'We did not think our movement would be so big'
In the first part of the interview, Devinder Sharma, distinguished food security expert who has been with India Against Corruption since its inception, gave rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt excusive insights into the making of the Jantar Mantar hunger strike and the people's outbursts that followed.
In the second and final part, he talks about their future plans and where he hopes the movement will go and what they hope to achieve.
Did you expect this kind of response?
We didn't. In fact Kiran Bedi said the other day: 'My God, when we started we never thought our fight will turn this big.' But today the Lokpal bill has become the nation's priority number one!
A few things clicked. One, the selection of Anna Hazare to lead us. If anyone of us would have gone on fast it would not have struck a chord with the people like Anna has done. Anna is respected, he is a Gandhian, people have seen his work. In fact, many youngsters did not know about him. A large number of young people went on the internet and found out all about him. That's my impression.
Anna himself has said that when he left Ralegaon Siddhi to start the fast in New Delhi he never thought he will return as a national hero. Although, he was sure that the IAC will be able to force the government to accept a joint-committee.
Regarding the Lokayukta, Arvind Kejriwal sometime back wrote to all chief ministers stating the importance of Lokayuktas and seeking their views/support.
One of the first to react was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. He invited us for a discussion.We had a breakfast meeting with him in New Delhi where Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and myself were present.He supported our demand to have Lokayuktas and said, "Yes, I am with you in whatever you are doing. The Lokayukta should have more teeth and should be made meaningful."
Image: Social activist Anna Hazare and (inset) Devinder Sharma
Photographs: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
'The govt underestimated the importance of Anna's fast'
Didn't you ask him why they did not have Lokayuktas already?
Yes we did. Modi told us to visit Gujarat. He said we should tell them what needs to be done. He said Lokayuktas should deliver.
In March, the IAC had a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Anna Hazare led the team. Dr Singh set up a Group of Ministers under Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who in turn appointed a sub-committee to deal with Lokpal bill issue. It was headed by Defence Minister A K Antony. It had ministers Veerappa Moily, Kapil Sibal and Narayan Swamy. I, Swami Agnivesh, athlete Sunita Godara and Justice D S Tewatia met this sub-committee.
That committee was dilly-dallying. They told us a joint-committee is unconstitutional.
The government never had any joint-committee with members of civil society in it, formally. So they were not willing to accept our demand. We asked them to give us a commitment to look into our request. We told them that in the absence of any commitment, Anna's fast would proceed as announced.
They put forward the usual argument that the Right to Education bill was prepared with inputs from civil society. Kapil Sibal mentioned the name of educationist Anil Sadgopal who was also invited to give suggestions. We told him that Sadgopal had dissented with the government bill. They ignored his voice and went ahead with the bill. That's what the government does. They listen to civil society and they do what they want ignoring the people's voice. The Right to Education is a horrible bill that Sibal prepared.
Antony told us that the Lokpal bill will be a landmark legislation so the government wants our support. We told him that if it's a landmark legislation then it needs landmark decisions. One of those decisions should be to have a joint-committee with civil society as its members.
We ended the meeting after giving the government enough idea that Anna's fast would go on. I think the government underestimated the importance of Anna's fast. They thought it's just another hunger strike. We also didn't realise that it will have such impact. We have seen Medha Patkar's fast and many other worthy causes at Jantar Mantar. Anna's fast succeeded because it hit the right chord.
Image: Demonstrators light candles in front of the Gateway of India during a campaign against corruption in Mumbai
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters
'Please don't give this movement any political colour'
Many people saw in it middle-class hypocrisy.
See our nation is by and large a nation of corrupt people. When I say this I am talking of the bulk of the urban class. There is no denying it. But, the fact of the matter is that even those people who are beneficiaries of the corrupt system are getting fed up with it. Everyday, corruption worries people.
Whatever it is, people did stand up for Hazare. I don't care if you think it was hypocrites who supported us. The response was overwhelming. I am not here to decide the character of the people of this country.
Isn't your movement slanting towards the Sangh Parivar?
This is amazing! Why don't you understand that the Congress is the ruling party. They will surely get the flak. Tomorrow if the Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power, we will fight them if they disrespect the people's interests.
Please don't give this movement any political colour. Just because we are on a platform with Baba Ramdev, we get a saffron colour. Even I as an individual am given different colours. But the fact is that I address the BJP, the Congress, the Janata Party, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, Youth for Solidarity which is an offshoot of the Jamait-e-Islami. I also speak from platforms provided by Communist Party of India-Marxist-Lenninist to the other extreme.
But it's obvious that the BJP is going to benefit from Anna's agitation.
That's fate accompli. They are keeping quiet because they think the movement will benefit them. But we are concerned about our movement. How to make it broad-based? From April 29, Anna Hazare is starting his yatra. He wants to reach out to the people.
After May 13, once the assembly election results are out, there would be daily meetings of the draft committee of the Lokpal bill. He would not be able to travel after May 13.
