About 35,000 farmers walked from Nasik to Mumbai, covering 180 km to highlight their pain and agony to the government and the people of India. The long march that started on March 6 from Nasik reached Mumbai on March 12. Besides the impoverished farmers, thousands of tribals, who have not been able to get ownership of forest land which they have been cultivating for generations, also joined the march, demanding ownership under the Forest Rights Act 2006. By the time they reached Azad Maidan in Mumbai many were totally exhausted, some fainted and hundreds had swollen feet, as they had walked barefoot. It was a highly disciplined mass demonstration, causing least inconvenience to the public. Naturally the agitating farmers got generous public support.
It is a shame for a nation that the farmers who feed the people of this country were forced to take recourse to such an arduous journey in order stir the conscience of our insensitive leaders. The policies adopted by the governments under the influence of crony capitalism have been mainly responsible for the pathetic state of the farmers. Crony capitalism, in the words of Dr. Raghuram Rajan, former Reserve Bank Governor, is “capitalism, where the rich and the influential are alleged to have received land, natural resources and spectrum in return for payoffs to venal politicians. By killing transparency and competition, crony capitalism is harmful to free enterprise, opportunity, and economic growth”. The central government in October 2017 decided to recapitalize the public sector banks by infusing a staggering amount of Rs. 2.11 lakh crores as the banks are burdened by huge non-performing assets. Instead of penalizing the corporate loan defaulters who are not returning the loans that they have taken from the banks which, according to the international ratings agency, Crisil, is estimated at Rs. 11.5 lakh crores, inclusive of interest, the government has virtually pardoned. The demonetization and the beef ban that virtually put an end to the sale of unproductive cattle by the farmers added to their woes.
Neglect of the farm sector is also reflected in the declining share of agriculture to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the share of agriculture in the GDP in March 2017 was 17.32% whereas the service sector and manufacturing sector contributed 53.66% and 29.02% respectively. At the same time almost 50% of the population of India are engaged in agricultural sector. Reduction of income from farming along with adverse impact of climate change has brought thousands of farmers to the brink of poverty.
Against this backdrop the farmers made their demands before the government and decided to surround the state assembly. The demands of the marching farmers included complete implementation of the loan waiver scheme announced last year, implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, compensation for victims whose cotton crops damaged following bollworm infestation and the unseasonal rains and hailstorm and the implementation of the recommendations of Swaminathan Committee Report. As the protesting farmers reached Azad Maidan in Mumbai the Maharashtra Government decided to talk to their delegation. It was reported in the media that the government agreed to meet most of the demands of the farmers. As a result the farmers decided to drop their plan of surrounding the state assembly and called off their agitation.
A reflection on the peaceful and well disciplined mass agitation by the farmers of Maharashtra that ended successfully brings out some insights and lessons for all sections of the Indian society.
The protesting farmers have proved that Gandhian method of non-violent and passive resistance can be successful even in a political atmosphere, characterized by hatred, revenge and violence. In a democracy numbers make a lot of difference. Seeing the determination of 35,000 farmers the political leaders across the parties supported them and their demands were accepted by the government. Farmers constitute a big chunk of vote bank and the political parties that neglect the farmers will have to pay the price in the elections. The long march of the farmers has proved that mass mobilization of people, using non-violent means, is still a relevant political strategy. Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that took the leadership can be proud of organizing such a huge rally of farmers without any shred of violence.
The farmers did not indulge in any violence; but they were very sensitive to the general public. Instead of inflicting pain on others through violence they inflicted pain on themselves by walking 180 km and many poor farmers walked barefoot. The photos of the swollen, blistered and even bleeding feet of the farmers published in the media could melt the hearts of many ordinary people and they came to Azad Maidan with boxes of foot wears. In order to avoid inconvenience to the general public, especially the students writing 10th and 12th Board exams, the farmers decided to walk from KJ Somaiya Ground in Sionas just after midnight on Sunday so that they could reach Azad Maidan early in the morning.
