the capital New Delhi, the 72 year old rallied thousands in support of the proposed Jan Lokpal (Citizen’s Ombudsman) bill. After having been recruited by a motley group of NGO activists under the banner ‘India Against Corruption’, Hazare is now being spruiked as the face of a new, corruption-free India.

The national media, never one for quiet and considered reflection, has wasted no time in comparing him to the illustrious Mahatma Gandhi. However hunger strikes raise some important ethical questions. Just because Gandhi did it, doesn’t make it right.

Journalist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has roundly condemned Hazare’s choice of action, if not the cause he represents. Mehta notes the coercive nature of a ‘fast unto death’ and adds that ‘when it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail’. He goes on to assert that ‘in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power’. 

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Hazare’s fast unto death was uncharacteristic of a typical hunger strike in a number of ways. Not least of which being that he was, under no circumstances, ever going to die. This was a political stunt; Hazare is a veteran campaigner. Winner of the prestigious Padma Bhushan, a prize awarded by the Indian government, for his work establishing a ‘model village’ in Maharashtra state, this is his third fast unto death against corruption since 2003.

As Hazare is still alive, he may appear to be quite the success story. Yet as many a wearily outraged Indian will tell you, corruption remains rampant. His protest comes in the wake of a series of corruption scandals that are impressive even by Indian standards. A despairing Supreme Court recently exclaimed, in language not usually found in judicial rhetoric, ‘What the hell is going on in this country?’

Hunger strikes seek to strategically exploit the complex and oft contradictory significance of food. Congruent to its role as vital nourishment, food also augers hospitality and charity, and is exalted in times of major life events. When viewed as a construct food represents human sociality and points to shared community.

Likewise, the rejection of food represents a rejection of community and therefore of society. By refusing food, fasters voluntarily remove themselves from the allegedly unacceptable circle of society. Hazare’s fast was unusual because it drew to it, like moths to a flame, representatives from almost every section of Indian society. Far from being outside the circle, Hazare located himself in the centre of a media frenzy. He happily played along, sharing the stage with almost anyone who offered to join him, including controversial (and not politically neutral) figures such as yoga guru Swami Ramdev. 

During a hunger strike, food becomes a weapon of social reform primarily because it displaces the authority of language; it becomes an alternative medium of communication. But the noise surrounding Hazare has been deafening.

In a nod to the current social media fetish, more than 195,000 people have joined the India Against Corruption Facebook page and comments on it are flowing thick and fast. Bollywood too, has come out tweeting. Actress Shilpa Shetty attempted to make the most of her 140 characters with 'Anna Hazare has won:Salute his gumption and selfless work..makes me feel very small..complete Respect! Now this is Democracy'. Although correct grammar may have been displaced, language has certainly survived. 

On the surface it sounds promising, yet Hazare will likely find himself hungry again if history is anything to go by. Although the media may have decided there will be a revolution, public scepticism remains in all but a few idealistic student activists.

A wearily outraged Indian friend upon finding himself amidst the ruckus rather condescendingly sighed, ‘what did chota Gandhi do now?’ It is unfortunate but ‘chota’, the Hindi word for little, meagre and at times trivial and insignificant, encapsulates India’s current anti-corruption movement nicely. Put bluntly, it’s mostly coercive hype.

Kimberley LaytonKimberley Layton is a Canberra-based writer currently completing a doctoral thesis on India’s international relations at the Australian Defence Force Academy. She has lived and worked in New Delhi but now finds herself lost in an unnamed government department somewhere in Australia’s national capital.

Topic tags: Kimberley Layton, Anna Hazare, corruption, Gandhi, hunger strikes, India, Pratap Bhanu Mehta



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Existing comments

Have I missed something, or is this really a plea for weary cynicism?

The argument seems to be that corruption is rampant and increasing in India, beyond the control of government or the courts. So motley NGO's and activists who try to do something about it through democratic process are foolish and somehow discreditable. Their success in attracting attention in social and mainstream media is a conclusive indictment.

Hunger striking is particularly disreputable, especially if you don't actually die. Furthermore it is coercive, even though its ineffectiveness seems to show that no one is coerced.

If that is the argument against the NGO's and Anna Hazare, to me they are looking pretty good. They actually stand for something.

Dan McGonnigal | 13 April 2011  

This article seems to condone rather than condemn the extreme corruption unleashed within India by the ruling Congress-UPA coalition. Akin to the Papacy watching from the periphery while Nero fiddled and Rome burnt, the author seems pleased to be a bystander while the the Congress Government leads India to ruination. Perhaps the authors religious bias gets her to view the unfolding events through a colourful pro Christian India agenda parlayed by the Sonia led Congress lens rather than the bleak grey viewed by Hazare, his supporters and the majority of Indians. If the author were objective in her assessment, she would look beyond Hazare's approval of the BJP state government or support from Baba Ramdev, both Hindu passionates, instead focussing on Hazare's moral non-violent crusade that is worthy of emulation anywhere, rather than ridiculing the man and his cause. But one cant expect bipartisanship from a Catholic organ which itself is culpable through its association and beneficiary of the Congress Government, can we?

Amakant Chaudhary | 13 April 2011  

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