The mela at the televised Jantar Mantar fast-unto-death had everything to keep our urban ‘revolutionaries’ occupied
Dirty plates began to pile up. By Friday evening, a day before Anna Hazare broke his fast, one couldn’t walk along the pavement near Delhi’s Jantar Mantar without stepping on one. If TV reporters were delirious, so were rag pickers who had a field day gathering empty mineral water bottles, most of them filled with tap water by Thursday and sealed with a firm screw of the hand. “Where are you?” one man shouted on his mobile handset over chants of “Ek doh teen chaar, band karo yeh bhrashtachaar”, while he helped himself to a serving of falooda-kulfi. “I am near this falooda-kulfi shop,” he yelled, as he gobbled another helping.
Stranger things have happened than a kulfi vend becoming a meeting point for two friends at India’s most celebrated fast-unto-death site. But the irony is always in the little things. The things that some of the stray eminences may have missed as they sat on the dais with Anna at this Great Indian Revolutionary Bazaar, cheered along by all the good people fed up with bhrashtachaar—corruption, the latest demon.
On the second day of the fast, there were hardly 300 people at what many liked to call the Tahrir Square of India. Many among them were journalists who had come to see how Hazare was faring, some of them regulars at the Delhi municipality’s food stalls nearby that do double-duty as gossip exchange as well.
For years now, after Mahendra Singh Tikait’s rally of farmers in 1988 created havoc at Delhi’s Boat Club (not far from India Gate), Jantar Mantar has been the designated spot where anyone who bears a grudge against the system can come and agitate. It could be anything, really: a protest against a violent wife or an agitation against Coca-Cola.
This protest, however, has been different. An old man from Maharashtra came and sat on anshan to herald the start of ‘people’s legislation’: the Jan Lokpal Bill. The numbers who came to express solidarity with him by the third day of his fast took even him by surprise, as he later confessed. He has timing and TV to thank. Raja and Kalmadi have been on prime time news for a while now. Any minute, it seemed as if Manmohan Singh would stand up in Parliament and utter Daag acche hein (‘stains are good’ a la Surf Excel’s ad campaign) to explain away his tainted Cabinet colleagues. The cricket World Cup had just been won, and carnivalesque street crowds still had energy to spare.
So they came. By Thursday afternoon, on the third day of Anna’s fast, the crowd had swelled to a few thousand. They appeared in hordes and in small groups, with whatever banners they could lay their hands on. There were about 20 people who came under the banner of ‘Narela Shopkeepers Federation’. A similar number under ‘Nashik Mahila Sangh’. Another group that called itself ‘Mahipalpur Jat Samiti’ arrived in a load-carrier, with a nagara (kettledrum). One of the men in this group had a poster of Dara Singh. There was Bhagat Singh too. In fact, the protestors had the entire panoply of Indian heroes covered.
A group of people, mostly women, shouted their hearts out against the Delhi government. A banner they held read: ‘3,000 computer teachers unemployed by Delhi government are with Annaji.’ Some schools let their children loose. They came in droves in their school uniform, shouting slogans in favour of beating up politicians with shoes. Some groups conducted a yagna in support of Anna Hazare’s fast.
By now, all TV cameras that could be summoned in Delhi were whirring away at Jantar Mantar, looking for creative protestors. That afternoon, a Manmohan Singh lookalike appeared and was immediately mobbed by TV reporters and cameramen. A stubble-sporting man in a kurta-pajama and sneakers—just like Rahul Gandhi—was seen holding a small child and pointing at the cameras to grab their attention. It was as if the revelry of a cricket stadium had poured onto the streets, with placard makers matching wits in the hope of being caught on camera.
One man’s message read: ‘Leave IPL, come to APL (Anna Premier League).’ It was enough to drive cameras to a frenzy. A boy wearing fake horns had a T-shirt that read: ‘If you keep quiet, people will think you are a philosopher.’ Then there was 40-year-old Shivkumar Raghav, who had pasted stickers all over his body demanding that Sonia Gandhi bequeath her throne. “I have done investigations on her, and I think weeding out corruption will not be possible as long as she is around,” said the man, claiming to be a private detective from Bulandshahar.
A young girl, there with her mother, held a placard saying: ‘Sorry, teacher, I can’t do my homework because I have to help bring in Jan Lokpal Bill.’ Young men and women with snazzy new mobile cameras took turns to pose with the crowd with their hands up in fake rage: the more dramatic, the better for Facebook.
