Khemkaran, September 1965. An Indian military convoy rumbles towards the fighting zone. Suddenly, two Pakistani Sabre jets drop out of the sky and scream in to attack. As bombs begin exploding around him, Kishan Baburao Hazare, driving a truck full of soldiers, speeds up. But when a splinter grazes his forehead, he ducks below the dashboard and jams on the brakes with his hands. The windscreen shatters and bullets riddle the man sitting next to Hazare. The 25-year-old driver tumbles out of his truck and prays fervently as the two Sabres strafe the convoy again. When they finally disappear, dozens of jawans lie dead. Of the few survivors, only Hazare escapes serious injury. “You saved me, God,” Hazare says, over and over again. “But why?”
At the village of Ralegaon Siddhi, I discovered why God saved Baburao Hazare. In the 1970s, Ralegaon Siddhi wasn’t very different from hundreds of other villages in this arid part of Maharashtra’s Ahmadnagar district. With water available only during the monsoons, its farmers could barely grow one crop a year, and 70 percent of the village’s 315 families lived in abject poverty. Indeed, Ralegaon Siddhi’s most distinctive feature was its 40 illicit distilleries that made the village a popular haunt for drunks and gamblers. Thefts and brawls were commonplace.
Since he returned to Ralegaon Siddhi in 1975, Hazare has spearheaded a movement that has changed all this for ever. Today, Ralegaon Siddhi is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound. Its fields are heavy with grain; there’s a bank, a boarding school, biogas plants; some of its farmers drive around on mopeds. Even more remarkable is the social transformation that Hazare has wrought. No one drinks in Ralegaon Siddhi. Only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened. “Thanks to Hazare,” said the former Collector of Ahmadnagar, Rajiv Agarwal, “scores of other villages here and in neighbouring districts look to Ralegaon for inspiration.”
It’s hard to believe that Hazare could be responsible for all this. He’s a short, thin, mild-looking fellow; the kind of person you wouldn’t look at twice. Nor is his background the stuff from which leaders are supposed to be made. The son of a poor farmer, Hazare never got beyond the seventh class in school. As a young man his fiery temper constantly got him into trouble: once he had the Bombay police after him when he beat up a cop who had been harassing hawkers.
He was known as a troublemaker in the army too. Soon after he enlisted, he discovered that a senior officer was embezzling mess funds. He publicly questioned the officer—and was posted to far-off NEFA as a punishment.
The story of Hazare’s transformation began in 1964 at a Delhi railway station bookstall after he bought a book on Swami Vivekananda.
Enthralled by the great sage’s life and by his dictum that the noblest thing a man can do is work for the good of others, Hazare avidly began reading religious texts and biographies of social reformers. And after his escape from the Sabre jets at Khemkaran, Hazare became a vegetarian, gave up cigarettes and liquor, and vowed to remain a bachelor devoting himself to public service.
A worthy cause, he realized, lay right in front of him: The upliftment of his own village, Ralegaon Siddhi. During his annual visits home, Hazare had been appalled by its steady deterioration—even the village temple had become badly run down. “If I could re-build the temple,” Hazare said to himself, “more people might think of God and lead better lives.” But he didn’t have the money; nor could he leave the army just yet—to qualify for a pension he had to serve for several years more.
Finally, in August 1975, Hazare returned to Ralegaon after retiring from the army. His service benefits amounted to Rs20,000 and he planned to spend the money rebuilding the village temple. He hired carpenters and masons, and helped them lay bricks and lug wood.
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