ANNA HAZARE’S SPARTAN INDIA
It looks farfetched, Anna’s movement, India Against Coruption’s vision of a Spartan India!
But is that really utopian?
Think of Anna of Ralegan Siddhi, Satpathy and Mehta described it as “one of the many villages of India” plagued by acute poverty, deprivation, a fragile ecosystem, neglect and hopelessness.
Admittedly, most of the villagers owned some land, but, cultivation was extremely difficult due to the, unyielding rocky ground preventing retention of the monsoon rains; a situation further compounded by gradual deterioration, as trees cut down, erosion spread and droughts experienced. Water shortage brought as an after effect diseases because conditions became unsanitary and water was re-used for multiple purposes. To survive the village took to the recourse of illegal manufacture and sale of alcohol, a product to which many of the villagers had themselves become addicted. To keep body and soul together, inhabitants took the help of ubiquitous moneylenders, and those lenders would charge monthly interest rates of as much as 10%. Crime and violence, along with domestic violence had became the way to get rid of frustration and violence, while education and employment opportunities became poorer and poorer.
Into this situation, Hazare walked in, relatively wealthy because of the gratuity from his army service. He used that money to restore a run-down, vandalized village temple as a focal point for the community and took his first steps to greatness and perhaps sainthood not, as we shall see without peril, Some of the villagers were able to respond with small financial donations but many others, particularly among the elderly, donated their labor in a process that became known as shramdaan. A part of the youths also became involved in the work, and with them, he created a Tarun Mandal (Youth Association). One of the works of Vivekananda which he had read was Call to the youth for nation building. With apologies, this is perhaps when an inexplicable rigidity entered into the movement.
Though not a bad thing altogether, caveats are (deep south in India and US, to say nothing of Boris Yeltsin), that prohibitions and punishments just don’t work in the long run!
Hazare’s youth group decided to took up the issue of alcoholism as a means to drive a process of reform. It was resolved to close down liquor dens and ban alcohol in the village. Taken as a vow in the temple, they became, in a sense, religious commitments. Many brewing units were closed by the owners voluntarily, while others who did not were forced to close down by smashing up their liquor dens, illegal units, anyway.
Drunk villagers were tied to pillars and then flogged, sometimes personally by Hazare, a chastisement justified this by stating that “rural India was a harsh society”, and that….
Doesn’t a mother administer bitter medicines to a sick child when she knows that the medicine can cure her child? The child may not like the medicine, but the mother does it only because she cares for the child. The alcoholics were punished so that their families would not be destroyed. Such things, however, are a no-no to any thinking adult.
Then there was the deluge!
The Jan Lokpal Bill, a sort of ombudsman, was drafted earlier by N. Santosh Hegde, former justice of the Supreme Court of India and Lokayukta of Karnataka, Prashant Bhusan, a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court and Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist together with members of the India Against Corruption movement. This draft bill recommended slaps where a shove is adquate and vested wider power to the Lokpal (Ombudsman) than the draft Lokpal bill prepared by the government earlier, and included placing “the Prime Minister within the ambit of the proposed lokpal’s powers”. This was
rejected, all hell broke loose, the reverberations due to which are still continuing.
Another bone of contention was the missive from Hazare stating: “Why
are you (government) sending the wrong draft? We have faith in Parliament. But first send the right draft, our agitation is against government, not Parliament. The government has overlooked many points. How will it fight corruption by excluding government employees, CBI and prime minister from the Lokpal’s purview?
Yet another sticking point is the implicit assumption that the Lokpal legislation is the magic wand to deal with corruption. It is undoubtedly a big deterrent. However, mismanaged it will just turn out to be another layer of bureaucracy. The members of that constituency are to be people of impeccable character and integrity, a very difficult proposition, a sort of oligarchy.