And all of them ate. It’s the sort of revolution that works up an appetite. Rajma-chawal, aloo chaat, masala dosa, dahi-bhalle, falooda-kulfi, you name it. But the big draw, quite clearly, was something even more fulfilling—the chance to be spotted on television, perhaps even appear dispensing words of wisdom on the country’s future between mouthfuls of Navratra Special chaat.
One young man who spotted a friend in the crowd hugged him and repeated a famously touching dialogue from Lage Raho Munnabhai: “Pagle, rulayega kyaa?” Meanwhile, other discoveries were being made. A TV journalist was approached by a young girl asking, “Who is this Anna guy?” Tweets, naturally, were flying around the airwaves. One of them claimed that a fashion designer had been overheard asking another at Fashion Week: “If you are not doing anything, let’s check out this Anna gig.”
But in some cases, the frustration of the aam aadmi was apparent as well. Surinder Jha had come all the way from Najafgarh in West Delhi to be a part of this campaign. “While taking a bus from the depot this morning, I saw a group of sweepers whiling away their time. I asked them why they wouldn’t clean up the filthy bus stand. They asked me who I was. I said, I am janata,” he said. “You see, we need to clean up this system.” Eighteen-year-old Zaki-ur-Rehman had travelled all night from Nainital to participate in the protest. “I saw what was happening here on TV and immediately got on a bus,” he said. Aruna Minocha, a retired government officer, also arrived on Friday, wearing walking shoes. “I have experienced how corruption has eaten into this country like termite. We need to change the whole system,” she said, waving the tricolour.
The anger against corruption is palpable. And it has morphed into a rage against politicians of all stripes, which explains why Uma Bharti and Om Prakash Chautala were booed away when they turned up. A former income tax commissioner turned anti-corruption activist, who asked people to get away from the frame of his TV interview, was given a verbal lashing by a woman. “Listen, this is for the janata,” she scolded him for forgetting the power of ordinary folk, “If you want to speak to TV, go elsewhere, but don’t ask us to move away.” Chastened, he obeyed.
On Friday, the RSS leader Ram Madhav made a quiet entry along with about 30 men forming a protective ring around him. He sat on the dais, the one with an image of Bharat Mata sharing space with Mahatma Gandhi. Not many in the crowd could recognise Madhav, perhaps why he wasn’t shooed away. There were some murmurs towards the end, once a few in the audience began to question his presence. It was Baba Ramdev who came to Madhav’s rescue, but the RSS leader thought it best to depart.
Sensing the overall mood, perhaps, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev played wilfully to the gallery, strongly advocating that the corrupt be sent to the gallows. The crowd cheered loudly as they said this. Multiple slogans rent the air. Someone spoke about restoring India’s lost glory—its sone ki chidiya status, the golden bird it once was. Someone even spoke of bringing back the Kohinoor diamond.
Many others who sat on fast along with Anna Hazare needed medical attention. While they were being taken away in wailing ambulances, Anna won himself a stream of celebrity endorsements. Ram Jethmalani, Madhur Bhandarkar, Anupam Kher, Tom Alter, Farah Khan, musician Vishal, Pritish Nandy—they all made brief appearances at Jantar Mantar.
But bonhomie apart, there were a few indications of a tussle among various players in Hazare’s team. On Thursday, Kiran Bedi was conspicuous by her absence, which she later attributed to a throat infection. Sources also said that the core group of Hazare’s supporters were unhappy at how activists from Delhi had stolen the limelight.
As volunteers from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living sang bhajans to create a Gandhian atmosphere, many veteran Jantar Mantar protestors joined the chorus.
Ram Lakhera, a 75-year-old from Rajasthan, said he has been on some dharna or the other at the spot for the past four years. He has been fighting a lone battle demanding such things as free electricity and water for farmers and suspension of the Dholpur district collector (on charges of taking illegal toll tax from truckers who pass through his jurisdiction). “If you ask me, no one is really honest in this country,” he said.
On Saturday, after fasting for 97 hours, Anna Hazare finally broke his fast once the Union Government bowed to his demand, among others, of pushing an accommodative version of the Lokpal Bill through the monsoon session of Parliament.
Anna’s success has been astounding, to say the least. Little wonder that others are keen to draft him to their cause. His associate Swami Agnivesh says he will urge him to go to Bastar so that Naxals may surrender in front of him. Some want him in Kashmir to highlight cases of human rights violations. Others want him in Manipur because Irom Sharmila Devi’s hunger strike—on for over ten years now—needs reinforcement.
Meanwhile, like a fad, fasting is fast catching up with urban India as the new tool of protest. Last heard, parents of schoolgoing children and social organisations in Mumbai had started a fast to protest against arbitrary fee hikes by schools. Many others with grievances will surely adopt the idea. But how long will the TV cameras be interested?