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Sri Lankan Activists Won’t Mess Up A Hazare Opportunity: View From Sri Lanka – Analysis


By Dr Kumar David

Yes that’s right, the implication in the title of this column is intended; radical political activists in India have not capitalised on nor made use of the opportunities for mobilisation that the Anna Hazare phenomenon presented. On the contrary they have missed the bus, gasping without direction and unable to direct and influence the passions and emotions that corruption scandals have stoked all over the country. Grassroots activists, political campaigners and advocates of good causes in Lanka would have been smarter than their Indian counterparts, at least if one uses the marginalisation of the latter during the Hazara phenomenon as a criterion.

India - Sri Lanka Relations
India - Sri Lanka Relations

To set aside any confusion let me make it perfectly clear that activists like Arundhadi Roy, Professor Tripathi, on-fence-till-the-last-minute Left parties, and those of like ilk, are what Lankan radicals would think of as ‘our side’. Therefore I will use the term ‘intellectual siblings’ or just siblings as short-cut terminology. This piece then is designed as criticism of the tactics and actions of the Indian siblings; it is not intended to make excuses for the serious shortcomings and the reactionary side of Hazare and the movement he has invoked. The essay does however take a Lankan perspective in that the underlying thought is: “If such an opportunity turned up on Lanka’s doorstep, how would the intellectual siblings on this side of the Palk Strait have capitalised on it?”

Matters agreed

There seems to be a core evaluation about which there is near universal consensus in India; differences arise when discussion passes this point. Rather than put sentences of my own together I did a web trawl and extracted at random one of many perfectly good consensus versions.

“This movement gained so much momentum because it touched upon an open sore which effected poor and rich alike; corruption. It was the first time that middle class and the youth who are generally considered apathetic towards the functioning of the country, participated in large numbers. The reason was, in the wake of so many scams where public money was being looted and no one being punished, there was a latent anger inside everyone and Anna could tap that”. (

There are two concepts here; there was immense passion and anger aroused by giant scams and corruption scandals, and secondly the middle classes led the way. The quote does not imply that only the middle class was involved; wide social sections were drawn into a vortex of mobilisation of hundreds of thousands across the country. What is scintillating to a Lankan is the mass nature of the movement, albeit led by the middle class, and the intrinsically ethical nature of the core sentiment (good governance). But more important for Lankan siblings would have been the opportunity to work among large groups of people, overcome their limited vision, take progressive debates into a big audience and inject new initiatives. None of this can be done by standing outside, relentlessly demonising the movement and demotivating the streets. It’s a bit difficult to swim without first getting into the water.

The problem in Lanka is that no saint or sinner, patriot or charlatan, can today galvanise a movement against corruption on such a scale – mutatis mutandis. If it happened here, liberals and radicals, intellectuals and leftists, in short all the Lankan siblings will be there pronto, and the debate for programme refinement would become the heart of the movement. Perhaps I am coquetting with this sibling mode of presentation too much, but my purpose is to admonish Indian activists who failed to grasp the opportunity.

Matters disagreed

The Lankan siblings I have met broadly agree with the criticisms of the Hazare phenomenon advanced by their Indian counterparts, but are appalled by the latter’s tactical naiveté. They agree that corruption or communalism cannot simply be legislated out of existence; they agree that legislation incorporating draconian provisions, bypassing commonsense, will flop. Therefore they agree that the anti-corruption mass movement, even if millions strong, has still a long way more to go in maturing its consciousness. But isn’t this precisely what Indian activists should be working at within the big picture? Are these not the issues about which they should be debating and grappling in the bowels of the big passionate mass? Do they expect enlightenment to descend like manna from heaven, without those who have a better grasp, working in close proximity with the broader populace?

Lankans readily appreciate that the middle class is the agent of mobilisation at this moment. So what? Were the lawyers who brought down Mussraff proletarians? True, Anna Hazara ignores the simple truth that the poor get-by simply by bribing the policeman and the local bureaucrat. However, do Roy, Tripathi, et al – too many to name – want to be seen as defenders of corruption because the subaltern classes are compelled to resort to it for survival? No of course not! And indeed, there is a conundrum, a contradiction to live through, but one must grasp the nettle and face the issue. It has to be addressed programmatically, in whatever arena large numbers of people are getting excited provided the underlying objectives of the excitement are ethically sound. Its time Roy et al consulted the texts of their Leninist-Trotskiest-Luxemburgist gurus who shunned such naïve tactical blunders.

Here are some quotes from Arundhadi Roy who, except from her current fit of inanity, I much admire:

“For completely different reasons, and in completely different ways, you could say that the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common — they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State. One working from the bottom up, by means of an armed struggle, waged by a largely adivasi army, made up of the poorest of the poor.”

”Nothing about the farmer’s suicides in his neighbourhood, or about Operation Green Hunt further away; nothing about Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh, nothing about Posco, about farmer’s agitations or the blight of SEZs. He doesn’t seem to have a view about the Government’s plans to deploy the Indian Army in the forests of Central India”.

“The campaign is being handled by people who run a clutch of generously funded NGOs whose donors include Coca-Cola and the Lehman Brothers. Kabir, run by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia, key figures in Team Anna, has received $400,000 from the Ford Foundation in the last three years.”

Does one participate in a mass movement because one has illusions about the limitations of its leadership, or because, despite these limitations, it presents an opportunity to be taken forward? I am pretty sure that it was one of Roy’s intellectual forerunners in another land at another time who said “One practical step of the masses is worth a thousand theories”. If the mobilisation set off by the anti-corruption rage was fascistic, or if it threatened to lynch those who wanted to radicalise it from the inside, then that would be a different story. But we in Lanka can’t see anything like that, nor has such a charge been made.

The Indian siblings are misleading the public

We have read that the BJP is milking the phenomenon for all its worth and there have been allegations that the RSS is milling around Hazare. It would indeed be serious if Hazare was in the RSS pocket, an insider, but that these forces are milling around is no surprise. Ranil Wickremesinghe (the rightwing UNP’s leader) is calling for the closure of the High Security Zones because he wants to milk Tamil support. So are we to promptly turn round and applaud the perpetuation of the zones? If the Roys and Tripathis of Lanka stand aloof from Tamils, with all their imperfections, when they begin to move, then leadership will pass to locals who ride with Coke, Lehman, Ford, or whatever.

Not every mass movement is right simply by virtue of involving thousands or millions of people. Does that need to be said? Communal rabble in Lanka, a Hindutva mob in India, that’s one thing, but Indian commentators, purportedly of the left, who call this movement “media stimulated mass hysteria” are visibly off the rails. Even at this distance we can see from Lanka, and we can understand because we too have a proportionately comparable corruption problem, that there is something to be angry about, very angry about.

The concern we feel at this distance is not that we are at all displeased by the criticism and exposure of the errors of Hazare and his programme; in fact the whole purpose of getting involved would be to persuade the mass of participants to go beyond these shortcomings. Rather the disappointment is about activists who cut themselves away from a big and intrinsically healthy upsurge of hundreds of thousands of people. The Indian siblings seem to have no capacity to invoke anything on this scale, so we in Lanka are left wondering whether there is a taste of sour grapes on their lips.

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