Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Critical Look at the Misinformation in the Media About Anna Hazare and the Anti-Corruption Movement

There has been a lot of concern expressed by pro-government media and armchair so-called intellectuals on the need to follow parliamentary processes, the need to respect the constitution, etc., when it comes to Anna Hazare's anti-corruption fast. These are but some of the red herrings floated in the media by various people. Let us look at all these.

What follows is fairly long, but covers a lot of ground, so it cannot be helped. It is necessary to clear all the misinformation that has been carefully spread by the government and its media agents around the anti-corruption agitation.

Let us look at the fallacies that have been carefully spread by constant repetition in the media by various people:

1. Anna is Being Unconstitutional

Anna is not saying that we will establish an agency that is beyond the law or the government - indeed, with an agency of the scope of lokpal, only the Govt. has the resources to establish it. Anna is merely putting pressure on the government to enact a law in the manner he and millions of others see right. There is nothing unconstitutional or morally wrong about this. It will still be parliament that passes the law. In a parliamentary democracy this is quite common and accepted. If parliament passes Anna's Jan Lokpal bill, it will be a constitutional act.

Conclusion: Just because Anna pressurized the Govt. to pass the act DOES NOT MAKE IT UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

2. Anna is Blackmailing Govt; if Govt accepts Anna's arguments, it would set a Dangerous Precedent

Today, Mr. Ashwini Kumar, Minister of State, stated that if the government adopted Team Anna's bill under pressure from the hunger strike, it would be "the end of constitutional democracy."

Really, Mr. Ashwini Kumar?

Let us look at just some of these past legislations to see if this is really the case, and if our constitutional democracy has ended because of them:

a. Formation of Andhra Pradesh: Potti Sreeramulu goes on hunger strike in 1952. Govt refuses to consider his demand. Sreeramulu dies, and this is followed by 4 days of rioting and destruction of property, including shops on Mount Rd. in Madras. Under this pressure, Nehru creates the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Indian democracy survived.

b. 1965 Anti-Hindi Agitations in Tamil Nadu. Government wants to introduce Hindi as national language. Riots erupt in Tamil Nadu. Govt. forced to withdraw its act and say that both English and Hindi can be national languages. Again, a show of force and violence compelled the government to pass a bill.

Indian democracy survived.

c. The Assam Accord of 1985, famously advertised by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was forced by a long campaign of the All-Assam Students Union and the All-Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, including the Nellie massacre, in which 2191 Bangladeshi immigrants were brutally slaughtered. Again, a gun was put to the government's head, and it came up with a law protecting Assamese "Sons of the soil."

Indian democracy survived.

d. In 1986, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, led by the firebrand leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, agitated against the Government of Uttar Pradesh to protest rising power rates by conducting a dharna against the Muzaffarnagar power house. The dharna was called off only after the power rates were lowered. (This was only one of several such agitations that Tikait conducted).

Indian democracy survived.

e. The autonomous region of Bodoland was also the result of an armed struggle by the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), which ended in an accord in 2003. Again, a gun was held to the Government that an autonomous region for the Bodos be carved out. This was not the result of petitions sent to parliaments, peaceful negotiations, etc.

Indian democracy survived.

f. In 2007-2008, the Gurjar community of Rajasthan started a violent agitation that involved road and rail rokos, tampering with rail tracks to cause derailments, and bandhs to pressurize the Rajasthan government to accede to their demand for a special caste status. Finally, Vasundhara Raje, CM of Rajasthan, agreed to their demands. (It is another matter that this has not solved the Gurjar agitation.)

Indian democracy survived.

g. Finally, on 29 November, 2010, K. Chandrasekhara Rao went on a fast-unto-death to agitate for the formation of Telangana. There were strikes, violence, and a general shutdown of the Telangana region for several days. KCR stopped his fast only when the Union Home Minister at the time, Mr. P. Chidambaram, made a statement that the Indian government would start the process of creating a separate Telangana state. Again, a gun was put to the Government and the Govt. agreed to the demand. (Again, it is another matter that Telangana has not been formed

yet - but that is not the focus of this discussion. The Govt. agreed to the demands, which they had rejected before, and the cause of this was the pressure exterted by the agitation.)

