The Amazing Rise of Anna Hazare, India's Gandhi-Like Protest Leader

Before he led a national movement against corruption, the now-74 Hazare transformed his hometown in ways that all of India could learn from

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Hazare gestures in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the 12th day of a fast in New Delhi / Reuters

This is part one of a two-part profile of Anna Hazare. Read part two, on his transformative plan for India.

RALEGAN SIDDHI, India -- A year-long battle in India over sweeping anti-corruption legislation, supported by some of the largest protests there in years, is headed toward its third and perhaps decisive round. Unless top lawmakers can strike an unlikely last-minute deal, we will again see tens of thousands of demonstrators flood the streets, again Indians across the world's second most populous country will be glued to the 24/7 media coverage -- and again, in the center of it all, Anna Hazare: a 74-year-old community organizer from a tiny western village who is threatening to starve himself to death if the government fails to enact the anti-corruption reforms he seeks.

Discontent with financial and political elites has been a global phenomenon this year and India is no exception. The anti-corruption campaign there has stirred millions and threatened to unsettle the country's ruling Congress Party, which has dominated the government since independence.

India's movement has much in common with those in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. this year, but it is also unique. It is sharply focused on a specific goal -- the creation of an independent anti-corruption body with real powers over the Indian government -- and it identifies with a single leader, Hazare. A former soldier with a seventh-grade education, his strategy of hunger strikes, civil disobedience, and the mass mobilization of non-violent street protests is shaking India.

Those were also hallmarks of Mahatma Gandhi, India's founding father and an inspiration for idealists across the world. Hazare is Gandhian in another way too -- he insists that India's route to a successful future lies not through industrialization or globalization but instead through reinvigorating its village life and a reaffirming the principles of self-discipline and non-materialism.

Two earlier Hazare fasts have already forced the government to act in ways it otherwise would not have. In April, it agreed to negotiate with Hazare's civil society supporters on terms for the anti-corruption agency, the Lokpal. In August, after the breakdown of those negotiations led to the brief imprisonment of Hazare and then a second fast, it agreed to pass a strong version of the Lokpal in the current parliamentary session. But the law has so far not passed. Now the clock is ticking again, with the government working to reduce the Lokpal's power and Hazare threatening to fast again.

•   •   •   •   •

The community organizer was virtually unknown to most Indians before early 2011, when he suddenly became the face of India's anti-corruption movement. Over the course of the year, he has become a daily staple in the Indian media, his hunger strikes and imprisonment fueling public outrage that was stoked already by corruption large and small, rampant in Indian society -- from national politicians raking in millions on the sale of national cellular frequencies to local officials demanding bribes to issue a driver's license, a new-business permit, or even a death certificate when a family member dies.

But with increased notoriety has come skepticism. Some in India say Hazare is too naive or too uneducated to play a national leadership role. Others question the civil society leaders who have flocked to his side -- and who may be more interested in their own political futures, skeptics say, than in enacting the reforms Hazare seeks.

Much of what has been written and broadcast about Hazare has focused on the movement's goals, its tactics, and its interactions with the national media and political elite. We decided to travel to his hometown, the tiny Maharashtra farming village of Ralegan Siddhi, to find out what his friends and neighbors say about him. The story they told was one 35 years of furthering Gandhian principles and of a remarkable transformation in village life that he has achieved.

Hazare was born in Bhingar, a small village not far from Ralegan Siddhi. He was named Kisan Baburao Hazare -- only later would he be called "Anna," an honorific term meaning "elder brother." His grandfather had been a constable in the British army and his father worked as a vegetable vendor. His family moved to Ralegan Siddhi soon after his siblings -- two brothers and three sisters -- were born. An uncle offered to take him to Mumbai so that he could attend school. He completed the seventh grade, then took a job selling flowers. He later joined the army, where he was the only member of his unit who survived an attack during the 1965 war with Pakistan. In his autobiography, Hazare says he turned inward, trying to understand why he had been spared while those around him lost their lives. Deeply influenced by the work of Swami Vivekanand, a Hindu mystic, he writes that he decided to dedicate his life to the service of others, to renounce material pleasures and to follow in the mystic's footsteps.

After serving 12 years in the army, Hazare returned to Ralegan Siddhi in 1975. There, he set about to transform a village that could have been a textbook case of rural dysfunction. Piles of garbage filled the streets. Few homes had toilets. People routinely relieved themselves on the side of the road. The one well that provided drinking water for the entire village was lined with steps where people gathered to bathe and wash clothes. Diarrhea-related diseases were the norm and the infant mortality rate was high. A lack of irrigation meant that, in this drought-prone region, crops often failed. Primary schools were poor and the region had no high school.

Presented by

Jon Sawyer & Kem Knapp Sawyer

Jon Sawyer is executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Kem Knapp Sawyer is the author of biographies for young readers, most recently Mohandas Gandhi: Champion of Freedom.

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