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"I will fast again," says Anna Hazare (full featured interview)

By Viren Mayani Email By Viren Mayani
October 2013
"I will fast again," says Anna Hazare (full featured interview)

What better way to interview India’s crusader against corruption than in a comfortable SUV while on a long drive? On his way to South Carolina to unveil the Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Anna spoke about the importance of falling back on the Indian Constitution which provides for an independent Prime Minister who is not affiliated with any political party; about deplorable Members of Parliament (163 of whom face criminal charges); whether his campaign for the Lokpal bill will gain momentum again; and why he would fast again, risking his health, and perhaps his life, too.

Anna Hazare’s spirit is as indomitable as ever. The retired Indian Army soldier, now a world-famous crusader against corruption in India, turned 76 recently. But, as his conversation with Khabar reveals, he is still full of plans to fight to put an end to corruption in politics and governance.

Winner of civilian honors like the Padma Shree and the Padma Bhushan, he has been credited with the massive national movement that made possible the passing of the Right to Information Act. His last hunger strike for the Lokpal Bill lasted 12 days.

As a young soldier, Anna kept being dogged by a feeling that India faced a greater danger from within rather than from an external enemy. Those were frustrating years. At one point he felt so helpless that he even contemplated suicide. Then all of a sudden, at a bookstore at the railway station in Delhi, he came upon a book by Swami Vivekananda which stated that the ultimate purpose of human life is service to humanity. This made a deep impact on him, and he resolved that his life would be dedicated to the country.

He continued with the army for another 12 years. At 26 years of age, he quit. Since then, as a celibate, he was married only to his singular objective: raising awareness in the masses and enlightening them of their rights to fair practice and ethical leadership by their city, state, and national elected representatives.

Fifty years later, he continues to fight, and also to hope that his dreams will see the light of day soon.

Invited by the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York, Anna was on his Atlanta stop of his U.S. tour when Khabar was granted the opportunity to interview him. I had the distinct honor of joining Chandrakant Patel, former chairman of the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association, who was Anna’s Atlanta host, on the drive to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where Anna, along with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was to unveil the 11-volume international edition of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

Arriving in Atlanta on August 25 on a red-eye flight from California, Anna visited the Gandhi statue at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, attended a luncheon in his honor at the Global Mall, and met with Indian-Americans at the Festival of India. After that, our small entourage was ready to head off for South Carolina. Ved Bhatia, the Atlanta representative of TV Asia, graciously offered to drive Anna, me, and a couple of Anna’s associates in his comfortable SUV.

I saw that Anna’s needs were simple. He nibbled on boiled peanuts and toast during the trip. (He had not eaten at the lunch reception, where he was thronged by people waiting to take pictures with him). When he was offered assistance to climb into the SUV or get down from it, or with his luggage, he gently refused it each time.

Once recharged after a nap, Anna was ready for the interview. Speaking in a soft but clear voice, he expressed his conviction that it was not a matter of “if” but “when” that the people would be awakened to their rights, and rise to free themselves of the corruption embedded in their daily lives. His mission is to ensure that an effective Lokpal Bill is passed, and to work for the emergence of a political system where people elect representatives with integrity rather than corrupt candidates put up by political parties.

The following is a translated excerpt from Khabar’s conversation with Anna Hazare. (To listen to the original interview in Hindi, please visit our website at www.khabar.com/magazine/features/i_will_fast_again_says_anna_hazare.)

Is legislation an answer to combat corruption in India–since it is not just the passage of a law but its enforcement which is a bigger challenge.
First, the law needs to be powerful enough. A weak legislation cannot do anything; hence it needs to be drafted with the people’s input. Until now the government has drafted bills that suit its convenience. These have been presented in the Parliament which have been passed as laws, but are not even enforced. So these are useless. That is why I have stated that in a democracy, laws should be drafted by subject matter experts from among the common people, to make it meaningful. And then they also have to be enforced properly. One thing is certain: if a powerful law exists, and people are aware of it, they are sure to raise their voice in protest if the law is not enforced. Take for example the RTI Act that I fought for, for nine years. Today, people are making good use of it as I’ve seen in Maharasthtra. I’ve toured many places in the state, several times to advocate about this law. So it’s necessary for the people to protest, if they find that a law is not being enforced to its fullest intent.