Indian democracy survived.

So, isn't it rather strange that the government and so many pseudo-intellectuals keep claiming over and over that if the Govt. agreed to Anna's Jan Lokpal bill, it would mean the "end of Indian democracy", and that this would "create a dangerous new precedent"? Mr. Ashwini Kumar, aren't we being a tad too dramatic?

Conclusion: There is no permanent danger to Indian democracy if the Govt. agrees to draft the Jan Lokpal bill because of pressure from Anna Hazare and civil society. There is also no danger of setting a new precedent - the precedents are already there.

3. It is disrespecting parliament and the constitution to say that parliament should not put the bill in front of a standing committee and that parliament should pass the bill in 4 days

Last night I downloaded a copy of the Indian constitution and went through it. There is no mention of the words "standing committee" anywhere in it. There is also no mention of how short is too short a time to consider a bill. Indeed, there have been countless times that the Indian parliament has pushed through 15 bills in 4 days, etc., when it suited them. So Anna's insistence that the Jan Lokpal bill be immediately tabled in parliament is neither disrespectful of the constitution nor is it unprecedented in parliamentary practice.

Further, in Indian parliamentary practice the standing committee is not mandatory, it is a device to discuss a bill if enough is not known about it. In this case, there is no need for a standing committee because the issues are well-known. That doesn't mean there should be no debate on it. It can be directly debated on the floor of the parliament - just that there is no need to have this delaying tactic of a 3-9 month standing committee process.

What seems more like the case is that no one likes to lose face, and if the govt. agrees to Anna Hazare's demands, they would lose face. Instead of saying that simple truth, they are covering up with smoke screens like "end of Indian democracy," "danger to the constitution," "disrespect to parliamentary process," etc.

Conclusion: There is no disrespect to the constitution or parliament in Anna insisting on a fast passage of the bill.

4. Anna and his team want to push through this bill without any debate

Anna's proposed Jan lokpal bill has been out in the open for 8 months. The reasoning behind the bill has been publicly explained by them and debated all this time. The bill has received intense scrutiny and discussion in the media over this time and the team has received 1300 suggestions from various people that they have incorporated into it, according to Arvind Kejriwal who stated this in an interview on TV with Karan Thapar. The current version of their jan lokpal bill, according to Arvind Kejriwal, is the 13th. In contrast, how open has the govt's bill been? Did they consult anyone except themselves? It is clear to everyone except those who do not wish to see that Anna Hazare's people are open to valid criticism of their bill and are willing to change the draft if a valid objection to it is raised. It is the govt which has taken the "my way or the highway" approach, not interacted with the people of India, and simply thrown Anna's draft into the trash. Critics of Team Anna also do not realize (or do not affect to realize) that the Govt. had invited no debate on its bill, in contrast to the Jan lokpal bill which was in the public domain and which was inviting comments from anyone concerned for months. It is only after Anna started his fast that the Govt. even agreed to have people give in their feedback on the bill (with their 15 day period offer).

But curiously, people who are quick to criticize Anna Hazare on not allowing debate are completely silent on the fact that the government would have passed their bill with no feedback from any citizen had Anna not intervened.

Conclusion: Team Anna has allowed plenty of time for debate on the bill - and are willing to let parliament debate it further as well. They only object to the delaying tactic of a standing committee.

