The current year has been a year of protests. The “Jasmine Revolution” of Tunisia was the beginning of it all. It was an intensive campaign of civil resistance, including a series of street demonstrations and strikes by professionals that culminated in the ousting of long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. The demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of fundamental freedoms and poor living conditions.
The Tunisian protests inspired similar revolts in the region which went on to acquire the name “Arab Spring”. It was followed by the Egyptian revolution that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president for three decades. Uprisings also took place in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and major protests have taken place in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya - where a full-scale violent revolution has broken out and currently the tyrannical Muammar Gaddafi is on the run.
Bobby Ghosh writing in Time magazine reported that “all the revolts were led by young men and women, many of whom are novices at political activism. All use modern tools, like social networking sites on the internet and texting over mobile phones to organise their protests”. Not only does Ghosh call them “The Class of 2011”, he also feels they are the “the internet generation” who have felled two despots and forced other inflexible rulers to make concessions. Confirming Ghosh’s thesis, Fareed Zakaria, a senior journalist of Indian origin based in the United States, said that “the tensions let loose” in the Middle East encompassed “two of the most powerful forces changing the world today: youth and technology”.
A similar phenomenon overtook India recently during the movement launched under the aegis of India Against Corruption (IAC) for establishment of a strong and effective “Janlokpal”, an anti-corruption ombudsman. A few concerned citizens led by a hitherto obscure elderly Gandhian social activist from Maharashtra, septuagenarian Anna Hazare, joined hands to form the non-governmental organisation. Associated with other such organisations it launched a massive movement right across the country, the centrepiece of which was Anna who, using Gandhian technique, launched a fast and continued it for an incredible 12 days until the Parliament unanimously resolved to refer several of the issues mentioned by his team to its Standing Committee. A weak and ineffectual lokpal bill drafted by the government had already been referred to the Committee.
The protesters, mostly the youth of the country, “novices” at political activism, have, like in the “Arab Spring”, used technology to telling effect. Texting on mobile phones, the internet and its social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, all were used for dissemination of appeals to their compatriots. The backroom boys of the movement, some of them techies, management and media experts, managed a veritable ‘war room’ using technology so spectacularly that the crowds rolled in thousands whenever and wherever they wanted them to roll in. Working incredibly long hours, these youngsters gave to the movement all that they had. This was true of Delhi, where the people were induced to join in the protests from surrounding countryside, as also elsewhere in the country where, too, the units of IAC were being managed by similarly-equipped youngsters.
While the “Jasmine Revolution” and “Arab Spring” were against despotic regimes which inflicted miseries on the underclass the ‘Indian Spring’ was against widespread corruption in the country’s polity and the protests were strictly within the Indian democratic framework. The general revulsion among people was against largely corrupt political class and was accentuated by their attempts, including those of the supposedly honest prime minister, at cover-up of the recent series of scams involving mind-boggling sums.
Historically speaking, a bill for establishment of a “lokpal” has been pending in the Indian parliament for the last 43 years. It “wastes the paper it was written on” said the respected journal, The Economist. Somehow the bill happened to survive only as such having been repeatedly tabled but failed to become an enactment. It has always been the pervasive feeling that the bill would never be passed as it would sever the very hands that are always in the till, steeped in corruption as most politicians are. They would avoid passing the legislation as who would ever agree to sign one’s own “death warrant”?
The simmering ire against the self-preserving political class seemingly exploded once Anna came along. He struck a chord and caught the imagination of the people, more so of the youth. Protests, on the streets and in designated spaces became the order of the day all across the country. The universally derided Gandhi cap, a onetime preferred head-gear of corrupt Congressmen, saw a sharp upswing in sales. All because it is always perched on Anna’s head! A large number of youth and even children had “I am Anna” written on the cap in bold letters in languages of their use indicating their commitment to Anna and his anti-corruption movement. The venues of demonstrations in Delhi and elsewhere sported a sea of white caps interspersed by green, white and orange national flags.
Along with people’s ire against corruption, Anna has been able to arouse a palpable patriotic sentiment which is seldom witnessed in the country in such a mass scale. Divisive factors like caste, creed, region and economic status had all been set aside. Some commentators see the blurring of the line between Bharat and India – the country’s well-known rural-urban divide, though detractors billed it as an urban middleclass movement. The movement has infused a never-seen-before political consciousness among the youngsters – whether urban or rural, rich or poor, in the north or south or the east or west. Even the Indian diaspora took up the “Anna Chant”. Protests were held from Los Angeles to New York and from London through European capitals to Melbourne, with the protesters wearing what has now been christened the “Anna cap”.
And, yet the Indian tech-savvy “Class of 2011” has been different in many ways from those of “Jasmine Revolution” and “Arab Spring”. Their single-point agenda has been installation of an independent, powerful "janlokpal" who could deal effectively with the prevailing widespread corruption. Led, as they were, by a Gandhian, they were peaceful, disciplined and, above all, non-violent.
The Washington Post called Anna’s movement an “awakening which could change the face of India’s democracy...and change the national psyche and its tolerance for corrupt, arrogant and unresponsive leaders.” There is much in what it said. One could discern a steely resolve not only among the leaders of the IAC but also among the protesters. One, therefore, hopes that the political class, howsoever self-centred it might be, does not renege from the unanimous resolution that was adopted in the nation’s parliament. In case it does, surely, it wouldn’t be taken kindly by the country, especially its youth.