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The year of social activism in India

Sunday December 18, 2011 07:22:29 PM, Sarwar Kashani, IANS

New Delhi: With Anna Hazare stealing much of the media limelight, social activists this year mounted a determined offensive over issues ranging from corruption and black money to tribal rights.

While social activism has for long been an important part of the world's largest democracy, the trend got a boost from the anti-corruption movement of Hazare, who became the face of India's war on corruption.

A former army driver, Hazare fasted in Delhi thrice this year, forcing the government to take steps to unveil an independent body with powers to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials.

The 74-year-old from Maharashtra caught the imagination of millions. Thousands took to the streets in support, waving the tricolour and the now famous 'I am Anna' caps and T-shirts.

Shadab Fayaz, a Delhi University student who has been participating in anti-graft protests in the capital, sees "a change India is witnessing for the founding of a better and more democratic India".

"It has become easier for leaders like Hazare to seek support for any cause through social networking sites, internet forums and SMSes. We have seen a rise in the awareness among students," he said. "They are becoming participatory rather than silent spectators."

Hazare apart, there were other movements in small towns and cities that marked the dawn of a new revolution in India.

In July, social worker Nileema Mishra, who works in the field of micro-credit, was named one of the two winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the other being Harish Hande, founder of a solar power company that seeks to bring electricity to rural areas.

The 39-year-old Mishra got major recognition for her work among poor villagers that led to 1,800 women's self-help groups in Jalgaon and other parts of Maharashtra.

On June 4, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, taking a leaf out of Hazare's book, commenced an indefinite hunger strike in Delhi's Ramlila Maidan to protest against corruption and black money.

Thousands of his followers trooped to the site. But in less than 24 hours, a police crackdown ended the demonstration before it gained greater momentum. Ramdev later went low profile but continues to speak against graft and the government.

In Himachal Pradesh, Rattan Manjari, 59, took on patriarchal laws that bar tribal women from inheriting property in the hill state.

She and her supporters daily visit a village in tribal areas to create awareness about her movement that has seen thousands rallying behind her for amendments to the customary laws.

Down south, a 75-year-old activist in Tamil Nadu successfully led a legal battle that saw several commercial establishments in Chennai's busy T. Nagar area sealed by authorities for violating building norms.

The activist, popularly known Traffic Ramaswamy, is a former mill worker and a self-appointed traffic policeman -- as much of his activism relates to regulating traffic in Chennai.

He has forced authorities to demolish road encroachments, restrict motorised fish carts and decongest major bus routes by banning autorickshaws.

In Kashmir, women activists are rarely heard of. But Parveena Ahangar, 51, is an exception.

Ahangar, who has had no formal education, has mobilised mothers who even after decades of the conflict in the state do not know where their missing sons are.

Ahangar's fight started after her 17-year-old son, Javed Ahmad, was allegedly picked up by security forces mistaking him for a militant. Since then, she has fought for justice not only for herself but for all the distraight mothers.

Not all movements have been free from controversies. While Hazare's associates face regular allegations of being fronts for political parties, many activists were accused of graft and shady dealings.

But the intervention from social activist fills a vital vaccum, according to Faheem Iqbal, a sociology lecturer in Delhi University.

Iqbal said that there was a danger of such movements becoming "clinical strikes if it turns out to be mere symbolism".

"You have to sustain the movement till the change you are fighting for comes. Otherwise, relying on this symbolism becomes dangerous for further awakening for a society," Iqbal told IANS.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at





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