This week, it was amazing to see cricket crazy India cut short its celebration of winning the World Cup after 28 years, and the media focusing attention to something else.
All thanks to a 72-year old social activist, Anna Hazare, who went on an indefinite hunger strike from Tuesday in a move to root out corruption in the country. It was also amazing to see the public support he garnered. More than 700,000 people, which is about the population of Bhutan, committed their support through signature campaigns to the ‘India Against Corruption’ move. About 170 ordinary people joined him for the hunger strike in Delhi. Supporters included the youth, businessmen, housewives, retirees, public leaders, tinsel town celebrities including Amir Khan, Diya Mirza, and Anupam Kher.
The movement cornered the ruling government which is finding all its attempts to contain the move, useless.
It is a new awakening for India.
Anna Hazare wants the anti-corruption bill, called the Lok Pal Bill which is lying dormant in the parliament since 1968, to be enacted but demands it should be drafted with 50% representation from the people and 50% from the government. He wants to make all political leaders, including the prime minister, accountable to corruption charges. The present bill grants almost complete immunity to political leaders against corruption.
Back home, such a solidarity move is considered almost impossible, at least as of now. Although a new democracy, we are still alien to the concept of reform through social advocacy by taking to the street, no matter how noble the intention maybe.
The concept of strike is seen as a pervasive trend which is not “Bhutanese.” Today, the word “strike” can even be equated to the disruption of social order.
The first solidarity movement in the country was a short walk in 2009 in Thimphu showcasing the empathy toward seven students who lost their lives when they were washed away by the Wangchu river in Chukha. The incident attracted nationwide attention because the students were stranded on a rock in the middle of the river for about four hours and Chukha dzongkhag officials failed to save them despite trying everything possible.
The so called “solidarity walk” was not taken in a positive light by many. It was compared to the beginning of the strike culture. Many condemned it including senior government officials who addressed the people who took part.
The message was clear.
It was further enunciated this year when the labor minister made a distinct attempt to clarify that laws allowed workers’ “associations” in the country but not “unions.” He said that the latter word carried an elusive interpretation of a strike culture. This shows how careful we have been.
We have to ask here why we are so opposed to the idea of going to the streets for a cause. Some other questions we have to ask are – whether it is necessary? Is it good? Is it bad?
The answers are difficult. We may be opposed to the idea of going to the streets because we never have. It is a culture reserved only for our television screen where people who don’t look like us resort to it. It is complicated to assert whether it is necessary, good or bad.
We also have to understand that people have always gone to the streets as the last possible resort when the system is against the people. It also happens in the absence of good laws, wise rulers or legislations. And it is also easy to resort to it when precedents have already been set. It has never been the case with Bhutan.
But, with democracy, things are changing.
The “draconian” tobacco rule may be the beginning of this undesired culture.
People have already started a movement on social networking sites, notably the Facebook, to amend the Tobacco Act. The prime minister has condemned the movement and asserted that it should stop.
A significant difference in the Facebook movement is that the campaigners have, for the first time ever, come out openly without hiding their identity for the cause. In the past, we have always seen people venting their frustration under the garb of anonymity, most notably through online forums.
This movement against an apparently unfair legislation has already resulted in the arrest of 19 people and it is only buying time to translate into a street protest. The number of sympathizers for the cause is only increasing and it doesn’t include only smokers. It includes family members of all those detained.
The speaker has declared that the Tobacco Act cannot be amended in the next session of the parliament because an Act needs to be in force for at least a year for it to be amended.
The wait can prove too costly for Bhutan.
If the movement reaches the streets, it would be unfair to blame only the protestors because the trigger would be a bad legislation and the elected leaders have played a major part in enacting it. The question we need to ask is whether we can afford it to happen?
NB: The above post appeared as an editorial in Business Bhutan on April 9, 2011.