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Monday, August 22, 2011

Anna Hazare: A Modern Incarnation of Gandhi?

On August 21, 2011 in New Delhi, India, tens of thousands marched in support of Anna Hazare, then in the sixth day of his hunger strike in support of the Jan Lokpal anti-corruption bill. He told the crowd, “Even if the prime minister comes, I will not withdraw my hunger strike until the [bill] is passed in the Parliament. I can die but I will not bend.” To be sure, his “professed unwillingness to compromise,” as well as his “occasionally belligerent tone, has attracted criticism.” Yet he inspired mainly hope, particularly from the young. His main constituency, however, is the middle class, who feel alienated and unfairly treated relative to the political elite class. That same alienation may be present in the U.S. and E.U., but people in America and Europe do not have the model of Gandhi, which Hazare self-consciously embraces. In fact, it is surprising that it took until 2011 for a societal figure so Gandhi-like to emerge and galvanize a mass protest using Gandhi’s methods. 
                              Associated Press

Yet it can be asked: how much like Gandhi is Hazare? Would Gandhi have stopped eating simply out of preference for one of two bills before the Indian Parliament? Furthermore, would he have fasted until the bill was passed or until the corruption stopped? I have in mind here his hunger strike related to the fighting between Hindus and Muslims in India prior to partition. Would a law have satisfied him? I suspect it would not have, as he was reacting morally against the human suffering. Stop it, just stop it! Not: Legislate it, just pass it!

I contend that Gandhi’s strength was rooted in his moral fortitude. Even though he did engage in politics, it was his underlying moral concern that made his unwillingness to compromise laudable. Such stubbornness can fall on its face in a legislative context in which the choice is merely between two contending bills. So it is perhaps worth asking whether Anna Hazare is more like the Tea Party politicians in the U.S. or Gandhi in British India.

For a refusal to compromise to be a virtue (rather than compromise itself), there has to be some pretty convincing principles at stake and a clear distinction on the table. In other words, there had better be a serious moral wrong involved. Typically, this involves great human suffering. Wide-scale corruption and the related extortion of the poor and middle class not only violate moral principles, but result in real suffering as people are forced to humiliate themselves below another’s greed (and power). I think the humiliation goes deeper than even the unfairness involved, or maybe the two are consubstantial. In any case, the world needs more people willing to suffer as Gandhi did and less people able to get away with corruption and lying. Maybe Hazare could use his hunger strike as a means to teach a new generation of something of the rich moral heritage of India. The world would not be for the worst.


Jim Yardley, “Thousands Back Antigraft Hunger Strike in New Delhi,” New York Times (August 22, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/world/asia/22india.html