India has been seeing a movement at the grassroots level for change of its social and legal structures ever since its independence. In the 1950s, there were movements like Boodan led by Vinoba Bhave to persuade wealthy landowners to voluntarily give a percentage of their land to lower castes. Baba Amte spent a lifetime working to eradicate leprosy and in his later years generated awareness about environmental conservation. Medha Patkar has been a notable figure in opposing the Sardar Sarovar Dam being built across the Narmada River.
In more recent years, activists like Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal have resigned from the government to work on social campaigns to further causes they believed in. The key movement that they were a part of was the Right to Information movement. Disclosure of information was and still is governed by the Official Secrets Act of 1889 vintage. Even a sustained movement led to the passing of a diluted Freedom of Information Act in 2002. A continued movement for reform led to the passing of a more robust Right to Information Act in 2005.
Anna Hazare is a war veteran who was involved in the Right to Information movement. He went on a hunger strike to force the state of Maharashtra to adopt a Right to Information Act in 2003. Prior to this he had acquired a reputation for being a preeminent social reformer by transforming the village of Ralegoan Siddhi. A war veteran who had some near-death experiences, he threw himself into transforming his above-mentioned native village by prohibiting alcohol, creating a grain bank, focusing on watershed development, improved irrigation, cultivation, and animal husbandry, and by dramatically improving education.
Anna has been involved in anti-corruption movements since 1991. His first movement was at his village Ralegaon Siddhi in the state of Maharashra. Over time, he got involved in state-level protests and, as stated in the previous paragraph, by 2003 he was able to bend the Maharashtra government to his will. In between he had suffered persecution and even imprisonment by government authorities.
Anna’s emergence at the national level has caught almost everyone by surprise. A village-level activist has been thrust into the national limelight demanding a law intended to reduce corruption. While the merits of the law are debatable, the fact that there is an entire movement against corruption is striking. It is a historic phenomenon as the Indian state has long been held to be inefficient and corrupt but no mass movement has occurred before to hold it to account. In some ways it is akin to the Arab Spring or even the Occupy Wall Street movements where people have risen up against their governments for not heeding their concerns. The key difference between the Indian movement and others is that it focuses on the single issue of corruption and is campaigning for a remedy to the problem.