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Blog Series, Entry 1: Anti Corruption Protests in India

On 16th August 2011 between 11:30 and 3:30 am a team from the Centre for Democracy and Social Action (Richa Singh, Bhavana Thakur, Pooja Ravi and Aditya Ray) paid a visit to two sites of the anti-corruption protest. Given below is our account of what we observed on day 1 of the protest. It must be mentioned here that at this stage it is not an exhaustive analysis but simply our observations. We would be following up on the events as they unfold and share our more detailed analysis in a few days.

Tihar Jail (Gate No:4)

Even before the team reached the venue, we had to change route as the shorter route was blocked the road to Tihar. On reaching Tihar the team was greeted with a crowd of maybe 300 protesters-young boys, a few girls, women, men-some old some not so old- , shouting , waving the national flag, holding banners, the most prominent banner being one which read “I Am Anna”. The air revebarated with slogans like “Vande Matram”, “Anna ji sangharsh karo, hum tumharai sath hai (Anna you fight, we are with you). Who were these people? What had brought them out of their homes?

As we spoke to the varied protesters, we found most were from colonies across Tihar Jail, or  were traders in the area, or were students from the nearby Raj Guru College. These were not the so called ‘upwardly mobile’ from the Greater Kailashes or Defence Colonies of South Delhi, but middle class-yes. Rashmi, about 45, a housewife who lived across the Tihar Jail informed us that she along with some other ‘ladies’ had stood sloganing and shouting outside Tihar till 12 the previous night. She was back the next  morning after she had sent her children off to school to once again join the protest a placard made on the back of a calendar expressing solidarity with Anna. Rashmi said- “This is the first time I am stepping out for something like this. As a housewife with two children, I am always short of time, but this is important. I came because corruption affects everyone, and I came because of Annaji. An old man is fighting for all of us. The whole country must join”.

Most people we spoke to felt they joined the protest because 1/ corruption affected their lives, 2/ because Anna had taken up crusade on behalf of the’ common man’, he was “today’s Gandhi”, 3/ they felt angry at the way the government had denied Anna the “right to protest”, 4/ Their main motive to join the protest was to instil fear if nothing else in the minds of the present government and the future ones and they were confident that they could do it. On this a lady said “Chori chori hai ya tum karo ya mai karu ya Prime Minister. Saza sabke liye ek honi chahiye.  Prime Minister ko alag kyun rakhe?.” (theft is theft no matter who does it- you me or the Prime Minister. Then why should the Prime Minister be outside the ambit of Lokpal) When probed further, some said they were here also to support “Anna’s Jan Lok Pal” while a few felt this could be discussed further, but the government’s action was unwarranted.

A group of young girls from the nearby college felt that there was no point discussing differing views within civil society on the provisions of the Jan Lokpal draft as everyone needed to support Anna, and it was not possible to take everyone opinion on board. It appeared that the dictat “whatever Anna does is right” seemed to be the underlying assumption. Was this democratic? They felt unsure but nevertheless reposed their faith in Anna. There was also a feeling of distrust against “politicians”, though some of the women we spoke to did feel that maybe a non Congress government which would now come to power will be more cautious and aware of people’s power. Should the government consult its citizens before drafting a bill, seek civil society’s role in policy making? Most felt it should. Infact some felt it would make voting more meaningful. Are we looking at a transition to plebiscite democracy here? Some of the organizational banners we noted were “All India Social Brigade”, Banner Ramdev Banner, the pamphlets were being distributed “India Against Corruption”. Water, fruits were being distributed among the protesters as voluntary contribution we were told.

Most people who we spoke to were not mobilised via twitter, facebook or any other social networking tools, nor by sms. It was through the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) and announcements made at the local temple, through friends in college or colony. As mentioned earlier- most lived in the colony across and came because one of the protestors put it “people across India are coming out and we live just across the road”. 

