If you google ‘Anna Hazare’ on www.bbc.co.uk , the most prominent picture which might bob up would be that of a slightly-built Indian farmer called Anna Hazare (in Marathi “Anna” is an honorific term meaning “village elder” or “father”), sitting in the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi’s large picture while embarking on a hunger fast against corruption. But few know that the man who sat humbly in Mahatma Gandhi’s large shadow in BBC stories and pictures was the sort of man Gandhi had himself imitated a long time ago before he became the famed freedom fighter dressed in a loincloth. After studying law, the young, suited and booted M.K. Gandhi gave up his western clothes and adopted the garb of the Indian farmer/peasant, so as to better identify with the Indian farmer, such as Anna is, to lead the Indian freedom movement.
The BBC stories covered Anna’s push for more transparency on how public money is spent and the common man’s right to information. He was the right man at the right time, as India reeled in the grip of corruption, unable to find a potent leader’s voice against it. How and why do normal, law-abiding and honour-bound citizens come to tolerate the intolerable from politicians? It is a difficult and complex question, but maybe it begins in small amounts, so that our capacity to tolerate it increases correspondingly. In her book Smiling, Swallowing, Sickening and Stupefying (1988), psychoanalyst Valerie Sinason describes how a baby reacts the first time a mother briskly wipes the baby’s mouth whilst being gentle to other parts of the body. After a few times, whenever the mother repeats her behaviour the baby becomes rigid, screwing up its face as it tries to show its real response to her action. However, over a period of time, as the mother repeats her action the baby gradually comes to accept and even to smile when this happens.
‘It’s amazing how he likes that’ said the mother, disconcerted by the smile, as if somewhere she was aware of the aggression behind her act. By three months, the baby beamed broadly at this moment. By five months, the mother no longer commented on his smile but wiped his mouth even more roughly while grinning at him.’
One can see how a corruption of caretaking begins to be perpetuated in such small situations and in small amounts. Applying this relationship to a country, where government sensitivity has dulled with rising acceptability of corruption to the extent where the unhappy protests and flailing of the ordinary citizen are trodden over till they too begin to smile, is easy. Finding a potent father who cares enough to be able to stand up to it and call a halt is difficult. Indians learned to be silent, collude even, with the endless bribes and corruption, even have fun with it.
An overall apathy had descended – a mask of a smile – the sort of stoic placidity and even fun that Indians are known for: to bear the unbearable. In this domineering atmosphere, Anna came in with his resolute, non-tolerant, ‘can do’ attitude, demanding the right of every ordinary Indian to more transparency on what the government does with citizen’s tax money. Fairy godmothers are few in the real world, but a small bit of magic did take place. He went on a fast, sitting in Gandhi’s shadow, evoking his values. This was a potent message and it was not lost. The finger of blame for the state of things had now shifted from the British colonial rule to the Indian ‘colonists’ who had inherited the system and were repeating the pattern. He caught the public imagination, not just in India but abroad, and Anna soon became not just a national but an international figure.
For a retired army man, this was no small achievement. In Ralegaon museum, one wall is covered with pictures of national and international public figures sitting with Anna, either on public platforms or as visitors to Ralegaon – the remarkable village which was recognised by the World Bank as a model of sustainable development. A public picture with Anna is a political statement – an indirect assurance of the politician’s respectability and honesty. Anna himself has been caught offguard at times, trusting people or ‘leaders’ with the same naïve simplicity that Indian farmers are known for. More recently, Anna has been known to bar politicians from sharing the platform with him when he is protesting against the government. Such imperious actions come from impressive personal credentials in this age of intense public scrutiny. Also, and more importantly, he has successfully implemented sustainable rural development and both individual and social change in Ralegaon Siddhi, his village.
What has all this to do with our psychotherapy work, you might ask. There are many similarities between the task of the farmer and that of the psychotherapist. The farmer mainly inherits a barren and often devitalised piece of land, the psychotherapist a psychic one – barren through neglect or lack of care. The farmer will have a vision, a phantasy that something will come of it when it is properly cared for – that it can be transformed into a field where crops, fruits, vegetables and flowers can be grown. With this vision in mind he/she tills, ploughs, irrigates, weeds out, fertilises the land till it becomes the field of his/her vision. No one can deny that a lot of work goes into this effort and that it can be deeply rewarding.
