The recent week-long farmer’s march from Nashik to Mumbai under the inspiring leadership of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), was truly impressive in many ways. As it reached Mumbai on March 12, with a contingent of around 50,000 farmers, coinciding incidentally with the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March of 1930, at least for the moment it appeared to have caught the imagination of the media. Of course, as is often acknowledged, much of the mainstream media, largely owned by big business, is often negligent to the serious economic challenges confronting the countryside and working masses at large; hence it can hardly be considered a barometer of serious reporting and engagement.
Yet, this significant exception of widespread coverage in the mainstream media of the seven-day gruelling march is also an indicator of the ‘success’ of the March as it caught the attention of a large section of the population from different regions in the country and evoked widespread popular and political support. It appeared that the nation at large could connect with the plight and legitimate demands of a determined army of volunteers representing the country`s peasantry, as it marched almost in a silent, non-obstructive fashion, with their banners and red flags highlighting their messages and demands in a most eloquent fashion. It was an awesome display of reason and purpose by a disciplined army that touched many chords and won a multitude of hearts. And even the members of mainstream media could not ignore it !!
The fact that India’s farmers have been forced increasingly into protest mode in the recent years is common knowledge. Spate of rebellions, revolts and protests has surely intensified during the current political regime of the NDA (which apart from holding the reins of the Union government is also ruling most of the states in the country), obviously has a lot to do with the omissions and commissions of the regime. In this brief note I do not engage with the causes of persistent, even intensified, farm distress at the current juncture or get into an analysis of the simmering and manifest rebellions across the country; rather I try to highlight some of the significant features and implications underlying the approximately 200 km journey, signifying fortitude against a hopeless economic order, in search of hope and a way forward.
How it all came together
It is important to recognise that the March was not a one off event that started on March 6 and finished on March 12, 2018. It symbolised the consolidation and wide social base of the Maharashtra Kisan Movement. Popular articles by the activists of the movement show that the March was a culmination of three long years of preparation that started with a month long Peasants Rights Awareness campaign on 5 October 2015. The campaign was aimed at preparing the peasants and agricultural workers to articulate their own demands and get ready for prolonged struggle. It served as a programme of political education and consolidated the peasant organisation at the local level.
The manifestation of this campaign was reflected in a state-wide action in the second week of December 2015 when over 50,000 farmers came out on the streets in block headquarters of 15 districts on issues of land rights, loan waiver and debt relief. This was followed by a series of massive protests in 2016 like the historic 1 lakh farmers siege of Nashik demanding land rights under Forest Rights Act, peasant loan waivers, remunerative prices and drought relief on 29 March, the novel 10,000 coffin rally in Thane on 30 May 2016 depicting the suicide of farmers and the like the 50,000 peasant gherao in Wada in October 2016. This was followed up by another massive state wide farmers strike from June 1 -11, 2017 when the farmers refused to supply milk and vegetables to Mumbai. This blockade forced the government to promise complete loan waiver to the farmers. However this promise was not implemented and was followed by district and local level conventions in preparation for the Long March. Thus the March needs to be seen as the part of an ongoing struggle for justice.
The success of the March can be attributed to the strategic long term vision and meticulous planning. The March was the culmination of a strategy designed to get support from the widest possible social and political spectrum. The first strategic decision was the timing of the March, which took place immediately after the Holi celebration and at the time of the budget session of the State Assembly.
And the March gained momentum
In order to execute the March effectively farmers planning meetings were held along the route, in order to mobilise logistical support. Over one lakh peasants were mobilised along the route to contribute in terms of food grains which were carried in tempos and delivered at the designated places of rest. The volunteers from the local areas cooked food. Along the way, several groups, organisations as well as media personnel showed solidarity and offered water and food. Many of these were middle class people and students who had been mobilised through the effective use of social media and frequent video updates by a group of students and volunteers. This showed that the Long March had attracted the attention of the youth, and sensitised them to the ongoing agrarian distress in the countryside. The social media acronym, ‘#KisanLongMarch’, caught the attention of the nation and its youth and became a common refrain in the media. The support of the middle class was gained through the disciplined and sensitive handling of situations. The marchers and their leaders made sure that the public was not inconvenienced even walking after midnight to avoid traffic jams during the class 10th examinations. This won the hearts of the Mumbaikars many of whom came out in support in large numbers.
Apart from this media and social media strategy, it was the political isolation of the ruling BJP that allowed the March to achieve its limited goal. The March became an open platform to express support for farmer’s demands by political groups of all hues. It was supported throughout the route by Peasants and Workers Party and other left parties like the Communist Party of India as also non-left opposition parties like the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress. After repeated charades by the Maharashtra government spokespersons to discredit the March, even the concerned minister from the ruling NDA government had to meet it in Thane in order to send a message that the government was willing to negotiate. This was only possible because a broad alliance was built up in support of the March through a meticulous planned strategy.
The strategic victory of the Kisan Long March resulted in the political isolation of the government which was forced to give in to the major demands of the farmers. The marchers had put forward nine demands including the proper implementation of the complete loan waiver in letter and spirit; fixing of the minimum support price at one and a half times the cost (on the basis of the recommendations of the Report of the Swaminathan Committee); and settlements of land titles under the Forest Rights Act in a time bound manner. After negotiations, an agreement was reached between the leaders of the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha and the Government and there was even a ceremonial signing to confirm the acceptance of demands. Kisan leaders insisted that this agreement should be ratified in the state legislature which was in session at that time. Thus, the Kisan Long March has at least won a battle in what is likely to be a long-drawn war, and laid the foundation of a united struggle against neo-liberal policies.