An hour later, a crowd, mostly young boys on motor bikes and cars jeering, shouting and hooting joined the protesters. They came under the banner of Ramdev. It is it at this point that we podered wheather this so called ‘Indian jasmine revolution’ would change colour. Maybe it won’t. The mood of the newly arrived protestors was pretty much in tune with the crowd which had been protesting, the difference being that they were louder. We were also able to speak to a few police personnel who were stationed at the site. According to them the previous night people had been protesting at the site but there was no ‘law and order’ problem as such. It just disrupted traffic when the crowd moved on to the streets. When asked would they have joined the protest had they taken an off from their work= they smiled and said they could not answer this question but they believed that the movement is a good one and that it’s high time such an issue was taken up.

They were one or two reporters when we reached, but the electronic media or the mainstream media at large was not present at this spot.

CHATRASHAL STADIUM

2 PM: As we approached the Chatrashal Stadium, we could see from a distance TV vans, and a huge crowd. The atmosphere seemed frenzied- school boys jeering, crowds of young men wearing Gandhi topi. T-shirts saying “I am Anna” and sloganeering with aggressive fervor- the atmosphere felt like a carnival of sorts. There was an air of confidence, and swagger about the protest which probably only a middle class today in India can have- confident of media support, confident that state would not get repressive. Women and girls were few. We did not see any organizational banner. The crowd once again did not seem to represent the urbane, upwardly mobile middle class- more the lower middle class. The people we spoke to were students in IGNOU, student from Bihar, students attending evening colleges- maybe the scenario changes in the evening when most colleges and workplaces close for the day. They are protesters who wear their nationalism on their sleeves- literally waving the National Flag, breaking into Vande mataram every few minutes. There are arrangements for first aid, and any emergency- provided by doctors who are supporting Anna we are told.. Volunteers have been distributing food, water. Who was organizing this: - the answer invariably was “supporters of Anna” or Gurudwara, or people in the neighbouring residential area. School boys actively participating at the protest demonstration, marched up and down the road-  Their enthusiasm could not be ignored. The

Inside the Chatrasal Stadium, some activists were sitting on an indefinite hunger strike. They seemed to have a bigger picture of change in mind. We conducted interviews with some of them and would be following it up further.

OBSERVATIONS

An apolitical movement, but a movement nonetheless: It seems that hitherto ‘apolitical’ men, women, young boys and girls, school children were participating enthusiastically in demonstrations, shouting slogans, in carnival like protest to “save the country from corruption”, to support Anna, to protest against the government, and (maybe) the Jan Lok Pal in that order. Something seems to have triggered a large section across India. Corruption seems to have touched a raw nerve with everyone, and so has Anna. 

The protesters are not the “enfeebled” masses of the country. We did not see the poor and the marginal groups present. But neither were they the professional/ upwardly middle class-mostly traders, local business men, shop keepers. There was an air of confidence about the protesters – confidence about their power and that they could bring the government down, confident that they are winning. The carnival, the confidence, the jeering and aggressive frenzy of the protesters did not seem to conjure up the image of the “emergency”. The apolitical nature of the protests was striking, and it seemed to be closer to the anti-mandal protest of 1990. But maybe it was different where other activist groups had gathered and joined the protests. It was gathered later that at the other gate of Tihar, near the DG’s office- activists of the Bhopal Gas Peerit, NAPM and other groups were also participating in the protests.  Maybe the protests is amorphous, and it carries within itself different shades. This something we have yet to find out.

“Brand Anna: Brand Anna is everywhere- on topi (caps), T-shirts, Headlines, TV. He is the “Gandhi of today” of the post liberalisation middle class-the era of “Gandhigiri.”  We are repeatedly told how Spartan his life style, how he did not marry but devoted his life to the country. Not many knew Anna even a year back, but everyone we spoke to seemed to swear by Anna.  The actions by Anna at the moment is being seen as “sahi” (right).

Kind of social action?: A pertinent question that rises is how do we understand the nature of social action at this point. It is a changing India- and at the interface of democracy and globalisation in India is the assertive, active and apolitical middle class, social networking, electronic media?