Contrast the non-violent attitude and behaviour of the simple and poor farmers with the violent actions of the members of the Karni Sena, the gau rakshaks and the foot soldiers of Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who resort to violence in the name of nationalism and safeguarding Indian culture. The BJP government that support these pseudo-nationalists and law breakers has to learn from the poor farmers what governance is. The foot solders of Hindutva have to learn from the poor farmers that nationalism does not consist in shouting slogans, destroying public property and killing innocent people, but in being sensitive to other human beings. No nation building will take place by shouting slogans and spreading hatred; nation building will happen only when the citizens are ready to make sacrifice for the sake of the people of India, particularly the poor and the underprivileged.
Another important lesson for the political leaders is that the people of India are by and large peaceful, generous and sensitive, and they appreciate peaceful way of protest without causing damage or inconvenience to others. It was reported in the media that various groups of people like students, youth and women came to meet the farmers with packets of biscuits, snacks and water. In Vikhroli, a schoolboy was among those who distributed food packets to the protesters. Resident associations lined up along the Eastern Express Highway, like in a marathon, handing out water and poha (snack). The dabbawalas, provided food to the protesting farmers as a part of their ‘roti-bank initiative. “Subhash Talekar, spokesperson of Mumbai Dabbawala Association said, “We thought of helping farmers with food as they are our food providers and have come from remote parts of the state”. As the large contingent of farmers in red caps passed through their neigbourhood in Mulund, some residents showered flowers on them.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) that was behind the successful organization of the long march of farmers also has to take a lesson from this event. The party often calls for Bandh in Kerala, causing untold suffering to the people. The party has to realize that the people are tired of these bandhs and the time has come for it to devise new strategies like the long march of farmers without causing any pain or suffering to the people. Its confrontation with RSS in Northern Kerala, Kannur being the epicentre, has resulted in political murder from both sides on an unprecedented scale. The party has to search for alternatives for increasing its appeal to the people and enhancing its political clout.
The BJP government both at the centre and in the states has also to take a lesson regarding their economic policies. Preoccupation with economic growth through foreign investment and catering to the aspirations of the urban middle class are to be balanced with meeting the basic needs of the rural poor, particularly the underprivileged groups like Dalits and Tribals. Its total neglect of the Muslim community and branding them as enemies of the nation may boomerang in the long run.
The BJP as political party has to realize that people cannot be hoodwinked for a long time, using the drug of religion and resorting to communal polarization. The BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi had made many promises, including two crore jobs in a year. As the former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh stated at the 84th plenary session of the Congress party, not even two lakhs jobs were created per year during the BJP rule. Most of the promises of the Modi government remain unfulfilled. The agitation of the farmers in different parts of the country, including the long march of farmers in Maharashtra, is the result of the BJP government neglecting its promises and focusing on controversial issues like beef ban, rewriting history, saffronization of education etc. If the BJP strategists think that Ram Mandir issue will bring votes for it in 2019 they will be living in fool’s paradise. People have already started venting their anger as evidenced in the trouncing of BJP in the recently held by-elections in Gorakphur and Phulpur in UP.
The lesson for RSS and other Sangh Parivar members is that sensitivity, solidarity, unity, peaceful resistance and inclusiveness, as unfolded through the long march of the farmers, are better alternatives than arrogance, hatred, revenge, violence, exclusion and male chauvinism. If the Sangh Parivar wants India to become the leader of world nations, it has to reinvent itself by absorbing the core values of Indian constitution and use its massive organizational and man power to build a pluralistic, democratic and inclusive India. Otherwise it will continue to be a great divider of the Indian society. RSS will never be able to unite the different castes of the Hindu society for a long time by projecting Muslims and Christians as the enemies of the nation. The only way for lasting unity in any society is acceptance, appreciation, and celebration of differences.
(firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 26th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 13)