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Rallying behind Anna

Anna Hazare’s village of Ralegan Siddhi has received over a lakh visitors.

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
August 28, 2011 3:11:33 am

Nobody in this village had seen a face painted with the tricolour,except while watching cricket on television. Until ten days ago,that is.

But then there have been many firsts for Ralegan Siddhi in the past few days. Anna Hazare’s village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district,where its 6,000 residents live tucked in an arid rainshadow,welcomed a record 1,20,000 visitors over 10 days,say those at the helm of what will be the home stop for the nationwide Anna Hazare juggernaut. Through these 10 days,Ralegan Siddhi has been closed for business,but open for anti-corruption crusades of any colour.

Its 30-odd commercial units,including grain merchants,flour mills,clothing store,a computer coaching centre,a few tailors,cobblers and cooperative institutions have kept shutters down except for emergencies. Two primary schools and a high school have stayed empty barring a few teachers using the unexpected break for a spring cleaning of the premises. The closest store selling a pack of biscuits is 10 km away,though there’s freshly brewed tea for everyone courtesy a Jain charitable organisation.

Simultaneously,tens of thousands have visited Ralegan Siddhi. Motorcycle rallyists and bhajan groups,snake charmers and cartoonists,former army-men and students,protesters and gawkers. In the village’s main square,the stage is occupied by those on a relay fast. Rows of red plastic chairs in a small pandal stay occupied through the day,more people squatting on the mud,the women in their brightly coloured sarees neatly on one side,the men on the other.

Subhash Pathare,40,a teacher in a school run by one of Hazare’s charitable organisations,is one of those manning the microphone all day. He keeps up a steady commentary on the latest ‘dindi’ or group going through the village,introducing the sarpanch of a neighbouring village or leader of a visiting lawyers’ collective from Shirur taluka,inviting the secretary of a welfare organisation for retired army personnel to speak,exhorting the crowd that ebbs and swells through the day to shout the slogans more lustily.

“Anna stopped at the school on his last visit to Ralegan,” says Pathare,among the more prominent organisers and leaders of the events in the village. “He told the children that he’d be going away to New Delhi,but explained what the Jan Lokpal Bill is. The children have now themselves decided not to attend school in order to support our movement,” he claims.

Along with the estimated lakh-plus people,several thousand national flags of all sizes and even more ‘I Am Anna’ topis have made their way in and out of Ralegan Siddhi these past few days. You can start up a “Vande” anywhere here and get an enthusiastic “Mataram” in response,loud and clear. With its 7 a.m. ‘Prabhat Pheris’ and street corner discussions on freedom from corruption,the untiring announcements and exhortations on the public announcement system,perhaps it is Ralegan Siddhi that is really living Hazare’s dream for a “second freedom struggle”,caught up in a wave of patriotic appeals and fervent musicals.

Protest and performance blend in a messy marriage that is neither always rational nor ever meditative. But despite those odds,Ralegan Siddhikars are better informed than most about the Jan Lokpal Bill,about its key points of contest with the government draft. “They stay updated on the latest news from Delhi,the television news is on throughout the day,” says sarpanch Jaisingh Mapari,who was himself on fast until Thursday. Even during the complete shutdown of the village until Saturday morning,one enterprising group hired a projector and a screen so that nobody would miss a word.

Just past the main road leading towards Pimpalner village is the home of Maruti Hazare,Anna’s younger brother. In his porch that’s hemmed in by rose and hibiscus bushes,the PA system from the village square is a distant drone punctuated periodically by shouts of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki Jai from flag-waving motorcyclists and the occasional kirtan group.

“My son has taken leave from work to be here,the family can talk of nothing else but the movement. In fact,that is the case with the entire village,” says Hazare,before launching into a tirade against the government that “wants to kill Anna”.

Sarpanch Mapari admits that normal daily life has been suspended almost entirely. From welcoming the thousands visiting the little village everyday to organising mundane logistics such as chairs,speakers,firecrackers for whenever the Bill is passed,an ambulance from Parner taluka town for emergencies,there is much work to be done. “Our success has been in awakening people. Even if everybody has not understood exactly what the Jan Lokpal Bill is,they are now united against corruption in a voice that’s louder and more unified than ever before,” says Mapari.

His biggest challenge was not keeping people’s spirits up after every disappointing round of talks in Delhi. “Just dealing with these crowds,so many visitors in a village without any hotel,that has been a task,” he smiles. Camping OB vans and television crews have been put up in rooms in a students’ hostel,while other visitors are simply availing the hospitality of Ralegan Siddhikars.

Mohan Gethe,74,is a retired government officer of the Agriculture Department who also served as a trainer in the Hazare-run watershed development training institution that continues to see thousands of training sessions for those working with rural communities across the country. (In fact,currently,government employees from Tamil Nadu and Sikkim are in Ralegan Siddhi undergoing training on how to develop sustainable irrigation systems and watersheds in their states.) “I worked very closely with Anna here for six years until 2008,” says Gethe,a resident of Sangamner who’s travelled 100 km to “be a part of a historical movement” and has been camping in the village for the last three days.

