PROFILE: Anna Hazare, the people's activist

A profile of the Indian social activist Anna Hazare, whose crusade against corruption has grabbed international headlines and inspired massive public demonstrations throughout India in recent months.

Anti-corruption crusader only recently grabbed headlines, but has long been a populist agitator

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare greets a jubilant crowd after his release from a New Delhi prison by raising his fist in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on Aug. 19. Hazare's critics say he has misrepresented himself as today's version of the renowned peace activist and independence leader. (Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

The elderly social activist whose crusade against corruption has grabbed international headlines and inspired demonstrations throughout India in recent months seems to have come out nowhere. His infectious popularity has surprised many, but Anna Hazare has been agitating for social and political reform for over two decades.

Born Kisan Baburao in 1937 in the town of Bhingar in Maharashtra state, Hazare grew up in the nearby village of Ralegan Siddhi, the eldest of seven children. He attended primary school in Mumbai, where he lived under the care of a relative before leaving school to work as a flower vendor. In 1963, he joined the army and served until the mid- to late-1970s (accounts of when he ended his service vary from — 1975 to 1978).

According to the biography on Hazare's website, it was his visits to his home village of Ralegan Siddhi during his military service that opened his eyes to the immense problems of poverty and water scarcity that residents of the drought-prone region faced, and motivated him to return there after he left the military.

Inspired by a water management project in a nearby town, Hazare took up the cause of water conservation and watershed development in Ralegan Siddhi, working with villagers to build trenches and irrigation systems aimed at better harnessing ground and rain water. Over the years, he and his supporters implemented a series of development projects that earned Ralegan Siddhi the label of a "model village" in development circles.

Imposed alcohol, tobacco ban

One of Hazare's first tasks upon returning to the village was to pay to have a local Hindu temple rebuilt, which endeared him to the locals, but some of his later methods of bringing about agricultural and social change included more unconventional tactics. Alcohol, tobacco and paan, a type of chewing tobacco, were banned in the village, as was the felling of trees and the grazing of livestock – the latter in the belief that it contributed to soil erosion. In the interest of limiting family size, Hazare encouraged men in the village to undergo vasectomies.

In the recent media coverage of Hazare, the activist has been criticized for some of the hard-line tactics he reportedly used to enforce some of these bans, including the public flogging of those caught consuming alcohol. Hazare has discounted the criticisms as part of a smear campaign to discredit him.

Nevertheless, there is no question that in his own life, Hazare has opted for an ascetic path. Reportedly influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, which he claims to have discovered in a book about the 19th-century Hindu ascetic he bought in a railway station during his military service, Hazare gave up alcohol and meat and chose to stay unmarried and celibate and devote his life to public service. An oft-recounted anecdote about Hazare's spiritual awakening describes an incident during the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Hazare was an army driver at the time, and he was part of a military convoy that came under air attack. All of the soldiers Hazare was travelling with were killed, but he survived and took this as the turning point that prompted him to find a new purpose in life.

Anti-corruption crusader

In the 1990s, Hazare turned his attention from development to fighting corruption in political and public life. In 1991, he founded an organization called Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA), or the public movement against corruption.

The group's biggest success to date has been the adoption of the Right to Information Act – first on a state level in Maharashtra in 2003 and on a national level in 2005. Hazare and his followers had advocated for such legislation for several years, and when the bill was stalled in the final stages of adoption, Hazare went on a hunger strike to force the president to give his assent to the legislation.

A Hazare supporter shouts slogans during an Aug. 21 rally in New Delhi on the sixth day of Hazare's most recent fast. Hazare's arrest earlier this month and his ongoing hunger strike campaign, which initially began in April, has galvanized millions of Indians. (Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

In 1998, Hazare's attempts to highlight the corruption of government officials got him briefly arrested when he leveled corruption allegations against three ministers in the state government of Maharashtra. One of them sued him for defamation, and he was sentenced to three months in jail. He served only one day before being released on order of the chief minister of the state, after an outcry by social activists.

Over the years, Hazare has received numerous awards for his development and social activism work, including the Padma Bhushan award for social work, handed out by the Indian government, in 1992 and the World Bank's Jit Gill Memorial Award for Outstanding Public Service in 2008.

Hazare haters

Hazare's most recent cause, and the one that has brought him so much attention, is the establishment of an independent citizen ombudsman's office, or Jan Lokpal, that would have the power to investigate and prosecute everyone from low-level government officials and bureaucrats to judges and the prime minister. Hazare has again used the threat of a "fast until death"  to pressure government officials to take up his cause, the difference being that this time, his tactic has drawn widespread attention within India and abroad.

Not all of it has been positive, however. Despite the vast popular support on such prominent display online and in the streets of Indian cities in recent weeks, Hazare has plenty of detractors. These people see him as a self-appointed, self-righteous vigilante whose heavy-handed, media-savvy tactics have attracted publicity-seeking posers and detracted from the good work of the many other activists advocating for political and social change in India. His critics say that while he might dress in the style of Mahatma Gandhi and employ similar hunger strike tactics to further his cause, his political agenda is far less sophisticated and his positions, such as his support for flogging and his call for corrupt officials to be hanged, are downright contradictory to the ideals of non-violent resistance Gandhi advocated.