Due to a multiparty system, no single party is doing very well to form a government on its own. It is often at the mercy of its alliance partners to remain in power. In this context, do you think a two-party system like the one in the U.S. will fare better?
Increasingly we’re seeing a trend where no one party wins majority seats. This will continue to be so. Every government will have to be an alliance. These alliances tend to be more corrupt. Those wishing to remain in power are spending more time and effort in keeping their alliance partners happy. Similarly, these partners continue to exploit the party in power. There is a solution for it. Very few know that our Constitution does not use the term “political party” in connection with elections. All it says is that in a democratic republic, people should elect individuals (not party members) of character and integrity. If such individuals are elected there will be no corruption. We have a system where the political party dominates the individual. The Constitution does not endorse this. The system we have now is not in our Constitution. Our effort is to awaken voters about this issue. That day we’ll see the end of these political parties and the birth of a true democracy.

10_13_Interview-Anna-GandhiGarland.jpg

 

Anna Hazare, garlanding the statue of his idol, Mahatma Gandhi, at the King Center in downtown Atlanta.

In the kind of system you’re advocating, there will be too many independents. Do you think they will be able to get any real work done?
The individuals who get elected will be people of character and representatives of the people who elected them, not the party that sponsors member elections. It is important that they remain individuals and not become a group either in the Parliament or outside. Corruption is increasing because of the party system in the country.

You recently told media that neither Rahul Gandhi nor Narendra Modi was fit to become Prime Minister, because of their party affiliation. The kind of Prime Minister you would like to see elected, do you believe will be effective if not backed by any party?
The Prime Minister’s powers won’t change just because he /she is an independent and not from a party. The Constitution guarantees the same powers. In contrast, a Prime Minister selected by a party will never belong to the people, but only to its party. Ideally the Lok Sabha should be formed by true people’s representatives. But what’s happening today? It is made up of people who are representatives of their political parties. This cannot be a true democracy. This can only give room for wrongdoings.

The fight against corruption appears to be a more difficult battle than the war we fought against the British for independence. People don’t seem to realize that we’re still slaves oppressed by a different entity, albeit one of our own making.
When politicians observed what was going on in the government, they realized, “Arre, the ones that get the power get to eat all the cream! Wow! We should somehow get there, too!” So now power and money are inextricably linked. Nobody thinks of the country or society. All they want is to be in power. They think nothing of selling tickets to goondas, criminals, and looters. The party’s support structure makes it possible for them to get elected easily. Voters are bribed by liquor and cash. As a result, criminals have entered our Parliament and state legislative bodies. Almost 163 of our MP’s face criminal charges and 15 ministers have cases pending against them. It’s now become a habit of our people to expect rewards in lieu of their votes. They’ve forgotten the value of their vote. They’ve forgotten the sacrifices made by people like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru. This is a grave danger to democracy. We have to awaken as many of such voters as we can. This will take time. In about 10-12 years, I think our people will have woken up, because corruption is making their lives utterly miserable. We just need more people to join the campaign to awaken our public. The bigger the campaign, the faster such voters will respond. The day will come when these political parties will perish and we’ll have true democracy. With that, good laws will come and they will replace the obsolete laws made by the British. We’ll put brakes on corruption and evil. It took us almost a century to win our freedom from the British. This awakening can’t take that long. The British secured their place in India by getting rid of people like Bahadur Shah and Tantya Tope. That is not the situation now. We just have to awaken the voters.

In your campaigns, you must have encountered two types of people: the urban city people, businessmen and professionals who have very little time, and the rural people, villagers, whose lives are connected with the earth. Do you see any difference in the way these two sets of people respond to you?
There are differences. For one, people in the cities are busy with their own lives. Second, the political parties have a considerable hold on city people. Like in colleges, for example; instead of encouraging the youth to involve themselves in national causes, parties are using them to advance their own interests. In the villages, the common man, a Dalit or Adivasi for instance, has no thoughts about the nation or the society at large. He’s just happy to get a hundred rupees during elections to cast his vote, because he can’t make that much even after seven days of labor. We have to educate these people, and make them aware that by bribing them with a few hundred rupees, the politician is robbing them of benefits worth lakhs.

How difficult is it to educate them about the value of their votes? Most of them don’t even know what their rights are?
Of course it is very difficult. It will take time, because nobody has tried to do this in all these years of our independence. These are habits that have taken root for 63 years now, and it’ll take time to break them. But these habits will break, because the people themselves are fed up with corruption. Prices have soared. People realize that not even 10 paise out of one rupee meant for development work is actually spent on real work. We’ll keep on with our efforts to involve people in this campaign of education in huge numbers. The work should start with the villages.