Not all visitors have such roots here. The Hazare family is no closer to the New Delhi negotiations than any other protesters in the village,but they’ve received a steady stream of visitors everyday since the fast began,mostly relatives including Anna’s maternal cousin Ganpat Rokle from a village 80 km away,but there are also some strangers asking if anybody knows how to contact Hazare in Delhi.

The same querries for a mobile telephone number and random assurances of support besiege Dattatrey Awari,30,as he attends to one more phone call just after hanging up on the previous one in the office of the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan,another of Hazare’s organisations,a kilometre from the village square. “Sampark madhe rahaa,” he advises callers,asking them to stay in touch. “We’ll tell you how you can help after this struggle ends.”

Awari,who joined Hazare formally just as he was completing his B.Com in 2002,has stories of the leader that tap into his own memories of the leader since he was a class II student in the village primary school adjacent to the Sant Yadavbaba temple where Hazare lives and into village legends of a younger Hazare. “We used to hear that he would get a group of boys together on hearing of anyone who continued to brew alcohol or consume it even after residents had collectively decided to be an alcohol-free village and tie him up to a pole opposite the temple. He’d then flog the person,” says Awari.

Awari,along with Suresh Pathare of Ralegan Siddhi who was arrested with Hazare on August 17 in New Delhi,spend their days poring through as many as 15,000 letters of complaint that the organisation receives from across the state every year. The serious letters are sorted district-wise and subject-wise,stacked up on shelves in the office. “Every six months or so,we take these letters along with a covering letter by Anna to departments concerned and record the follow-up action,” he says,explaining that many complaints are taken through to their logical conclusion simply by Hazare’s name being attached before being sent forward to government agencies. “The maximum letters are pertaining to cooperative societies,a few are from people expressing their faith in the Right to Information law that Anna helped enact,the fewest are letters thanking Anna or the organisation for problems solved,” Awari adds.

Back on stage in the main square,the mood turns into one of hope,even mild celebrations,on Thursday night as it appears that the fast may end on Friday morning. The women are still cheerful after spending all afternoon on a porch opposite the village hall,the children join vociferously when there’s singing and slogan-shouting,the young girls arrive for the now frequent gram sabhas in fresh salwaar kameezes,sequined hairclips glittering in their hair. “Divasbhar mela-saarkha aahe,” says one woman. “It’s been like a carnival.”

With no regular entertainment in Ralegan Siddhi,the multiple bike rallies,“thaali” morchas,the nattily dressed college kids from Parner,Shirur and Aurangabad,one group’s hilariously evocative “last rites” for the Union government,the tireless singing and sloganeering has captured the villagers’ attention. Undeniably,on Thursday night when the announcer had to ask a visiting group not to dance for the TV crews as the struggle was “far from over”,the mood was carnivalesque.

A notebook of names is a growing database of Hazare supporters,with several thousand names and phone numbers scrawled into columns. At the end of a loud rendition of the Lokpal anthem,a 12-year-old stands up in the crowd and launches the sloganeering,continuing for a good 15 minutes. His act was neither planned nor staged. “I’ve done it before,we kids have learnt the slogans from hearing them ring in the village all day for so many days now,” says Ganesh Gadohak,a class VIII student of Sant Nilobaraay Vidyalaya.

He’s not wearing an Anna cap; he doesn’t have one. “But I also want to be like Anna. Just like everybody in Ralegan Siddhi.”

The model village

Long-time associate of Anna Hazare and trustee of the Hind Swaraj Trust T L Raut,68,has a simple answer to why,and how,Ralegan Siddhi has established itself as a model village.

Five factors that are joint at the hip are responsible for the ruin of a village,he says: “Poverty,lack of education,superstition,alcoholism and politicking.” And Ralegan had all of this. Inspired by Swami Vivekanand on his return from the 1962 war,Hazare spent his VRS compensation on repairing the Yadavbaba temple that occupies pride of place just opposite Ralegan Siddhi’s main square. Soon,he would “hammer” it into his fellow villagers’ minds that he was committed to a life of service,before gathering support for his idea of prohibition,giving “military justice” to those who would not fall in line.

“But the real question was of bhaakri (Maharashtrian-style roti) and Anna knew that,” Raut recollects. That’s how the watershed development programme,which Ralegan Siddhi remains well-known for,was initiated. Hazare convinced the agriculture department to grant funds and roped in villagers to help with shramdaan (voluntary labour). “First 500 acres,then 1,000 acres got irrigated—lands that could not guarantee one crop a year were yielding two crops each year. The transformation had begun,” Raut says.

The next ideas flowed fast—donations of the excess grain to a community pool,sale of this to the needy at relaxed prices,a fund for community weddings for the villagers’ daughters,introduction of dairy development for subsidiary income,and more. “The village now produces 5,000 litres of milk daily,” he says.

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