Monday, August 22, 2011

Democracy in Action: Tuning Into Movements Part 2

Well, I just had to go to Ramlila Maidan today to see the anti-corruption protest movement led by Anna Hazare for myself. I wanted to see democracy in action; plus, this was international news being made and everyone in India is talking about. My students at University of Delhi were fired up when it came to the corruption issue. And soon I learned that many, many more were fired up too.

As I departed the New Delhi Railway Station Metro Stop I was not sure what direction to head to get to Ramlila Park. I saw a man dressed in a simple white cotton outfit and so I asked him. K.K. Kashyep turned out to be a social worker and Gandhi follower who was, indeed, going to the rally. He is from Bihar state and runs an NGO that teaches the dalit (untouchable) girls to paint a special kind of art that was reserved for only high caste Brahmin women. (For more on his work see this link

We walked together to the site of this great “civil society movement” and then spent the whole day together talking, sharing (his) lunch, napping, shouting slogans and tuning into the anti-corruption movement in a way I never could have done if I only read about it in newspapers or seen it on TV.

When we arrived at the site, there was a short line – maybe 10 minutes wait – to get into the park where this rally is being held. When I left, six hours later, there was a long line that took an hour to get in. Bags were scanned and people – cuing in separate “Gents” and “Ladies” lines – were run through a metal detector and frisked by police of the same gender. People in the line were shouting slogans in Hindi and others in line were echoing the calls. These were not political slogans for one party or against another, but rather they were calls for unity of all Indians. Later I learned that three basic slogans were shouted throughout the day:
  • “Salute to Mother India”
  • “You go, Anna. We are with you!”
  • “I am Anna. You are Anna. India all is Anna.”

When we first entered into the grounds around 9:30 a.m., we wandered around to see what was happening. Anna dressed in white with his signature Gandhi cap was stretched out on a white couch seemingly sleeping on a stage up front. We could get within 50 yards of the stage, from which various speakers (all “Team Anna” supporters) spoke throughout the day, but there were police officers blocking access to the stage. When I departed the rally, I saw Delhi police officers stationed everywhere around the Park, a hundred more marching up the main boulevard just outside, and a dozen buses filled with 50 to 60 police each with riot gear close-by parked just outside the grounds.

The place had the spirit of a huge carnival. Families were there; parents very conscious that children “will remember this for the rest of their lives,” said Kashyep. Rich and poor, educated and illiterate, high caste Brahmins and untouchables, students and teachers, the diversity was wonderful. “We are all united as one family,” said a man next to me. One lak (100,000) people were present at the site over the course of a day.

It was like a state fair, but without the rides and fried food on sticks! Some people dressed up in costumes. The tri-colors of the flag of India were everywhere. Many wore the Gandhi caps with “I am Anna” printed on the sides. There was a large operation of volunteers who were passing out water, packages of cookies, bananas and other small foods to the crowd. And in the afternoon, long lines formed to get food dished up from huge vats of dal and two little flat breads called roti. While there is an NGO, India Against Corruption (, which has done some of the organizing and publicity for this rally, much of the volunteerism is spontaneous. A group of doctors roamed the crowds and gave out free medical care to anyone who asked.  Students stepped up to pass out water. Everyone had a generous spirit of cooperation.

Anna Hazare, who has pledged a fast-unto-death until the Lokpal (citizens’ ombudsman who will investigate government corruption) bill is passed, was front and center on the stage today. It is the 6th day of his fast. This 74-year old Ghandian activist has lead the movement to pass a more robust Lokpal bill. He sat up from his horizontal position a number of times when the speakers who were addressing the crowd from the stage were particularly inspired. He would press his hands together and do a slight bow to the speaker. Thrice in a day, Anna will speak, morning, noon and night. When he spoke, the crowd went silent. “Bring the Jan Lokpal bill or go,” Anna demanded from the politicians.

People ascended the stage and gave speeches, but they veered away from the partisan politics. This was a cause-oriented rally. Anti-corruption was the cause. Kashyap said, “Everyone says in different words, but they mean the same thing,” then he raised his finger in the air and dramatically shouted, “CORRUPTION MUST GO!”

Later, Kashyap said something echoed by others throughout the day, “After Independence [from the British] this is the biggest movement of the people.” He said that this forum is the only one for the voice of the people. “There’s no other place where the people can be heard. They’ve come here so their voices can be heard.”

Others have joined the cause by fasting along with Anna. A group of young men, all IT students at a local university, sat down under the tent with us at one point and one told me he was on the fourth day of fasting. They were interested in America. “Obama is a good man. He is a friend of India,” one said. Another asked, “Why is America bankrupt?” My simple answer was that our government needs to cut spending or raise taxes… or probably both.

A Star News TV reporter was wandering through the crowd and saw me, the one obvious Westerner in the sea of Indian people. She approached me and, after getting some basic information on me, asked with microphone in hand and camera rolling, “What brings you here today?” I answered, “This is democracy in action. I think that Americans should learn from India – the world biggest democracy – about how civil society can play a role in social change. This is an amazing people’s movement.” She looked into the camera and satisfyingly declared, “Well, you heard it hear, India is inspiring America.” My own 15 minutes (well, 15 seconds) of fame!

At one point, just behind where Mr. Kashyap and I were sitting, a fight broke out. It was interesting to see what happened next. A few women gravitated to the fight to make sure it didn’t devolve into further violence, positioning themselves between the disputants, but a large number of people calmed the situation by saying, “Please sit down,” in Hindi. By avoiding a rush to see this conflict up-close, the non-violent protesters present were clearly calling upon others to channel their anti-corruption sentiment to make for social good. Kashyap said, “If there is violence, the movement will end. Only with peace and nonviolence, as Annaji tells us, will we succeed.”

I am awed by watching the huge nation-wide groundswell of support for this anti-corruption movement. Similar rallies are happening in other cities. It is pressuring politicians to pass a Lokpal bill, with news reports saying there are mediators working on a compromise between Team Anna and the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance. One piece of literature being passed out at Ramlila was a four-page pamphlet with a letter from Anna Hazare and a side-by-side comparison of the Government’s Draft Lokpal bill and Team Anna’s Draft Jan Lokpal bill. At one point in the day, a white Classic Ambassador with curtains on the windows and a flashing red light on top (the tell-tale Indian government official car), came slowly through the grounds and made its way to a tent just behind the stage with a “Meeting Space” sign on top. Anna disappeared from stage shortly afterwards.

This is an extraordinary time to be in India. Much more than the passing of some a bill, this is about people feeling empowered to change society. I feel the spirit of a Gandhian revolution is sweeping the land. Victory to Mother India!

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