5. Team Anna is too much in a hurry - can't you wait 15 days?

The issue is not about 15 days. Of course, Team Anna and the people can wait 15 days, even 3 months as some have suggested, if the Government were serious. The issue is not 7 days old. It is 43 years old when you consider when the first lokpal bill was introduced in parliament. The Jan Lokpal draft that Team Anna drafted is 8 months old and the Govt. has not taken it seriously. It is 4 months since the April fast of Anna at Jantar Mantar,after which the Govt. promised Team Anna it would look seriously at their suggestions - only to produce a bill that completely rejects the spirit of Anna's jan lokpal bill, by making the lokpal an instrument of the government rather than a watchdog and by rendering it toothless. It is in the background of all this that one must understand Team Anna's refusal to consider the 15-day period for other proposals considered by the Congress.

That it is a delaying tactic was further confirmed by Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi, when he said yesterday that the 15-day period is only for allowing other proposals to reach the committee; then the standing committee may take 3, 6, or even 9 months to finish considering all the bills. So clearly, the Congress is buying time, and hoping that by cooling off people for several months, they can reduce the intensity of the movement.

Furthermore, the demand by the govt. for more time to "study" the bill is unnecessary. There has been enough study of the bills. The government has already had 4-5 intense meetings with the civil society people to discuss each and every detail of both bills, so at least the principals involved in the discussions with Team Anna are intimately familiar with the Jan Lokpal bill. That itself proves that the demand for more time to study the jan lokpal bill is bogus. It is time for parliament to take up the jan lokpal bill on the floor, discuss it in detail in an honest way, and pass it, only making changes if something is obviously wrong and if there is potential for misuse of any of the provisions. If you are serious, you don't need a lot of time to pass a bill. If you are not serious, all the time in the world will not make a difference. This is why Team Anna is trying to force the issue.

Conclusion: Team Anna in not in too much of a hurry. It is only pressing the issue because the govt cannot be trusted if Team Anna agrees to a delay.

6. Anna is not Allowing a National Debate - Won't That make the bill better? Won't debate in Parliament make it better?

Surely it will. Nobody is denying that, and Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have made it clear in interviews on several TV channels that they are open to modifying the draft. A debate in parliament, if conducted in good faith, taking Anna's bill as a base, and then modifying it suitably, will, I am sure, not be objectionable to anyone in the Anna camp. But the government's bonafides are questionable. Given the past behavior of the govt., one cannot be sure that they will not simply dismiss all its provisions when it goes to parliament.

One must also seriously ask if MPs will willingly agree to provisions that say that they can be investigated by an external agency when they currently enjoy immunity. Who will vote against themselves unless you put pressure on them? This is a parliament of which 18% of its members are either convicted of very serious crimes like murder and rape or facing such charges. Will they willingly agree to be investigated by an external agency as mandated by the Jan Lokpal bill? The govt.'s bill gives them the safeguard that only their own colleagues in parliament can investigate them, which is a great relief for such people because they can then rely on party politics to save them.

If the government can assure the people publicly that it will try to honestly debate Anna's bill in good faith and not dilute it for their own ends, I think the people and Anna will agree. But consistently, the govt. has never struck a conciliatory note.

There is also the issue that the removal of immunity of MPs would require a constitutional amendment and that can take time. So be it. Let the government give an assurance that this will be done, and I am sure Team Anna will not mind the extra time. But what the govt seems to want is getting extra time with no strings attached, no commitments. No one who is protesting for a cause can accept such terms.

Conclusion: Team Anna is not against debate and would be willing to debate things even further, if conducted in good faith.

7. Anna is an extremist and dictator: he makes statements like "Lao ya jao" and is forcing his views on parliament

Anna is trying to bring in change to a reluctant government. A show of intransigence, coupled with a show of support, is necessary to bring the govt. down from its high horse and make it willing to compromise. When you go to the bazaar in India and are willing to pay Rs.40 for an item, you don't immediately put your best offer first. You will typically ask for the item for Rs. 20; the shopkeeper asks Rs. 60 for it, and finally you settle for Rs. 40. Look at what Anna's stubbornness has achieved so far. Had he not gone on fast in this way, had he not refused to leave Tihar Jail when he was arrested, would you see the millions of Indians going on the streets demonstrating in support?

