If you’ve been reading the international news of your local daily, you’ll know that for the past two weeks or so there’s been a tidal wave of protest and support for longtime social activist Anna Hazare’s hunger strike against corruption in Indian government and society and the passage of “strong anti-corruption” legislation via the Jan Lokpal Bill.
Hazare has many supporters across the country, many of whom are donning the white khadi clothes and hats Gandhiji made famous, many of which are emblazoned with the slogan, “I am Anna Hazare.”
But corruption in India is not as straightforward as one might think listening to Hazare’s clearly inspiring speeches and demands.
Alongside the waves of Hazare supporters, vehement anti-“Team Anna” voices have been cropping up in op-eds and across the blogosphere, some coming from powerful intellectuals and social activists.
Among the critical dissenting voices to Hazare’s Lokpal movement (lokpal = “protector of the people,” e.g., an ombudsman) are the highly provocative social activist and exceptionally talented writer, Arundhati Roy and the well-known Indian academic, Madhu Kishwar.
Writing in the English language daily, The Hindu, Roy pulls no punches in criticizing Anna Hazare’s demands and calls the supposed anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill “draconian.” Roy has written about Indian politics for a long time, and she’s very sensitive to the corruption problem in Indian society. So, if you don’t get a chance to read her op-ed in the The Hindu, “I’d rather not be Anna,” it’s important to point out that she’s not suggesting corruption isn’t an issue that needs attention. Instead, she takes a broader, longer view of the present situation and presents a strong case against Lokpal, suggesting this bill will reinforce corporate India and augment, not correct or replace, the current, broken judiciary machine in the country with a kind of über-police force that is no less corrupt. What’s more, she calls Hazare on his associations with the RSS and major multinational corporations over the years, which, when read through the lens of Roy’s writing, begin to make Team Anna look like a big-business-fueled, anti-social-welfare rally. One wonders if the jingoistic flag wavers are aware of the backstory. Madhhu Kishwar’s piece on the blog Manushi, “Lokpal Bill – Need to Look Beyond Magic Wands Exaggerated Expectations Might Boomerang,” is also highly skeptical of the Team Anna plan. But Kishwar’s piece is perhaps a bit more even handed in it’s critique. No less forceful than Roy, and like Roy, Kishwar is aware that Lokpal seems to represent not a solution to corruption in India but the proposition of another bureaucratic institution that will be accepting bribes and taking advantage of those with little to no social or political capital. She also offers some useful examples from India’s legislative history from which she thinks Team Anna could draw some useful lessons, such as the house tax laws in India and the unjust laws that for a long time penalized rickshaw owners/drivers and street vendors, forcing them to pay bribes to stay in business.
It’s a fascinating time in India right now. Longtime sociopolitical problems are being tossed into the open and no one with an interest or ounce of investment in the country can afford not to pay attention. Kishwar’s closing statement on Team Anna, Lokpal, and what she calls “the unholy nexus between police, politicians and criminals” is a fine way to conclude:
Lokpal can at best play the role that antibiotics do when our bodies catch an infection. But antibiotics work only if delivered in emergencies in judicious doses, or else the body becomes immune to them. An overdose can act as a toxin and even kill the patient. It cannot produce genetically incorruptible officers but it can easily become a Frankenstein monster if it is given the role of super cop and saddled with an unrealistic load and mandate. Even the best of Lokpals cannot curb routine corruption and tyranny if the ground rules don’t change. It will work only if each government department shifts the balance of power in favour of citizens, providing them the clout to demand transparency and accountability. Most important of all we need to break the unholy nexus between police, politicians and criminals by carrying out far reaching police and judicial reforms in order to give confidence to citizens that they are not risking their very lives by taking complaints of extortion rackets to the Lokpal. Shifting power from existing cops to a new institution of super cops will not do. We need to change the nature of power in India.