The present does not have the luxury of the future to dispassionately probe historical facts and events, from a distance. One can ask: Is nine years long enough time to analyse, from a historical perspective, to pass judgement on the Anna Hazare movement? This question arises at a time when Prashant Bhushan has revived an old debate in an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai.
Bhushan has said that the Anna movement was propped up by the RSS and Arvind Kejriwal might have known about it. This allegation — that the RSS was behind the Anna movement — is not new. It was a charge made by the then Congress government, left intellectuals and a section of liberals. What is new is that the assertion comes from a core member of the movement.
The controversy was ignited by three things. One, the presence of two RSS leaders on the stage at Jantar Mantar, on Day One of the “anshan” (hunger strike); two, a picture of Mother India in the backdrop; and three, raising of slogans like “Bharat Mata ki jai” and “Vande Mataram” by leaders and volunteers. The RSS leaders were asked to leave the stage but the picture of “Mother India” — used by the RSS and its affiliates in their functions — continued to be there.
Arundhati Roy, in an interview on CNN-IBN, said, “You first used a picture of Bharat Mata and then a picture of Gandhi. You had people who were openly members of the Manuvadi agitation. So, you have a cocktail of dangerous things.” Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote, “The materials of history thus suggest that the parallel between JP and Anna is less comforting than we suppose. The front organisations of Jan Sangh’s successor, BJP, are now playing a much active role in ‘India against Corruption’.”
Attack from the Congress was more vicious, Digvijaya Singh leading the pack: “Anna and Ramdev were the masks of the RSS”, he said. When asked in a press conference if he was a front for the RSS, Anna said “such people should be sent to a lunatic asylum”. But what complicated the matter for Anna and his team was the announcement of support to the movement by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, on the eve of Anna’s August 15 indefinite hunger strike at Ramlila Ground.
This controversy did damage the movement. It created unease in the Muslim community. Shahi Imam Bukhari attacked Anna’s anshan though the Imam of Fatehpuri Mosque, Mufti Mukarram, was supportive. The Muslim Personal Law Board also did not support Bukhari but did not openly side with the agitation either. The Deoband, too, maintained a distance. A few Muslims were asked to be present on stage in Ramlila Ground and roza was also broken by them in full public view. This symbolism was a farce.
There is no denying that RSS swayamsewaks in large number were present at Jantar Mantar and at Ramlila Ground. Many had volunteered for the management of the crowd and other functions. They ran langars to feed the crowd and contributed money. A few later joined the Aam Aadmi Party, became office-bearers, contested elections and became MLAs. They did not disconnect their relationship with the RSS; they continued paying the annual Guru Dakshina which is a sacred function for an RSS volunteer, to pay obeisance to the organisation and ideology.
Unlike other organisations, the RSS does not dissociate from its members when they join other organisations. In fact, at times, they encourage it. During the Janata government, the membership of the RSS by old Jan Sangh leaders became a contentious issue and one of the reasons for the fall of the Morarji government.
So, I don’t deny the possibility that the Anna movement was infiltrated by the RSS to exploit it to discredit the Manmohan Singh Government and the Congress. It is similar to what Balasaheb Deoras did in 1973 when he instructed the Jan Sangh leaders to whip up sentiments against Indira Gandhi. But I do not believe the Anna movement was propped up by the RSS. If Bhushan believes that it was the RSS that coined the idea of a movement against corruption, organised it and made it successful, and Kejriwal and Anna were mere props, then with great humility, I beg to differ with him.
During the movement, I never felt that Anna and Kejriwal were tilting towards the RSS. Even later, in AAP, Kejriwal never displayed any sympathy for the RSS and Hindutva. In conversations with me he candidly admitted that the RSS and Modi were dangerous for the country. I have never found him indulging in Muslim bashing or anti-minorityism. It is true that people like Kiran Bedi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar were sympathetic to the BJP. But the leadership of the movement was firmly in the hands of Anna and his number two, Kejriwal. In fact, Kejriwal was the real architect of the movement. It was his idea — he gathered the team and convinced Anna to sit on a dharna in Delhi. Anna was reluctant to begin with.
A mass movement will always have many shades but what is important is the leadership. I can firmly say the leadership was not in the hands of the RSS; they might have tried to influence the decisions but they were never the guiding light. I must also admit that Anna, Kejriwal and his team never had a broad framework, there was no ideological foundation to take the movement to its logical conclusion. They had no sense of history, only hazy ideas. They were inspired by nationalistic fervour but were not communal. They believed in an inclusive movement and politics.
But they were conservative in their outlook and not modernist in the true sense. It is because of this weakness that the Anna movement could not consolidate the mass sentiment it unleashed. And in the end, it was instrumental in easing the path for Narendra Modi. In that way, yes, they are responsible for what India is witnessing today. I am afraid history will judge them harshly. The future will paint a grim picture of their moment.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2020 under the title ‘Movement and the mask’. The writer is a journalist who was formerly with the AAP.