Compare the tone of the government a few days before August 16th to their tone now. Before this started, the govt. was publicly insulting of Anna and his team, and incredibly smug in their dismissal of him - now all that has stopped. Would this have happened had Anna had been polite, meek, and just talking nicely to the govt.? He tried that for 4 months and look at the insults he got from Manish Tiwari, Digvijay Singh, and the like.

Anna's public stubbornness should be seen for what it really is: a negotiating tactic. I am sure he is willing to negotiate with the govt., but do you really expect him to announce that on national TV and reveal his hand when the govt has not made any conciliatory overtures? But his team has made it clear that while they are willing to negotiate, the negotiation is about issues like implementation, etc., not about corruption or about leaving some people out of the ambit of the bill. I think this should be viewed as reasonable; the aim of the lokpal is to eliminate corruption; how can you negotiate on corruption? The govt. continues to be stubborn and sound like a stuck record; but I don't see commentators talking about how the govt. is behaving in a high-handed and dictatorial manner, and how it completely is ignoring the wishes of the people!

Conclusion: Anna's tough stance is a negotiating tactic - he will be flexible if faced with an honest offer.

8. If the Govt. agrees to Anna on Jan Lokpal, then tomorrow any crackpot proposal (say, a bill making women second-class citizens) can be pushed through by a determined group of people by going to the streets and going on a hunger strike.

This argument is completely disrespectful of the people of India. The people of India are rising up for a noble cause - eliminating corruption. They are not going to do that for every issue. Have they done it for any issue before? If you wanted to pass a law making women second-class citizens, how many people will come on to the streets? Hardly anyone. Give some credit to the people.

And give some credit to Anna Hazare. Do you think any Tom, Dick, or Harry going on a fast will get this kind of public support? I am not fan of Digvijay Singh, but I think he got this one right when he warned Baba Ramdev on the eve of his fast: "Don't think people will support your fast the way they did Anna Hazare's." And that turned out to be true. Ramdev was thrown out of Ramlila by a very high-handed, arrogant action by the government; how many people stood up for him? So there is no danger of this tactic being used every few months by anyone and everyone.

There is no danger of hunger strikes becoming the norm of the land in bringing in new legislation. It all depends on the issue and the leaders involved. I am not saying this cannot happen again - surely it can - but it takes something special for millions of Indians to march on the streets. I certainly don't see that happening for every single issue in the land. Given that this situation is so exceptional and given that the moral high ground does belong to the people, it behooves the government to respect the will of the people.

Conclusion: There is no danger that every law in India in the future will be a coerced one through hunger strikes.

9. Anna doesn't represent everyone. Do 10 lakh (1 million) people on the street represent 1.2 billion?

This is one of the most spurious arguments used. Most surveys of people's opinions are based on much smaller samples. When a bill is proposed that would hurt the interest of a specific group or agenda (you name it - Jats, Gujjars, OBCs, Maharashtrians, Tamils, Oriyas, women, children, price rise, reservation) - you have a political party that takes it up, uses 1000 armed goondas to create a ruckus in the country, burns buses, breaks shopfronts, enforces a bandh that people have no choice but to obey at the risk of death or bodily injury - and the govt. backtracks, saying it has to respect the will of the people, when in fact it has only respected the will of a few hundred or thousand armed goondas.

In contrast, here lakhs of people from every stratum of society are marching, in a nonviolent movement, and the government will say they do not represent the people. Is this not hypocritical and contradictory? Doesn't this suggest that the government chooses to reward violence and punish restraint?

Furthermore, turn on Indian TV and see the interviews with the participants in the marches and rallies and no one in his or her right mind will say these are not ordinary Indians from every segment of Indian society.

Conclusion: Anna Hazare represents the will of the majority of Indians.

