Anna Hazare: India’s Tea Party moment

The populist fasting campaign of Anna Hazare is being backed by the far right. Is this an attempt to starve out the Congress Party?

Ana Hazare

It is an image India loves: the white home spun khadi threads, the Gandhi cap, the saintly air, and in a timeless defiance straight out of a Pathe news reel, prison and self mortification as political protest. The ‘little man’ takes on the ‘big man’ of corrupt government and thanks to Gandhi they’ve even got a name for it: Satyagrahya. Only this one’s got a Facebook page and a PR team Now, with huge political rallies across India the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, is making concessionary noises, and the world’s media has come for a look. It seems that hunger-striking Anna Hazare is ticking all the right boxes.

Fuelling the drama is a contest over legislation to define an independent anti-corruption agency, known as the Lokpal. Hazare, surfing on a massive anti-corruption wave, is not just demanding a change in the legislation proposed but is actually demanding that it is changed in ways that he specifies. Critics argue that this is holding Government and therefore democracy to ransom and that it leads down highly dangerous routes.

Now it is revealed that Anna Hazare is being promoted by the youth wing of the an organisation called the RSS. This was admitted by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj in a response to Home Minister P Chidambaram in the Indian Parliament or Lok Sabha. Chidambaram had expressed his disquiet at the support being given to Hazare by the RSS to which Swaraj responded:


Do you still believe the RSS does not have support in the country? Why is the government then getting so agitated and upset if a people’s movement is supported by the RSS? “


The RSS is not the only right wing group supporting Hazare. Alongside them is the related Vishva Hindu Parishad or World Council of Hindus leading to charges of the anti-corruption movement being the ‘Hindu Tea Party’.

The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak is a paramilitary organisation that along with other groups of varying degrees of militancy comes under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar. Their core principle is ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu-ness an amalgam of ideas revolving around identity and nation that was forged in the colonial era. They reach out to the villages and slums via social work programmes and grass roots agitation.

Sushma Swaraj’s comments are a clear sign of the increasing confidence of an organisation that has pulled the strings of the Hindu nationalist movement since K. B. Hedgewar founded the RSS in 1925. Hedgewar, who openly admitted his admiration for Hitler, formed the RSS as a ‘cultural’ organisation to oppose both British rule and Muslim separatism. Modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the organisation has been banned several times. The last in !992 after the Babri Masjid was violently dismantled in Ayodya which led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the ensuing riots. Despite Hazare’s televised homages to India’s saint, it was a member of the RSS that assassinated Gandhi. The murder of Gandhi led to the first RSS ban by the British.

More recently, the RSS along with the VHP, was deeply implicated in the planning and organisation of the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, after a train fire that killed 50 Hindus in Ghodra. While the media presented the massacre as a ‘spontaneous riot’ in reaction to the train fire, it was later proved that not only were electoral rolls used to identify Muslim homes, but that police and government authorities all the way to State level were complicit. Hazare, meanwhile. has publicly praised Narendra Modi Gujarat’s Chief Minister at the time of the massacres.

The RSS starts recruitment in childhood organising youth camps where young boys march in uniform, practise martial arts, bow down to images of their founders and absorb the doctrine. Its influence spreads wide through the Indian diaspora where parents, nervous of the corrupting influence of ‘western’ culture, send their kids to camps and fund the organisations political and social work activities. Money flows back to India via the ‘Havala‘ system of informal, international networks and through fund raisers for charities.

There is no doubting that India, mired in a seemingly endless series of high profile corruption scandals, needs deep structural changes and increased transparency at all levels. But many, including the novelist turned activist Arundhati Roy, have raised the alarm at the draconian nature of the proposals, while others are saying they are too simplistic and fail to address the multitude of issues that underlie corruption. The most serious charge levelled is that Hazare’s version of Lokpal threatens the Constitution and the integrity of democratic process. The result is a public furore that is only going to increase as the deadline for Hazare’s demands to be met gets closer.

Either way there is big money, slick PR and carefully staged photo opportunities behind Anna Hazare. The ruling Congress Party have questioned the finances of the campaign and demanded transparency. While Hazare’s high profile supporters from the liberal intelligentsia are seen to squirm on TV when he betrays his allegedly Gandhian principles by advocating hanging and the chopping off of hands. Strict media monitoring by what is being referred to in the Indian press as ‘Team Anna’ means that public faux pas are swiftly corrected and Twitter and Facebook are updated constantly. However, Anna Hazare is no stranger to authoritarianism and intimidation. He has been accused of running campaigns of violence, forced labour and compulsory vasectomies in his home village of Ralegan Siddhi.

Congress, have every reason to be worried. The RSS, while not a political party in itself, has many members in the opposition BJP as Sushma Swaraj reminded the Lok Sabha: “116 MPs in this House and 45 members of the Upper House owe allegiance to the RSS while seven chief ministers of various states are also committed to the RSS.” The campaign, which has been alleged to exclude Muslims and lower castes, is taking on an increasingly saffron hue. The colour saffron in India refers to the garb of religion but for many who do not fit into the Hindu Right’s vision of India, it has increasingly come to signify terror and violence.