Between Gandhi and Hitler

Social activist Anna Hazare observing a fast at Jantar Mantar in 2011 in Delhi as a mark of protest against corruption

The dust raised by the “Indian spring” is yet to settle and Mukul Sharma’s book ‘Green and Saffron’, recently published by Permanent Black, has arrived to raise another storm. An entire chapter in this book has been devoted to a careful exposition of the politics behind the Gandhian leading India’s much-watched anti-corruption movement – Anna Hazare. Though the book itself is a larger thesis exploring the linkages between environmental politics and Hindu nationalism in India, its unique selling point has been an account of the environmental movement in Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, from where Hazare started his anti-corruption crusade.

The ‘Bharat mata’ (Mother India) symbol in front of which Hazare famously sat during his April 2011 fast-unto-death demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill to fight corruption in India, had already stirred doubts regarding the political affiliations of the movement. The evidence of support from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres further clouded the secular credentials of the movement. Though Sharma’s book does not provide any obvious evidence of an open affiliation between the Hazare camp and right-wing political parties, it shows how a movement rooted in an authoritarian, traditional, Hindu ethos comes to occupy a common epistemological space with the Hindutva ideology, thus helping to reinforce it.

If Gandhi was infamous for his sexual experiments, Anna will be remembered for his chillingly disciplinarian tactics.

Sharma has conducted extensive fieldwork in Hazare’s home turf Ralegan Siddhi to show how he has used his rural development and water conservation programme – Adarsh Gaon Yojana – as a means to experiment with his own grandiose vision of the ideal village. The villagers relate to life under Hazare as that of being in an army. Those who violate rules such as avoiding consumption of alcohol are flogged. Hazare has exercised his authority to ensure that villagers in Ralegan Siddhi do not listen to film songs, strictly adhere to family planning and avoid eating meat as well. Hazare proudly claims to have converted even the Dalits into vegetarians in Ralegan Siddhi! This disciplinarian rigour combined with moral authority has catapulted Anna into the status of a demi-God.

Behind the ideal model of Hazare’s village is a hegemonic moral order legitimised by religious notions of purity, pollution, and sacrifice. Sharma notes how neither panchayat nor cooperative society elections have been held in Ralegan Siddhi for twenty years. Nor have villagers been encouraged to vote. This command-obedience relationship, Sharma notes, is at odds with the basic tenet of individual freedom and plurality ingrained in the idea of modern democracy, thus highlighting the irony in Hazare’s clarion call for saving Indian democracy. What has sustained the movement in Maharashtra is its allegiance to ideas of Maratha culture and pride and the intricate relationship between the agrarian environment and the rural polity that connect it with the interests of the dominant rural elite Maratha class.

Though Hazare has carefully constructed an apolitical posture with regards to his work, his idea of the ideal village has been joined onto the idea of an ideal nation where self-sufficient villages contribute to the building of a strong India. Here is where Hindutva forces seek an entry point within the discourse. Sharma has shown how right-wing political forces, including the RSS, are using such movements as an opportunity to grow out of their own existential crisis.

In the sixth Chapter, Sharma discusses the environmentalist impulses of Adolf Hitler, whose mystical attraction to natural beauty partly informed the Nazi ideology of preserving the German nation. Though the ideology itself was sustained by hatred towards the Jews, environment served as a useful tool to define the national identity and regenerate it. This juxtaposition of the appropriation of environmental imagery for political claim-making bears an uneasy resemblance with the Indian situation where the metaphors of rescuing ‘mother India’ and ‘mother Nature’ have become one.

A detailed review I wrote on Mukul Sharma’s book has been published in the latest issue of Biblio.

You can read it here: (requires site registration)

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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