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An estimated 9-minute read

Guest blog: An Affair with Anna (or why I don't think law will solve corruption)

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This is a guest blog post from lawyer Arjya Majumdar who works at a large national law firm in Delhi. It was first published on his Facebook feed and has been edited slightly. Enjoy!

At the time of writing this, Mr Hazare, has agreed to the Delhi Police offer of a two-week protest at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi. It is expected that the fast will begin today (August 19th). It is also expected that supporters of what is being touted as the ‘new freedom struggle of India’ will be thronging in the thousands and the protest will most likely be hailed as a success eventually.

Of course, the effect of the August 2011 protests upon the final outcome of the Jan Lokpal Bill (or the Anti-Corruption, Grievance Redressal and Whistleblower Protection Act, 2010, as Mr Hazare has suggested) is anyone’s guess.

As of now, I have been bombarded with messages on every mode of communication imaginable, from SMS, to BBM, to random phone calls, to TV personalities making an appearance urging the support of Mr Hazare’s cause by wearing black arm bands, taking the protest to the streets, joining candlelight marches, ‘raising a voice’ against corruption, attending seminars on bribery and corruption and so on.

DISCLAIMER: Before I go any further, I must warn you, this is an opinion piece. You may or may not like what you read and you most certainly have the right to voice your own opinion, which I will respectfully listen to. Having said that, all that is stated here is either fact - verifiable by anyone having an internet connection (provided that you manage to go beyond Wikipedia) - or my opinion. I am not connected to any political party nor do I support either the ruling party, or the opposition, or the minute crack in between.

What is Mr Hazare’s cause? Simple enough: to fight and put an end to corruption, according to a BBM message a dear (well-meaning) friend forwarded to me on Wednesday night - a message I’d read before in April. The message continues to describe how the fight against corruption is taking place by the passing of a Bill that will supposedly, ‘end corruption’ in India. Or so a lot of people believe.

Read! Read! Read!

I wonder how many of the flag waving, sloganeering, candle burning, youth with parched throats and absent slips outside Tihar Jail, India Gate, JP Park, or at the Ramlila Grounds today have, or will have read the Jan Lokpal Bill? Either one of the two drafts - the Government’s or Mr Hazare’s will do. I don’t suppose many have.

Where then, is the informed decision? Where then, is the ability to think for oneself as to whether I want to support Mr Hazare or not? I must confess though, both the drafts are open on my laptop as of now and I’ve put off reading them till right after I finish this.

For those interested, the Government draft may be found at http://persmin.gov.in/Lokpal/DraftLokpalBill2011.pdf and Mr Hazare’s draft may be found at http://www.annahazare.org/pdf/Jan%20lokpal%20bill%20by%20Expert%20(Eng).pdf.

Granted, legalese is difficult to understand, which is why lawyers get paid ridiculous fees. But it’s not rocket science. Any person, literate - not necessarily educated - should be able to read, and comprehend the import of either draft. And no, going through the readily available comparison on Wikipedia just doesn’t cut it.

The last time I purchased a television I looked at different brands, various models and even spent a couple of days scouring electronics shops to figure out where I’d get my best value for money. Does this sound familiar? Wouldn’t then, the decision to support the campaign ‘against corruption’ warrant far more preparation?

Read the drafts. Make an informed decision. Or at least make a decision for the right reasons

Finger Pointing

One wonders if there is to be a distinction between the supporters of Mr Hazare who have indulged in corruption and those who haven’t. Let us dwell a moment as to what would constitute corruption. To me, and therefore subject to debate, an act of corruption would include any act that circumvents or seeks to circumvent the due process of law.

That includes passing a hundred rupee note to the cop who pulled you over for talking on the mobile phone while driving to paying the clerk at the CGHS chemist so that you can get medicines for your ailing daughter, to arranging for an obscenely large amount of money to be transferred to your offshore account to approve a government investment.

I paid a bribe to a cop last Independence Day for running a red light. I am therefore, by definition, corrupt. I was rushing home after spending half the day at office. (Yes, I was working on Independence Day - does that make me patriotic also?). If I am corrupt, should I be allowed to support Mr Hazare’s cause?

An even more disturbing question. What happens when the furore dies down? Let us assume for a moment Mr Hazare is successful in his endeavours and his version of the Lokpal Bill is about to be passed in toto. Would I shy away from passing that hundred rupee note to that cop? Would he be unwilling to receive it? Probably not. Would the same thousands of flag waving, sloganeering, candle burning people outside Tihar Jail today, do the same? Probably.

It’s not that simple then, is it?

