It is a movement that is gaining currency every passing day and has seemingly put the fear of God in politicians, upped the sale of national flags, brought out hundreds of people onto the streets and given the heroism-seeking young, aspirational and consumerist Indian an unlikely pin-up idol in a presumably ravenous Anna Hazare, the 73-year-old Gandhian who is on a fast from the past 11 days.
For those following the movement from afar, it is easy and indeed tempting to term it India’s very own Arab spring that will bring about a revolution capable of wiping out decades of bureaucratic sloth and insidious corruption. But closer home, the so-called movement is facing its fair share of cynicism and criticism, especially in the online media. The reality, unlike Anna Hazare’s spotless white garments, appears muddied. Without any doubt, the movement has stirred the imagination of the young of India just as there is no doubt that corruption in the Indian bureaucracy and governance has reached unimaginable proportions.
Crowds of both young and old are resolutely gathering in the open, slushy grounds of the Ramlila Maidan where Hazare is sitting on the fast surrounded by his supporters but their knowledge about the movement, what led to it and what is being demanded is much less assured. It is this crucial lack of informed opinion among its supporting youth that makes many observers wary. For most supporters, what matters less is the draft of the ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ that Hazare so desperately wants the Indian Parliament to table (and pass a resolution about) as opposed to the Government’s own draft version of the anti-corruption bill. What has caught their collective imagination is the image of a ‘simple’ man from a village in western India bravely standing up to an all-powerful government. Thus Anna, as he is being affectionately called, has become the figurehead for the fight against institutionalised corruption. More than the legalities and specific clauses of the draft bill, which is what the protest is actually about, people are enthusiastically waving their flags and tweeting furiously because they see Anna Hazare as a powerful cleansing agent – a ‘Mr Muscle’ able to remove all the tough stains of years of money-grabbing, systemic fraud and rampant corruption and render the system clean and shiny just like a newly wiped kitchen table top.
This is not just harmless utopian thinking as it might appear at first glance. What it spawns is a dangerously flawed strain of thought – one that separates all corruption from the self and dumps it all on the ‘evil other’. In reality, corruption is as much systemic as it is individualistic and every youngster who has ever used ‘influence’ to enter the portals of a prestigious educational institution or who has ever paid a bribe to a traffic policeman instead of a fine (to get off easily and cheaply) is as much responsible for India’s culture of corruption as those politicians who pocket millions of rupees as kickbacks from lucrative contracts.
These are precisely some of the reasons why the movement, despite its overwhelming popularity among large sections of the society, has generated increasing amounts of criticism.
For India watchers, it might come as a surprise that an anti-corruption movement, which has become such a magnet for the young, can and does have so many detractors. While it is true that nobody in their right mind can disagree in principle with a protest against corruption, it is the way the battle is being fought that has spurred many to raise their dissenting voices. Critics are accusing Anna Hazare and his supporters of the very same arm-twisting tactics they are ostensibly protesting about and believe their methods smack of intolerance for alternative views, self-righteousness and a pious unwillingness to vacate the moral high ground. For his supporters though, he is nothing less than a messiah of the masses, a man who has brought a government down on its knees and who they believe will be the catalyst for great change, a modern ‘Gandhi’ who will free them from the clutches of corruption. The debate is increasingly getting cleaved in the middle and nowhere is this more obvious than in the virtual world.
The growth of internet in India, like many other things, has been phenomenal in the past decade. Internet users in India, according to a market report by BCG, a global consulting firm, are set to double to 237 million by 2015 from the present 100 million. This, significantly, is only around 10 per cent of the total population of 1.2 billion but still it puts India at the third spot in the list of world's largest internet users. The demography of its users is mostly young school and college students. Overall, 72 per cent of youngsters access the Internet regularly and over 50 per cent of these youngsters use it to check mail or one of the social media sites, especially Facebook. According to BCG, social networking sites comprise a staggering 84 per cent of Internet usage in India.
Even while I write this, Anna Hazare continues to trend on Twitter and has been doing so in several revealing avatars the past fortnight; only, the hash tag has changed from the enthusiastic #support Hazare and #against corruption to the more strident #Anna is India to the present facetious #AngryAnna (the game, not the man). More than 3,000 results show up on YouTube when you type India, corruption or Anna Hazare, most of them amateur videos of protests across various Indian cities. The ‘India against Corruption’ page on Facebook has nearly half a million ‘likes’. Several similar pages have sprouted as have status updates, online campaigns, petitions and profile badges.
Indeed the incessant chatter and the often passionate and blustery online discourse provides great wealth of material to obtain clues about how educated young urban Indians are making use of the medium, especially the social media sites, to debate about the complexities of India, the frequent facetiousness of it all notwithstanding. The quality of these debates is often questionable but debating they are, nevertheless. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious multi-cultural country like India, it becomes even more frightening than usual when complicated issues of identity, political participation and cultural clashes are clouded by chest-thumping nationalism, tokenism and a severe case of slacktivism. Be it inane discussions about the latest movie or the most popular filmstar or more serious issues like the present hot topic of corruption or the recent Mumbai blasts, what is clear is that these social media sites literally become extensions of the classroom – with its share of the quietly intelligent and the not-so-quiet bullies.
This is very evident in the Anna Hazare debate online which has brought to the fore this larger social networking tendency to have no middle ground. It is almost as if the medium itself encourages a George Bush-like mantra of ‘you are with us or against us’. In the many happy spaces that sites like Twitter and Facebook provide, it is terribly easy to interact with only those who agree with you; take out your own personal frustrations and give vent to dormant feelings of intolerance in the guise of collective protest and not at all take the effort of learning, understanding and forming intelligent opinions.
As to whether this kind of impassioned buzz translates into real opinion formation among the youth or whether it drives public opinion in general is debatable. If we take the Anna Hazare debate as an example, instead of being an independent space for discourse, the Indian social media space is perhaps not just guilty of propagating airy opinions but also might be imitating the traditional media in the way it is approaching the issue. What is often noticed is that Twitter and Facebook users are projecting views already aired on television and in print and garnering evidence to supplement (or oppose) what the traditional media is saying. This is not to completely dismiss the medium’s tremendous ability to drive outrage and increase participation. This was clearly demonstrated in the example of the young twitterati of the nation providing authentic and quick information about last month’s Mumbai blasts and also, crucially, helping victims obtain essentials like ambulances and blood donation.
In both these specifically Indian instances, the internet played a great role in organising, mobilizing, spreading information and creating advocacy but it still has a long way to go before it becomes an effective tool to bring in real political change and be a respected sphere for intelligent discussions and opinion formation. Instances such as these bring into focus the many unintended consequences the internet might have had on its young users – strengthening feelings of intolerance or encouraging vacuous symbolism, just to name two. Its very fluidity and freedom makes the medium a double-edged sword and renders it a space where the highly farcical can rub shoulders with the deeply intellectual.
Which is why in this virtual world, it is acceptable to express support to the anti-corruption movement by merely crowing on Twitter and Facebook about mastering another level in the ‘Angry Anna’ game while the real Anna contemplates in studied silence whether to break his fast or not (the government having agreed to several of his demands already).
P.S: Anna broke his fast on August 28 after the government agreed to a resolution that included his major demands.
The German version of this story was published on 30.08.2011 in ZDF-Hyperland, a website run by ZDF, a public broadcasting company from Germany. Find it here http://blog.zdf.de/hyperland/2011/08/indien-angry-anna-spaltet-das-netz/