He will begin his travels from Varanasi on April 29, then go to Sultanpur and then to Lucknow. On May 3, he will be in Guwahati, Assam and on May 5-6 at Bangalore and Mysore. See, people should understand that the committee to draft the Jan Lokpal bill is an opportunity. We won't get such opportunity again.
Image: Social activist Anna Hazare waves to his supporters during his campaign in New Delhi
Photographs: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
'The smear campaign proves that the movement has ruffled feathers'
Looking to the fact that Shanti Bhushan wants high values to prevail in public life, should he have resigned when the Noida land deal issue got published?
That's the question the nation is asking us. But we feel there is a different connotation. Whatever the charges are, the individual has to take care of it. We feel that this kind of smear campaign is a clear indication that the movement has ruffled feathers.
If you take on Shanti Bhushan today, then, tomorrow it will be Kiran Bedi and then Swami Agnivesh.
Why not? The truth has to prevail. When one knows that the Mayawati government is doing something that's not done, how can your conscience allow you to buy such huge plots? Government lands are people's assets.
I am not challenging your question. There are people asking such questions.
The committee will look into it. Give us time. We are looking at the larger picture. (The interview was conducted before the members of India Against Corruption met to discuss Shanti Bhushan's land deal). We will take a position soon.
Who decided that these five people would sit in the draft committee of the Lokpal bill?
When Arvind Kejriwal took up the task of drafting the Lokpal bill, the major inputs came from Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan and Justice Santosh Hegde. We know that well.
It was remarkable that they put up the draft on the website. People commented on it and we kept revising the draft. That's why the latest draft is the 12th draft. They were the people who were actually working on the bill, so they are sitting in the committee.
Image: Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan
'We stood up against the prevalent corruption in the system'
How can you say you are representing the people?
At no point of time have we said that the IAC represents the 'people'. We just started work on the Lokpal bill. Please give credit where it's deserved. Let us accept that these ten-twenty people have the courage to come together and stand up against the prevalent corruption in the system.
Do you know the public FIR we filed against corruption in the Commonwealth Games consists of 375 pages? Someone had put in a lot of work. These people need to be applauded. The lesson I have learnt from this movement is that if you strongly feel about something, pull up your socks and do something.
I hate those people who sit in their drawing rooms and over a glass of beer or coffee go on discussing corruption or other ills in the country but do nothing. The same people were also telling us that nothing would come out from the campaign against corruption.
Even now there are a many people who go on giving endless advice and some of them have been predicting that Anna's movement will eventually fall. Don't get disheartened. Just ignore these morons and do something. From all over India people are sending messages saying, 'Please, don't buckle'. In more that 200 places all over India, people demonstrated against corruption.
Let me tell you, the invisible part of the story would perhaps remain outside the ambit of the television cameras. Before Anna's fast began, Arvind's office had turned into a war room. I am really amazed by the kind of work that his team of young activists put in. They wrote the Jan Lokpal bill draft, which kept on being revised every now and then.
They entertained visitors (whose numbers multiplied as time went by), answering umpteen phone calls, sms', emails and comments on Facebook. They prepared the banners and placards and organised subsequent meetings. Volunteers joined in and did a remarkable job. It wasn't easy, if you can understand what I mean. But it was all happening because the man who led from the front -- Arvind Kajriwal -- had set the standards.
Image: A supporter of social activist Anna Hazare holds a placard in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi during a protest
Photographs: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters
'Don't underestimate the power of the people'
Do you think you will get similar response again at Jantar Mantar if the debate on the Lokpal bill collapses?
I can't predict anything. Even on April 5, we did not know we will get such a response. Look, we did something.
Do you think the joint-committee will be able to finalise the draft of the Lokpal bill?
It will happen if the government is honest. There is nothing to stop this joint-committee to set up a precedent for the nation to look up to. People talk about democratic norms. Where were those norms when the Right to Information Act was debated? Few people decided and they imposed their version on the country. There are some civil society leaders who are not happy with the formation of joint drafting committee. It doesn't matter. Just because you have a hotline with (Congress President) Sonia Gandhi doesn't mean only you represent civil society. That feeling must go.
Why did your dialogue with the National Advisory Committee fail?
Even at the meeting, we got the message that the idea of a joint-committee is unconstitutional. We disagreed completely on the issue. The NAC also said that the draft prepared by the IAC was unacceptable to them. We were ready to discuss it. We were open to making changes. We said that process of drafting must go on. I think there was some ego problem.
If and when it happens will you give credit for it to Anna Hazare?
There is no denying the fact that Anna has played a crucial role. The Antony sub-committee and Sibal said such an idea (having civil society members in a government committee to draft a bill) is unconstitutional. Now, they have agreed to have five members and also give the co-chairman's post to civil members.
When we called for volunteers in New Delhi more than 52,000 people responded to the call. Don't underestimate the power of the people. Anna Hazare has emerged as a national mascot, a symbol against corruption. The people will eventually triumph.
Image: A supporter of social activist Anna Hazare writes on a canvas during a campaign against corruption
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters