NEW DELHI, India — As Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare defiantly proceeded with his 10th straight day of fasting to protest against widespread government corruption, thousands of people flooded the streets and braved sweltering heat here Thursday to lend their support to the cause.
While the Hazare-led movement has mobilized people of all ages and from vast walks of life — from a high-ranking judge to the poor and anonymous — one of the groups that figured most prominently among the protesters is college students.
The reason is because just like in other areas of government where common people complain they are forced to grease the palms of bureaucrats just to get things done, the path to higher education in India is allegedly paved with bribes, too.
Several protestors told a Diverse writer who on Thursday visited Ramlila Maidan — where Hazare is fasting on an enclosed stage with a team of doctors and supporters at his side — that the college admissions process in India was littered with middle men who seek money in order to make the dreams of the country’s aspirant college students come true.
“Before admission, they ask for bribes,” said Rajat, 18, a commerce major at Shyam Lal College in Delhi.
“They ask for 50,000 rupees,” which is a little more than $1,000, said Umesh Ashish, 18, an engineering student at India’s Guru Nanak Dev Polytechnic College.
While most people were eager to express their support for Hazare and recount their negative encounters with corruption in the college admissions process, some members of the crowd also stopped at least one person from acknowledging that he had paid a bribe to get a seat in college.
The objectors’ intent seemed to be to maintain the integrity of their cause and not undermine the movement by admitting that they even once, in any way, helped feed the corruption they are now trying to destroy.
The fact that corruption exists in the college admissions process in India is no secret. Among the headlines for stories about corruption scandals that have appeared during this past few weeks, several have been about students or parents who have been asked to shell out money in order to get into college.
For instance, one recent story in the Deccan Chronicle told about an “agent” who allegedly cheated a student out of 2.7 million rupees, or close to $59,000, by promising a seat in a private medical college. When the student asked for the money back, he received checks that bounced.
Individuals are not the only ones on the take. The corruption is sometimes institutional. Recently another news story, for instance, indicated that four engineering colleges had been “fleecing” college students by demanding exorbitant “registration fees” of up to 3,000 rupees, or $65, several times the allowable limit for such fees.
Such experiences are commonplace at all levels of government, said Dinesh Singh, a Delhi high school science teacher. This is why, he said, Hazare’s anti-corruption protest was so popular with the common people of India, from the large urban cities to the rural communities.
“What you are seeing is people coming out from every village to support Anna,” Singh said.
Singh said whereas in the 1940s, Gandhi fought to drive the Englishmen out of India, today Hazare’s fight is against “black Englishmen.” Asked to clarify his remarks, Singh said he was referring to Indians as “Black people” (many of them are, in fact, of darker hues) and that his comment was directed at corrupt bureaucrats who mistreat India’s poor. His comment came across as the rough equivalent of a Black person in America referring to a Black elected official as a sellout.
“The White English are gone,” Singh said. “Then the Black English came.”
Singh lamented that large numbers of Indians are forced to subsist on an income of 20 rupees per day. The per capita income in India is actually much higher than that, but Singh’s assertion pointed toward the reality of the large numbers of street children, beggars and homeless individuals who can be found in cities throughout India.
“Twenty rupees cannot even buy a bottle of water,” Singh said.
Interestingly, water was one of the few things that caused a commotion at Thursday’s protest. Throngs of people got shoved to and fro as workers distributed small, foil-sealed cups of water to help protesters cool off.
The day’s sweltering heat made the water all the more crucial, but it also gave wonderment to the endurance of Hazare, who, at 74, has ignored pleas for him to end his fast and enter a hospital. Doctors have warned that he could pass out at any time.
Aside from the pushing and shoving at the water station, the protest seemed to be relatively peaceful. Though Delhi police were out in force, the officers seemed as concerned with the well-being of the protesters as they were with maintaining order.
There were no baton-wielding officers — at least not that this writer encountered — and the officers were not barking out orders or overly concerned with being shown deference.
The soft touch by law enforcement is perhaps the result of the backlash that ensued when police arrested Hazare earlier this month for starting an indefinite fast here in defiance of police orders to limit his fast. He was later released.
Hazare is fasting in order to get legislation passed that will create an office that will have oversight over all aspects of government, as well as state level ombudsman, in order to keep corruption in check. Anti-corruption legislation is already being considered but Hazare’s camp says that legislation is too weak because it does not bring all of India’s government under its purview.
Though Hazare’s fast is popular with the people, it also has its share of critics.
Among the critics are India’s political parties, who oppose bypassing parliamentary procedures in order to implement legislation being called for by an individual citizen, no matter how popular that citizen may be.
The criticism transcends those who are concerned with preserving the integrity of the legislative process. In some quarters Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign is also seen as undemocratic, despite the nobility of its aim.
Gautam Adhikari, former executive editor of The Times of India, wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the newspaper on Thursday that the movement spurred by Hazare’s fast underscores a “worrying trend.”
“Hazare’s supporters … have every right to march in their thousands, to raise people’s consciousness about corruption, to carry candles or play guitars while singing protest songs mimicking a Bob Dylan or a Pete Seeger, and to rage against the government through media,” Adhikari said. “But are they right in demanding acceptance of Hazare’s call for a supremely autonomous ombudsman to fight corruption? No.”
Adhikari goes on to say that there are better ways to fight corruption, such as targeted protests to prompt reform in specific areas, “instead of blasting broadsides against general corruption.” He also credited existing arms of government and the media with exposing a huge telecom scandal in India, suggesting that exposure of the scandal shows reliance on such entities is a more effective way to root out corruption.
“Instead, what we see is the sad spectacle of an aged Gandhian engaged in a futile fast against evil,” Adhikari concluded. “His purpose is noble. His method and demand are not. There are other ways to fight.”
But in and around Ram Leela Maidan, none of the criticism that had been levied against Hazare seemed to matter. What was clear was that Hazare had hit on a problem in a way that had gotten everyday Indians to protest a system that they say has been beset by corruption for too long.