The Juggernaut

I cannot recall, in my limited memory, a protest so national, or so widespread. Why then, has this cause to ‘fight corruption’ grown to such gargantuan proportions? Is this cause more worth fighting for then?

Take the example of Irom Sharmila Chanu, a woman who has been protesting against atrocities committed by the Indian Army- all well documented- under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act, 1958. Her mode of protest? A ten-year fast. Soon after she began, she was arrested for attempting suicide. Since then she has been released and re-arrested on countless occasions and has been subjected to forced nasogastric feeding. In my opinion, her cause is far more real, far more compelling. There can be few causes more persuasive than to fight for the right to trust and believe in our armed forces who are bound in duty to protect us from enemies external and internal.

Or take any of the other social causes that have cropped up in the last few years or so. The pink chaddi campaign to protest the social subjugation of women in modern civil society, the gay pride movement to address the issues of LGBTs or even last month’s Slutwalk.

All of these address very basic problems, mostly relating to the ability and the freedom to live one’s life and make appropriate choices whether of sexuality or of what to wear in the morning with dignity. Are these causes any less than Mr Hazare’s? I believe not. Let us not forget that corruption is an economic practice, not a social one.

I believe Mr Hazare’s decision to fast is exceedingly well-timed. Let us for a moment, dwell on the events that led up to the developments of the last few days. April 2011 had a momentous occasion when India won the cricket world cup.

How is this relevant? In the hours that followed Mr Dhoni’s heave over the long-on boundary, the same thousands of flag waving, sloganeering, candle burning people waved flags, shouted slogans (but probably didn’t light candles) with each other, reveling in a joyous occasion that brought them together and caused complete strangers to congratulate, hug and cry with each other in common elation.

Fast forward to August 2011- Independence Day. For most of us - at least my generation - we will never be able to understand or appreciate the ecstasy that was felt on August 15, 1947. What then is patriotic zeal? What then, is patriotism? The rights that our forefathers fought for - freedom of speech, movement within the country, life and liberty - are rights that we take for granted. And rightly so since they are all guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

Is it then possible that most of my generation (me included) probably don’t understand the import of the word patriotism? And in the desperate quest to feel patriotic, just the way we felt in April 2011, especially just after a day when FM stations ran patriotic songs and TV channels showed movies like Gandhi and Shaurya, perhaps we’ve clutched at the one thing that seems patriotic: to fight what undoubtedly, is one of the most prevalent issues in India.

The fact that Mr Hazare was arrested on the morning of the commencement of his protest did add far more fuel to the fire. The Delhi Police did far more for the cause than any media channel or Facebook page or Twitter trend has been able to. After all, martyrdom is sexy.

Ok, so what happens next?

On the verge of the second fasting protest by Mr Hazare, I haven’t waved the tricolor, haven’t screamed ‘Vande Mataram’, haven’t worn a black band, haven’t joined any of the related Facebook groups in my support of Mr Hazare’s cause. Am I corrupt? Perhaps.

I believe that most people would want to put an end to corruption. But much like dowry (which was abolished in 1961 and later criminalized but is still prevalent in parts of India), enacting a law is probably not going to have the expected effect. What then?

I believe that acts of corruption - as an economic practice (not unlike a customary practice like dowry) are ingrained. It is a mindset. How do you change a mindset? Your guess is as good as mine.

But for the immediate problem. What do we do with the two drafts? One is backed by the Government and one (apparently) by the people. Too bad the Constitution doesn’t allow a referendum (a process by which citizens directly vote for or against a proposal). But then it doesn’t prohibit a referendum either. How about making a one-off referendum and have the two drafts voted off against each other? Hopefully, at least some of the thousands of flag waving, sloganeering, candle burning people will read at least one of the drafts.

Another way out is to get a member of parliament to take up and introduce Mr Hazare’s draft and have it referred to a Parliamentary standing committee, which will then be able to get views from experts (including Baba Ramdev!) and civil society.

As for what is most likely to happen, I have no clue. I shall watch with great interest as to which faction blinks first. Or will they manage to arrive at a middle ground? Irrespective, I know that I’ll probably pass that hundred rupee note to that cop next year too. Or at least point out the advocate’s sticker on my car.

But for now, excuse me while I go read the two versions of the Bill.

N.B. You have been tagged because

  1. I felt that you might have/ or have an opinion on this
  2. You have sent me an email/ sms/ BBM/ fax/ post card/ smoke signal urging me to join Mr Hazare and/ or threatened to label me as ‘corrupt’ if I didn’t
  3. We have discussed this over the last few days.
  4. I figured you have nothing better to do on a Thursday evening.
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