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Respect dissenting voices on corruption

It's a breach of human rights and decency, a way of life that must be defeated

Respect dissenting voices on corruption
Cedric Prakash SJ, Ahmedabad

August 25, 2011

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As I write this, there is still an impasse in the massive stir evoked by Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption in the country. While the government has tried to go out of its way to salvage things, Anna and his team have generated wide popular support, are still in a defiant mood and are out to capitalize on the situation into which they have brought the country. I am not a neutral observer because of my deep commitment to the defense and promotion of human rights. I am against corruption of any kind. I see it happening everywhere. I have experienced it while working in the slums of Ahmedabad, when post-slum dwellers have to pay hefty haftas to slum lords so they can pitch their tents on the banks of the River Sabarmati.  I have seen it in the tribal villages of North and South Gujarat where a poor adivasi (tribal) has to shell out a huge amount to a corrupt official to cut a tree for firewood or get a ration card. A common sight in the city of Ahmedabad is to see traffic violators take out a 100 rupee note to give the traffic policeman so they can be let off. It is common knowledge that the so-called ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, the development model of the state, is steeped in corruption, whether it is buying the land of small farmers at unimaginable prices so that major corporations can have their land to build factories to produce their brands or just allowing pollution from industrial chemicals and dyes to destroy the environment without checks and balances. There is no denying that as people we have no qualms of conscience in paying bribes to get a railway ticket, to get a telephone line repaired, for a school admission or to get any other favor done. Corruption seems to have become a way of life and we have become adept in its institutionalization. However, if one is truly a disciple of Jesus, one cannot but be against the very notion of corruption. Christian discipleship necessitates honesty, accountability and transparency. In the wake of the scams that were hitting India in 2010, like those of the Commonwealth Games and in the realm of telecommunications (2G, 3G etc), I had no hesitation in joining my friend Swami Agnivesh when he publicly announced in December 2010 at our center in Ahmedabad his campaign against corruption. In April 2011, when Anna Hazare began his fast, I sat with him on the dais at Jantar Mantar to express my solidarity, even though it was just a token gesture. I have been a keen follower of what has transpired ever since; of the machinations of the government to co-opt Baba Ramdev into their camp, their miserable failure and the midnight attack on his sleeping followers. That there was hardly a public outcry over this attack speaks volumes about how most people perceive Baba Ramdev in this country. Over the next few months, the UPA government seems to have been doing everything possible to shoot itself in the foot. It lacked vision or strategy and its spokespeople were woefully unprepared. Its final incompetence was to deny Anna Hazare the right to fast and protest. A careful analysis of what has since emerged reveals three things. First, Anna Hazare has become a hero not because of his own efforts but mainly because of the abominable actions of the government. Second, the 24-7 coverage by the Indian media clearly shows that it is a middle-class and urban phenomenon, though it is indeed dangerous to be dismissive of what has emerged. One has to appreciate that never in recent times have we seen such a surge of emotions on a single issue. Finally, “Team Anna,” though hardly representative of the diversity that characterizes India, seems to have evoked some kind of unity among various political parties and groups in the country, mainly for its anti-government stand. So in more ways than one, this campaign against corruption has caught the nation’s imagination and galvanized people across the country into coming out and taking a stand. Having said this, I must confess that while my energies and emotions are still directed towards fighting corruption, I cannot in honesty agree with the tactics of Hazare and his supporters. An attitude of self-righteousness, blatant arrogance, fascism and blackmail seem to be high on their agenda. I am a great believer in the parliamentary form of democracy. It has many inherent weaknesses and it is true that the Lokpal bill presented by the government is absolutely toothless. A mature person will realise that any Lokpal Act will never be the be-all and end-all to address corruption in the country. While it is important, corruption must be tackled at several levels simultaneously. In April, immediately after his first round of protests, Anna Hazare praised the development model of Modi and Gujarat. Widespread protests against his statement from human rights activists forced him to come to Gujarat at the end of May. In a public meeting, he categorically stated (after listening to several people from the poor and marginalized sections of the state), that Gujarat is the most corrupt state in the country.  So, is “Team Anna” really interested in tackling rampant corruption in Gujarat, Karnataka and some other states? Or have they become mere stooges of right-wing and fundamentalist forces, which are also hell-bent on destroying the democratic institutions of the country? It is no secret that several of these forces have been behind this movement, working overtime with top professionals and a propaganda blitz, to ensure that they hog the limelight throughout. If we truly want to address corruption, we must primarily use the ballot box to elect clean politicians. We must have the right of recall if politicians prove corrupt or if they perform below par. Above all, we must constantly make them accountable for what they do and say in parliament. Ultimately, we need to create active citizens' vigilance committees to constantly monitor the progress of democratic institutions. Anna Hazare and his team have no doubt contributed significantly to the country. However, they should now realize that there are many others (like Sharmila Irom, who has been fasting for the last 10 years) who have been doing so silently and will continue to do so. A true civil society movement must respect dissent and voices that may not agree with their modus operandi. If not, they will prove just one thing – that they are as bad as the politicians whom they have set out to demonize. Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace
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