Do you think that your work will be done faster if the Indian media were to involve themselves in your campaign more?
Sure. The August 16, 2011, campaign was picked up by the media in a big way and our message reached every home because of that. The whole world came to know about it. But the media, too, is not as free as it should be. There are people in the media who do good work, but often there are unspoken alliances between owners of media houses and the government. Things that should be written about go unreported. This is the reason why the press, which is the fourth pillar of our democracy, has weakened considerably. For example, my tours of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh in recent months drew so many people to our meetings. But the national TV channels ignored these events largely. The local press and state newspapers covered them, but the big channels that reach most of the country didn’t give us any coverage.

When the government first promised to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, did they have a draft that indicated how many of your demands for the bill were being met by the bill? Were at least 50 percent of your demands met?
From the beginning there have been issues with the government’s response. We first asked that they include experts from the people’s side in the drafting of the bill. They declined to do this. Then I began my fast on April 5, 2011. There was a big response from the people. When the government saw how the movement was gaining support among the people, they hastily agreed to include five of our representatives in the 10-member drafting committee. Meetings went on for a month and a half, and then suddenly they went back on their promise. What they placed before the Cabinet had nothing of what we had to say, but their own draft, which was useless. Their draft has no meaning, and will not do anything to end corruption. It was done only to fool the people. Then the bill went to the standing committee, where again we were betrayed. Again I began my fast, and then they agreed to include some of our points in the draft bill. Two weeks ago I received a letter from the Prime Minister, which said they have a new bill drafted according to our requirements, assuring me that would be passed. I still don’t know the contents of this bill. The government’s intentions are not pure. It doesn’t want to see that India is free of corruption. If the bill is drawn up according to our requirements, many of these ministers will go to jail.

Do you think your campaign for Jan Lokpal will gain momentum again?
Oh, yes, the movement has to be started again. The Parliament passed a regulation, and the Prime Minister sent me a signed letter requesting me to stop my fast, promising a speedy passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill; I trusted him and ended my fast—but the bill never passed. So we’ll have to start the movement again. This is a people’s issue, not Anna Hazare’s. The government has betrayed the people of India.

Have you decided on a time for the relaunch?
Yes. The winter session of the Parliament is beginning soon. A day before the session begins; I’ll begin my fast, too.

Considering your age and health, do you not feel that there could be other ways than a hunger strike to carry forward your movement?
I feel that a fast carries my message more effectively to the people. They feel my pain and suffering. Other ways may not be so effective. Each day of my fast brought more people into the movement. So I will fast again.

There are people who are concerned about your health and feel that if it is jeopardized in any way, the movement may suffer. The government has reneged on its promises to you in the past. So how will the tug of war go on?
The government could afford to play games with us because there were no elections in sight. Now the elections are approaching, so they will not toy with us anymore.

You’ve met so many people: elected, as well as those from among the masses. Is there anyone among them that you have a lot of faith in?
Yes, there are many such people. In my recent tour of India I spoke to many people, urging them to dedicate just one year of their lives to the country. We got a tremendous response. Almost 50,000 people have volunteered to join our movement and dedicate a whole year to us. We’ll train them to educate the masses. They will work at the grassroots level, interacting with people at the block, village, and taluk level. We recently trained 200 of these volunteers at Rishikesh. Sixteen of them are ready to give up not just one year but dedicate their whole lives to the country. There are many, many more like that. The engagement is on.

When overseas Indians visit India, some feel that we are more conservative despite living in the West, when compared to the youth in current India, who seem more westernized in their lifestyles and attitude. Do you feel that the Indian youth today is aligned with your ways of thinking?
From my tours in India, I’ve seen that the youth are very sympathetic to our cause and are involved in a big way. They are a big force to reckon with and can bring about a great change in our society. Everywhere I go, a couple of hundred young people on motorcycles receive us outside their cities and towns and accompany us to the meeting grounds chanting slogans. They exist. We just need more participation of the same.


[Viren Mayani is a senior correspondent with Khabar.]

[Editor's notes:
A few of the questions and answers above are not in the previous article posted in September 2013, and v.v.
Please see also the report on the unveiling of the Encyclopedia WHERE???]

[Posted October 1, 2013.]



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