10. Jan Lokpal is a draconian bill, the Agency thus created and the Jan Lokpal at its head will be a law unto themselves/himself

This argument either reveals that the people who are making it have not read the Jan Lokpal bill and the Govt. bill, or are hoping that the average person hasn't. A careful look at both bills quite clearly reveals that it is the Govt.'s bill that will create an agency that is a law unto themselves and has a huge potential to abuse its power, while the Jan Lokpal bill puts a lot of checks and balances to make sure the lokpal cannot act arbitrarily. Specifically, on the issue of complaints against lokpal staff, the Jan lokpal version asks for independent bodies in each state, composed of retired judges, bureaucrats, and civil society members to investigate the complaints, whereas the Govt. lokpal bill only asks the lokpal itself to investigate complaints into its officials.

The "draconian" charge probably also stems from the fact that the Jan Lokpal bill is a bill which actually gives the lokpal some powers, whereas the govt. lokpal bill is completely toothless.

We had a Lokayukta under the current law in Karnataka, and look at the problems. Santosh Hegde was only able to indict Yeddyurappa and the Bellary brothers; he could recommend action against them, but he could take no action against them. Has the govt. taken any serious action against the Bellary brothers? No. The govt. lokpal would be only as powerful as Santosh Hegde was under the govt.'s bill. So you empower a government body, and the anti-Anna folks starts screaming "draconian." Would these people rather have the Bellary brothers roaming freely and looting the country at will, as they are currently doing?

To add to all this, such people also add, rather patronisingly, I might add, that the intention of the bill is good, we are all against corruption, but the bill is misguided. If anyone says that the net effect of what they wish to happen is a toothless bill, then I must question the part of the previous statement that says that they are against corruption.

Conclusion: The Jan Lokpal bill is a bill that provides the lokpal with needed powers. It is not draconian. It also has checks and balances to make sure these powers are not abused, which the Govt. lokpal bill doesn't.

11. The lakhs of people who fill Ramlila grounds, Freedom Park, Azad Maidan, etc., really don't know the issues involved.

This might have some truth to it, but then I would ask: do you think the hundreds of students of Osmania University, who caused so much disorder in Hyderabad in Nov-Dec 2009 on the Telangana issue, knew all the issues related to the formation of Telangana? Do you think they all knew how much money is currently going to the different districts, how much to Hyderabad, how much to Guntur, how much to Adilabad, how much to coastal AP, etc., that they actually feel there is an injustice to Telangana? I bet the answer to that is that less than 1% of the students actually knew what they were agitating for. But they placed their confidence in their leader, K.Chandrashekara Rao, and trusted that he had done the analysis and concluded correctly (according to them) that Telangana was being discriminated against (whether that is true or not is not the subject of this discussion).

This is what happens in any agitation. A few leaders study a situation, are convinced that a course of action needs to be followed, express their point of view in summarized form to their supporters, and the supporters take up the cause on behalf of their leader. It is the same with any agitation. Compared to the normal standards of agitation, I dare say that the people who are agitating for the Jan Lokpal are a. much more aware of the issues than in any other agitation, and b. sincerely involved in the agitation.

By the latter, I mean the persons involved genuinely care, as opposed to many agitations which are carried out using mercenaries to cause disturbances and violence. A lot of people are placing faith on the integrity and scholarship of the leaders of the anti-corruption agitation. Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, the Bhushans, and Kiran Bedi have earned that respect out of a lifetime of living an exemplary life.

Conclusion: The people in the anti-corruption are more aware of the issues than are the participants in most protests in India.

Guys, there is a lot of misinformation going on in the media, and even well-meaning citizens are being taken in by the anti-Anna hype. I know this is a long article, but there has been so much anti-Anna rhetoric on all these points in the media that I felt compelled to clear the mists of misinformation floating out there. I request you to circulate this as much as possible so that the misinformation can be countered!

Jai Hind!
-By Dr. Sheshadri Kumar (