Momentum for Hazare's anticorruption movement draws out opposition

As Indian anticorruption activist Anna Hazare gains followers and visibility, opponents are citing concerns about discrimination and nationalism.

By , Staff writer

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    Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare greets a supporter as he sits in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, on the seventh day of his fast at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi Aug. 22. Hazare's hunger strike entered its seventh day on Monday with opposition parties calling for nationwide rallies this week.
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Anticorruption activist Anna Hazare, one week into his fast, is still bringing out many thousands of demonstrators across India, but opponents are also growing vocal.

While the middle classes are most visible at rallies, Mr. Hazare’s movement has divided poorer minority communities, with some leaders and activists offering support and others warning against it.

“We agree there should be a tough law to combat corruption…. But the way in which civil society is trying to impose their own law, we don’t agree with this,” says Qasim Rasool Ilyas, general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a Muslim social and religious organization. He says top Muslim groups are meeting tomorrow to announce their own joint proposal.

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Two nationwide polls conducted late last week found support for Hazare at high levels rarely seen in India’s fractious society. But Hazare’s movement faces a challenge holding on to its broad appeal as some Christian, Muslim, and low-caste Dalit leaders speak out with their concerns.

Minority misgivings include suspicions that Hindu supremacists are supplying behind-the-scenes organizing muscle, something Hazare denies. They also worry that lawmaking is moving from Parliament to the streets, undermining the constitution and leaving minorities less protected from populist threats in the future.

“Whatever we have got it is because of the constitution,” says Anoop Kumar, a Dalit activist working on Dalit participation in higher education. Hazare’s movement looks to him like “an affront to the constitution.”

Popular movements carry hint of nationalism

Protest movements involving the middle class are rare, but when they happen they are not always favorable to minorities. Mr. Kumar says some of the same leaders of this movement took part in protests in the 1990s against affirmative action (or “reservations”) for Dalits. Ravi Kumar, a Hyderabad-based executive secretary of the National Dalit Forum, says he has seen protesters with shirts saying “ban reservations and save democracy.”

Other details of the nonviolent demonstrations remind some minorities of Hindu nationalist rallies: chants like “victory to mother India” and “we salute to our motherland,” a map of India as a goddess, and the prevalence of Indian flag waving. The fervor of some supporters is also starting to get slightly rowdy, with young men motoring around New Delhi’s roundabouts with giant flags.

“Today, nationalism is about making this country a Hindu nation based on Hindu religious identity,” says Rev. G. Cosmon Arokiaraj, executive secretary in the office for Dalits in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “Tomorrow, if the majority of the masses join and say the Muslims … and the Christians should go out of the country, would that be agreeable to the people?”

87 percent of Indians support Hazare's bill

However, these misgivings do not appear widespread in polls. A nationwide Star News-Nielsen survey of 8,900 people found 87 percent supporting Hazare’s version of an anticorruption bill.

His bill would set up an ombudsman’s office with the ability to investigate and punish top officials in all branches of government – something critics say upsets the constitutional balance of powers. The government has offered a weaker version that exempts the judiciary, parliament, and the prime minister.

Another nationwide poll by Team C-Voter found 93 percent support for the movement started by Hazare, with a 3 percent margin of error.

Muslims make up 13.4 percent of India and Christians 2.3 percent. Some of the 16.2 percent of Indians who are Dalit are Christians or Muslims, though most are Hindu.

That level of support is “extremely uncommon” in India, says Yashwant Deshmukh with Team C-Voter. Usually issues break down on political party lines, with party leaders setting opinions for their supporters, he says. This movement’s strength lies in its image of standing outside politics.

“Corruption is an issue where all political faces fall flat. It has been an issue for long, but somehow people needed a non-political face to connect on this. When that happened, it just snowballed,” says Mr. Deshmukh.

There are limitations for polling here, including a teledensity of only 35 percent in rural India. The Team C-Voter survey was done by computer assisted phone calls. Deshmukh says his group weights data to align with the census, but he’s now conducting face-to-face surveys in rural and low-income areas to confirm the results.

Support from 'everybody'

Hazare’s group is confident in having mass support. They have unsuccessfully pressed the government to put the anticorruption legislation to a referendum. Spokesperson Aswathi Muralidharan says the constitution puts the people above the parliament.

“The whole thing that Muslims are not supporting, or Christians are not supporting, or Dalits are not supporting is baseless. We have sufficient support from everybody,” says Ms. Muralidharan.

In a sign of solidarity over the weekend, Hazare supporters joined Muslims in the evening breaking of their Ramadan fast.

Muralidharan also rattled off top Muslim supporters, including the conservative school of Darul Uloom at Deoband, Maulana Mohammad Islam Qasimi, and Mufti Shamoon Qasmi. The core committee also includes Muslims and other minorities, as well as respected left-wing activists.

But prominent Muslims have come out against Hazare, including Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the imam of Delhi’s top mosque.

“He could have also made references against communalism as part of his campaign to make it look more inclusive,” Mr. Bukhari told the Press Trust of India. He also noted that Hazare has praised the governance of Narendra Modi, a chief minister tainted by an anti-Muslim pogrom.

Adding to minorities’ concerns were statements over the weekend by the RSS, a Hindu nationalist group, encouraging support and participation in Hazare’s movement.

“The whole movement is run by RSS and BJP [main opposition party]. In the small towns it’s very clear,” says Mr. Kumar, who spoke by phone while watching the demonstrations in Lucknow.

Hazare has adamantly rejected these suspicions, saying: “We are being associated with BJP, RSS, and now the US. Tomorrow, they will say Pakistan is behind us.”

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