First, a bit of background telling. I got on a metro train to Ramlila on Saturday around 5.30 in the evening. As I mentioned in ‘So what about this bill?’, I was drowned all week in news desk talk about Anna Hazare.
It’s hard to care about the movement when I’ve never dealt with Indian bureaucracy one-on-one. I have, however, waited hours at visa offices and in lines, just to have bureaucrats twist my parents’ arms when they got desperate. What frustrated me most is that my parents never, in my memory, just paid the damn bribe. Before you judge me, think of Delhi at 50 degree heat in an office packed with bodies and one sleepy fan.
I didn’t want to be one of those people who dissed the movement only to get the comeback: have you even seen what it’s about?
So I met my friend at the New Delhi metro station. We had decided to document goings-on at Ramlila. We dodged cycle rikshaws and psychotic traffic all the way to the protest grounds.
Between the station and the field, the scale of Anna’s movement became apparent. Hordes of young men came at us shouting slogans. They were all Anna, apparently. I steeled myself: one starving geriatric on a stage is all very fine, thousands of adrenaline-pumped youthful righteous ‘Annas’ is quite another.
But at the Maidan I encountered the most civil of rituals: queuing up.
Women, men and children filed past a man holding a box, handing out free biscuit packets. (Who was funding all of this?) But he was gone by the time my turn came.
My friend and I were pointed in different directions after the police checked our bags. Three female cops sat behind a screen. One beckoned to me, gave my chest a cursory feel lest my bra was housing bombs (sorry, they’re real), and sent me on my way without getting out of her chair.
Tents stood ahead of us just beyond a large area of the maidan that was strewn with metal poles with sharp edges, probably for makeshift-shelter construction. I had to step carefully over them to get a good angle on the people under the tents from a relatively less-crowded area. And I took my first photo of some men with flags taking a breather from the chaos.
No sooner had the shutter clicked than I had a boy in my face shouting something. He wanted me out of the area: photo-takers belonged ‘there’, he said, pointing to the path that led to the tents and crowded section in front of the stage at the other end of the field. I barked back, “Why are you only getting in my face?” Kisi aur ko kyo nahi bata rahe ho? and he yelled louder that he would go tell other people, and I yelled even louder that he should get on that. Finally he left saying I had been warned.
Later it turned out some footsoldiers had been entrusted with the duty of managing the crowd. They made a noble effort.
I had no hope of getting near Anna and Kiran Bedi. My friend and I weaved through the crowd taking photos. While we got lost in the fringes, disembodied speeches from the stage at centre became a mere backdrop for the outskirts where the real action was. People who wanted to do more than watch or listen, danced and sang.
A few thought I was media, which I used to my advantage to get them to pose for me. The man with the moustache bang in the centre of the photograph below politely asked me to send him the photos by email.
As I milled around I gradually relaxed. People were jubilant. The feel of the crowd was not threatening at all. These guys don’t look it, but they only struck this suspicious 19th century family portrait pose for me. They were different people after.
Boys wanted to be photographed wearing flags as capes and holding up hand-painted banners. An old man danced in slow motion for me with his arms out and his palms turned upward so I could get an action shot. Toddlers perches on their parents’ shoulders looked in all the wrong directions for Anna.
They all saw themselves as characters in something big. I am reminded of a line from a cheesy movie (I think it’s Into the Wild), that basically says that in life it’s not so important to be strong as to feel strong.
That’s precisely what stayed with me most about the chord Anna has struck: what with all the comparisons to the freedom struggle against British rule, the tone set by the supporters of India Against Corruption is that of a gargantuan population longing to be recognized and to stand for something. Faces in this crowd are not just faces in any crowd, they represent something big.
The Lokpal Bill is important, but not so much as the take-charge feel of appropriating the freedom struggle that gives the ‘common man’ a rush. He may be saying he’s Anna, but he is the ‘aam aadmi’ that is taking charge of public space and rewriting the country’s rule-books with Anna as his pawn of choice.
Now I can understand why any criticisms of the Jan Lokpal are taken so personally, both by the rabid anti-Congress commenters on the website I work for, and in the streets. Attacks on the Jan Lokpal are attacks on Anna, ergo attacks on the present vitality of the Aam Aadmi and his status.
It’s no minor detail that Anna supporters shout slogans that obsessively cast Manmohan Singh as impotent or Sonia Gandhi‘s sari-wearing slave. The movement is more than a war on corruption. It’s mixed in with an intense desire especially in young India to recreate the virility of movements that preceded its birth, except it is growing frustrated with an unworthy opponent. The rather lost Congress government is not nearly as exciting a force to reckon with as the Emergency or the British Raj.