So we turn to Sparta. It was around 800 BCE that villages formed by clans and tribal units developed into cities for commercial activities. Increased trade brought in prosperity, and to protect the city from marauders defensive walls were constructed. That was how the city-states of Greece began , which transformed subsequently into political units. Although the citzens of Sparta were from the same origins as most of the other Greek city-states, it politically evolved as an oligarchy consisting of just five aristocratic elders. Isolated by mountains and lacking good ports for ships, Spartans could not make any progress through contacts with the world outside. They were originally Dorian Greeks who came as invaders, and by the end of ninth century BCE established control all over Laconia. They annexed the fertile territory of Messenia next but faced a widespread revolt there in 640 BCE. Laconia was taken over by the rebels, and the Spartans had to fight a bloody war to crush the revolt. All the lands belonging to Messenians were confiscated, their leaders were killed and the entire population was taken as slaves or helots by the Spartans. The victors from then on lived under the fear of a revolt again by the vanquished and grew more and more insular and defensive. It would appear that they devoted their mind entirely to hold on to what they already possessed. And while doing so, willy-nilly converted Sparta to a kind of vast military camp. They became immune to new ideas, increasingly conservative and fiercely protective of the political system developed after the insurrection. Travel to and trade with other countries were prohibited so as to prevent the entry of influences against the interests of the state. As a minority of citizens looked after and controlled a large majority of slaves or helots, strict discipline and regimentation was imposed. Subordination of the individual, an essential requirement in such controlled societies, was the norm. Every thing had to be approved before, there was no room for individual enterprise. Spartan collectivism not only permeated every aspect of political and social life, but also set back cultural developments.
The purpose of the Spartan constitution was to maintain the existing social order, which was done by selecting not one but two kings from two different noble families. They were assigned military and religious work. They were also at the head of a council of 28 members, of noble birth and over 60 years in age. Members of the council were known as gerousia and were selected from the aristocratic families. The Spartan council administered the country, served as the highest court for criminal justice and prepared the measures to be taken by the state for approval by the assembly. Assembly or the third branch of the government was exactly that of all male citizens and could only say yes or no to the proposals brought before it. It also had the power to appoint all public officials except the two kings. If these three elements of the Spartan government were regarded as the branches of a tree, then the trunk holding them up was the five-member board of elders because the board in itself was the government. The elders had their fingers in every pie. They presided over the council and the assembly and could reject any legislation not to their liking. The elders told the citizens how they should live, what they should learn in educational institutions and which properties and lands would be allotted to them. Newborn children were brought to them for inspection, to die if a weakling, to survive and become a soldier or a healthy, fertile mother if otherwise. They had the authority to punish criminals before the council and could (if they willed and the religious omens indicated as much) depose the kings.
There were three classes of Spartans: the spartiates, the floating people and the helots. Spartiates were about twenty percent of the population and the only segment having political rights. The floaters were at one time or other came to Sparta, agreed to respect Spartan superiority and in return allowed to carry out industrial and trading activities. The helots as slaves carried out agricultural work. Spartiates did not live a life of leisure and luxury. As students in military schools, they were caned systemetically from the age of seven to turn them into hardy soldiers and taught nothing but military matters. Men aged between 20 and 60 spent nearly all the time in the service of the state. Even married men had to live in barracks, and there was little time for family. After the age of 30, they were required to take their meals in military canteens. The women were encouraged to raise vigourous children, who would become (nearly) the property of the state. For this purpose helots relieved them of household chores. There is no evidence that the Spartans disliked or resented this kind of rigourous living. Presumably, the sense of belonging to a superior class filled them with pride, a compensation deemed sufficient for the excruciating hardships. The floaters engaged themselves in business and industry, lived better than the average spartiates and enjoyed some measure of freedom. The helots were given a good part of their agricultural produce but were treated exceedingly harshly. On a personal level they remained miserable all the time. Young spartiates were sent in disguise to infiltrate their ranks so as to learn about any fomenting plot for rebellion, and secret killings were not uncommon. Sparta was a country expecting and on guard for a cataclysm any time. No wonder oligarchy is not everybody’s cup of tea!