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On the margins of Hazare's fight

Minorities and Muslims not enthused by hunger-striking campaigner's actions

On the margins of Hazare's fight
John Dayal, New Delhi

September 5, 2011

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The media has finally noted the absence of the Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and religious minorities from the recent Kejriwal-Kiran Bedi-Hazare gathering at the Ramlila grounds. That was the site of a hunger strike by Anna Hazare, a campaigner against corruption who forced the government to agree to a stricter new law against it. This was perhaps because former union ministers and OBC leaders Sharad Yadav and Lalloo Yadav have exposed the ulterior motive of the campaign in their forceful speeches in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. Religious minorities and Dalits kept away, fearing the absence of space for them in the campaign, and because of apprehensions that they could become eventual targets of hyper-nationalistic legislation when implemented by administrative and judicial structures whose caste and religious origins have made them suspect among people on the margins of society. Muslims quite openly distanced themselves from the movement. Several organizations have issued press statements that were not widely covered by the media in which they expressed fear. Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari of Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid cited Hazare’s signature nationalist songs, including the slogans “Vande Mataram” and the “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” which echoed through the Ramlila grounds as a reason for Muslims to stay away. "Islam does not condone the worship of the nation or land. How can Muslims then join his stir with a war cry that is against the basic tenets of their religion?" Not all Muslims share the Imam’s view, but they too kept away, citing reasons varying from Hazare’s alleged "communal" supporters and what has been called his "dictatorial attitude," even as  they acknowledged no grievance against nationalist slogans.


The Dalits have maintained a more aggressive distance. Neo-Buddhist Dalit leader Udit Raj organized a counter-march at the landmark India Gate in central Delhi and denounced the leadership of the Hazare movement. Dalit spokespersons have analyzed from a caste perspective the reason why the oppressed have shown little or no interest in the Hazare-led jamboree. They note that when Anna began a fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, the banners that his supporters put up depicted a whole range of icons, from Bharat Mata to Gandhi, Shivaji and Lakshmi Bai. But Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, who they maintain as the true liberators of the oppressed castes, were conspicuously absent. At the venue of the fast, slogans such as “Scrap Reservations, End Corruption!” filled the air. But that was not all. When the joint drafting committee for the Lokpal was formed and five members from civil society were nominated for this purpose, not a single one of them was found to be from among the Dalits, Adivasis or religious minorities. Not one of them was a woman. Dalit leaders have also questioned the movement over its stand on reservations for the oppressed castes in the private sector, and the condition of Dalits in Anna's own village of Ralegan Siddhi. Perhaps unfairly, they also raised questions about Hazare himself. They wanted to know why Hazare and his followers did not care to go on a fast when heinous atrocities were committed against Dalits, as in the massacre of four Dalits in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra in 2006. The Dalits said Hazare and his team had no interest at all in the injustice and oppression that millions of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities have to suffer on a daily basis. A particularly sharp observation was Hazare’s past praise of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who has been demonized for the massacre of Muslims in 2002 in response to a previous attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, which resulted in the deaths of 58 people. Dalits have also noted that Hazare has also never fasted in protest of  the suicides of tens of thousands of impoverished peasants in Maharashtra.


The Christian church has shown more division and perhaps more confusion than anyone else over what to make of the Hazare movement and whether to join it or side with the Dalit-Bahujan and Muslim groups. Many in the laity and the clergy of the Catholic and protestant churches were swayed by the media frenzy, and enthusiastically joined the first phase of the movement. It was natural. The laity, especially in northern India, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka, has made common cause with the largely Hindu majority in their neighborhood. In travels through various parts of the country, I have often found the Church and the community on the wrong side of civil society. Christians of the Hindi-Gujarati-Marathi belt are seen to be firmly on the side of the majority, making common cause with them on most social, political and economic issues. The distance from the movement kept by Muslims relates to issues of local interest and demography as much as to so-called “safety-shelter” syndrome in not challenging the aggressive majority. In Kerala of course, the Church sees itself as threatened by the rise of Islam and the increase in population in their enclave districts of Malappuram and its environs. The absence of a genuine political lay leadership and the severely divided nature of the Church in terms of denominations, rites, liturgy, ethnicity and mother tongues make it impossible for the Christian community to think as, or act as, an organic whole. In the Catholic Church, divided into the three rites of the Latin, Syro Malankara and Syro Malabar cultural entities, there has been no occasion to discuss the Hazare issue and come to some sort of reasoned and studied response. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, ultimately issued a statement urging Hazare to call off his hunger strike once it had gone beyond a week. The archbishop of Delhi, Vincent M Concessao, himself an activist in his youth, is in fact a founding member of India against Corruption, founded by Arvind Kejriwal, who he first met 10 years ago. Concessao was among several other patrons of the movement but patently had no say in the policy formulation or day-to-day activities. Eventually, the archbishop formally distanced himself from the movement but stressed his continued commitment to the war against corruption. In an explanatory statement, the archbishop has said “corruption is not only illegal, it is also immoral, unjust and exploits the helplessness of people who are forced into bribing. We need an effective Lokpal. However, we cannot set aside the democratic processes. I am in favor of fasts to make a point, but fast unto death is not acceptable as life is a gift of God and God alone has the right to take it away.”


A more politically nuanced statement was made by the All India Christian Council (AICC) which, while expressing happiness at the ending of the hunger strike that had put at risk the life of an ageing Hazare, said the council was “even more happy that after a seeming capitulation to mobocracy, parliament finally asserted its dignity and its sovereign rights.” Calling the government inept, the council commended the interventions of Rahul Gandhi, who gives a formula that should be looked at, and a draft proposal presented by the political and social activist Aruna Roy. Hazare’s aides, especially Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, have repeatedly shown they have no faith in  a parliamentary democracy. Both push for a unitarian, even dictatorial, regime where decisions, good or bad, are taken instantly. Hazare patently has been used by these people. The AICC agreed with Roy and Rahul Gandhi that there must be a series of laws to curtail corruption in various sectors, not just one monolithic and super-ombudsman who can easily become a threat to democracy, national security and unity. For religious minorities, and for Christians in particular, the council felt it was a dangerous precedent to allow mobs to paralyze the national capital and almost dethrone the elected government of the day by dictating  policy and laws. “Tomorrow, Hindutva mobs will demand the disenfranchisement of Muslims and Christians as alien religions,” the council has cautioned. John Dayal is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, as well as former president of the All India Catholic Union and secretary general of the All India Christian Council.
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