Weeks after the Long March, the idea and image still lingers – of 40,000 people walking over 200-km, the last 10-15 km in darkness and silence (as silent as it is possible for such a multitude to be). Those farmers and landless peasants walked into Mumbai, captured the city’s imagination and left it with an enduring memory. They won over the megapolis, outsmarted far more powerful adversaries, leaving a political statement that “made the deaf hear and the blind see.” And did all of the above with transparent sincerity.
The marchers were from a few regions of Maharashtra, but spoke for every farmer and labourer in the country. The protestors were very poor farmers and workers – in India’s wealthiest state. Gaps between rich and poor are beyond obnoxious in Maharashtra. The state sees far more hunger deaths than many poorer states do.
In September 2016, the Bombay High Court expressed its dismay over the death of 17,000 persons in tribal areas of the state, in just the preceding 12 months, due to malnutrition. (There were many Adivasis in the Long March).
It is also the state that has seen more farmers take their own lives than any other. Between 1995 and 2015, going by the National Crime Records Bureau, close to 65,000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra. That’s more than a fifth of the total of over 300,000 across the country in the same period. That surely played a role in the decisive rout of the long-ruling Congress–NCP government in the state in 2015. The BJP government has predictably made things worse – and cooked the suicide data even more aggressively than its predecessor. The present regime also ensured that Maharashtra was amongst the states worst hit by both the insane extension of cattle slaughter laws, and the devastation of demonetisation.
Mumbai is also a fortress of our highly corporatised media culture. You could see the importance of the farmers’ Long March to the “mainstream” media in the fact that not a single national daily or network had a correspondent at the start of it in Nashik. When the reports on the March by Parth MN of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) went up early the next day, the media found this was far too big to ignore. Lots of reporters were suddenly sent off to join the Long March – especially in its last stretch.
One national news agency sent its crime correspondent to cover the farmers’ march. (Just in case there was any violence – ah, you know what these farmers are like, always making trouble.)
For many months, the media had also been reducing the farmers’ demands, and most of their distress, to their seeking a loan waiver. While that was an important element of their agenda, they had many more demands that went to the heart of the country’s agrarian crisis. The implementation of the key recommendations of the National Commission for Farmers was one of those. These farmers saw the Union Government’s claim of having implemented its promise – of Minimum Support Price equalling the Cost of Production plus 50 per cent – for the charade it was. They were signalling the collapse in prices they received in the real world. That, while the actual and comprehensive costs of cultivation were soaring, their incomes were in decline. That the agrarian crisis is about the corporate hijack of Indian agriculture. That their problems were driven by conscious economic policy and not by natural calamity.
There were thousands of Adivasi farmers demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that could confer on them proper title deeds to lands their families had been cultivating for perhaps centuries. They were making the point that even their indebtedness was the outcome of the deliberate policies on credit followed by successive governments.
And how brilliantly they did it. With a march long on distance, short on rhetoric. By walking at night and timing their arrival at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, so as not to in any way disturb the city’s children appearing for board exams the next morning. By looking the Maharashtra Government squarely in the eye – and not blinking. I’ve lived 35 years in this megapolis – and have rarely seen a rally so meaningful, so satisfying.
It’s so good, too, to find LeftWord moving so quickly to publish this short but incisive tract by Ashok Dhawale of the All India Kisan Sabha. Dhawale tells us of the causes behind, and the huge amount of work it took the AIKS in executing this extraordinarily disciplined, democratic and dignified protest. It was, after all, AIKS that placed the agrarian crisis on the nation’s political map.
The Long March has shown us a pathway. Here’s what we all need to press for: a 20-day special session of Parliament to discuss nothing but the agrarian crisis and its related issues. And perhaps the Kisan Sabha, together with many other farmers’ organisations, will lead a truly gigantic march on Delhi on that occasion, and have the farmers speak to the Indian nation from there.
Excerpted with permission from the preface of The Kisan Long March, Leftword Books, available here.