Even as Anna Hazare was gearing up for ‘Round 2’ of his campaign against corruption, a young lawyer, Shehla Masood, stepped out of her house in Bhopal to go to a meeting to organise a support protest. Within minutes, she was shot dead and shortly afterwards, her lifeless body was found in her car.
In the cacophony of noisy support for Anna Hazare’s campaign, Shehla’s killing has gone virtually unnoticed. There are newspaper reports, there’s outrage, but the headlines are taken by Anna: his arrest was dramatic, his release even more so, and now, he sits at Ramlila grounds, surrounded by his supporters and hundreds of thousands of people who want to make their voices heard against corruption.
While no one can argue that corruption is a canker that is eating at the innards of our society, and it needs to be urgently addressed, there are many other issues that this noisy campaign is obfuscating.
First, that in a democracy the right to dissent, to protest, to demand change, is a right. Every citizen has that right, just as Anna does, and the government was wrong to deny him that. But even governments make mistakes, and the UPA, the party in power, is now seeing the consequences of its foolishness.
But also that Anna Hazare, no matter how just his campaign in essence, is not blameless either. The history of legislation in democratic countries anywhere in the world shows that NO legislation goes through by blackmail and nothing goes through without negotiation, alteration and addition. Indeed, nothing goes through — and nothing should go through – without debate. Certainly not something as important as a Lokpal Bill, a legislation that will put in place an authority over virtually the highest in the land, to address the issue of corruption.
The question is legitimately being raised in India that there is a Constitution, and it is supreme. Can anything override it? There is a judiciary and a legislature. Should we be placing yet another authority over and above them? No one doubts that we need something like a Lokpal, but what its powers will or can be needs debate. Just as the question of whether legislation alone can address widespread corruption needs to be answered.
But Anna Hazare, for all his charisma, does not seem to be prepared to listen. There have been campaigns which support the move for a Lokpal but which ask for extended debate on its pros and cons, and which ask people to draw upon the rich legacy of the right to information campaign, and how it resulted in the Right to Information Act, which suggest that this is the democratic way to go about thinking about such important legislative changes. But Anna and his team and their supporters are not listening. They are taken up in the euphoria of protest, of numbers, of television screens, of smses and cellphones.
One of the criticisms of Anna Hazare’s campaign has been its almost exclusive focus on corruption in political circles. In a note that details the concern of the National Campaign For People’s Right to Information — which was in many ways the beginning of the process of demanding an end to corruption — activists point out that while it is important to address corruption in governance and politics that cannot be the entire scope of such legislation, for corruption is much more widespread and, perhaps, therefore the answer is to think of not one overarching Lokpal Bill, but different pieces of legislation designed to address different problems.
The truth is that none of the parties involved has acquitted themselves well in the drama that is unfolding at this very moment in Delhi. The government’s initial reaction to Anna’s campaign in the first round was to set up a joint committee to go into drafting a mutually acceptable bill. As often happens, somewhere along the way the committee faced roadblocks — from all accounts not very major ones as there seems to have been a reasonable degree of agreement. So far, so good. But then, both sides dug their heels in.
The government stopped dialogue with Anna and he threatened to go on a fast unto death. His arrest followed, and then his release, and his being allowed to sit in protest at Ramlila grounds. The media hawks were happy, news channels had enough material to continue broadcasting for hours. So emboldened were the protestors that they refused to follow the standard ‘rules’ of protest — stopping the use of microphones at night for example. And no one knows any longer what the outcome will be.
Will the government give in to pressure? Already under attack on many fronts — the Commonwealth Games, the telecommunications scandal — the government now faces an opposition united across party lines in its support of Anna Hazare. No matter how much dissenters might say that Anna’s tactics are not Gandhian, that refusal to negotiate was never part of Gandhi’s repertoire, that Anna is authoritarian and does not allow dissent or questioning, the truth is that his campaign has caught the hearts and minds of a huge middle-class population that is out there on the streets demonstrating, singing, demanding.
Meanwhile, in Bhopal, Shehla Masood’s tragic death tells us that the weapons of corruption are far too strong for a piece of legislation to deal with. In Manipur, Irom Sharmila’s ten-year long protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act reminds us that violations of human rights are, in a democracy, as important as issues like corruption. A cursory look at the daily lives of ordinary Indians tells us that health, poverty, education are issues as crucial as corruption, and that all such issues are, in the end, linked and any campaign that is geared to improving the lives of the poor in India needs to address itself to these issues, centrally and fundamentally.
But the tragedy of this is that is anyone even listening?
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2011.