The psychotherapist is similarly faced with a barren piece of mental or psychic landscape, barren through neglect, or learning to ‘smile’ through lack of care. Potential for development may vary but it is generally agreed that something needs tilling, reworking, and may provide life changing insight. Insight is followed with more work.
Through the process of re-telling and ‘re-tilling’ the events, and finding new insights, and through the nurturing empathy that is created when two people are truly listening and responding to each other, and finally through the weeding out of unhelpful ways of being (e.g. manipulative thinking, or substance misuse), the psychotherapist-patient dyad – like the farmer-land dyad – may produce a yield which is both precious and productive.
In 1975, after retiring from army service and returning to his native village, Anna was faced with both landscapes: a physically barren environment and a psychically-exhausted farming community. Ralegaon Siddhi, where he originally comes from, is a village in a semi-arid, drought-prone area of India. If you live in and around this area, stories of farmers committing suicide is common. For the upright community of farmers, honour is so intertwined with a sense of identity that not being able to pay off one’s debts bears negatively on their conscience, on their sense of themselves.
In Ralegaon, villagers were turning to alcohol and/or indulging in illicit brewery-production to make a living. Anna felt he wanted to do something, and he did, with unexpected success: He donated his own money towards the improvement of the village temple; he then gathered the villagers in the temple where he put forward some commandments for the improvement of the village (in a country where religion is important and revered, an oath taken in a temple with a village elder such as Anna, holds weight); he instigated watershed development and social reform, such as weeding out alcohol breweries, eradicating untouchability, and using biogas energy (a sustainable technology that extracts methane from organic wastes); and he brought a new twist to the spring festival of Holi, where a bonfire is created out of natural products such as sticks and cowdung (gowri). A ‘holi’ ( bonfire) of bad substances such as cigarettes was also organised along with the newly-formed youth group of Ralegaon, Tarun Mandal.
For more than sixteen years, bad addictive substances have been successfully kept out of this village because, as Anna says, ‘people understood the meaning of life’. There are implications here, I believe, for communities everywhere: how ‘internal’ states that we frequently treat as therapists and counsellors (suicidal feelings, alienation, addiction, loss of identity, dissociation from community and environment, etc) can be helped and even healed through a transformative engagement with our surroundings – both our physical landscapes and our social networks, grounded in revitalising values and respect.
Twenty-five years ago while working as a journalist in Pune, 86 kms from Ralegaon Siddhi, I wanted to visit the village and meet Anna, having heard heart-warming stories of his success there – almost unbelievable stories of how people kept their doors open because there were no thefts, and of his unorthodox means of getting villagers to stop alcohol abuse – what he called administering “bitter medicine”, just as caring mothers give to their children, to help cure a deeper sense of bitterness. It was only recently that I finally went to Ralegaon and met Anna, now a busy national and international figure with police protection, but still living in the single abode in Ralegaon’s temple, renovated with his army retirement money.
I had a 10 am appointment on June 14, 2015 with him. What I did not expect was to be put aside by a news channel requesting Anna’s opinion on the current Nagaland border issue, and the many villagers who streamed into his little room mainly to take pictures of Anna with a son who had just passed his board exam, or a young couple who had finally been blessed with a child, or a farmer who had just bought his first heavy duty vehicle and who wanted Anna to step out so they could be photographed next to it. It was an overwhelming task to stake my claim to his time. To my plea, ‘I have come all the way from London’ , the man who had a new vehicle to show immediately said in an aggrieved tone that he had been waiting for three hours to see Anna. In a land where cattle, babies, and heavy duty vehicles are vital, ‘someone from London’ must seem superfluous and quite irrelevant. Anna, the village elder, was reluctant to defend my appointment but Anna the thinker had been looking forward to this talk and so the room was cleared and we had an interview. Here is the video clip of our talk in his/our native language, Marathi, exploring such issues as what effective leadership is made up of and what goes into identity and character formation.