As part of its South Asia programme, Quaker Peace & Social Witness has been funding and working alongside peace organisations and supporting networks in order to strengthen all of our capacities for peace. One of the organisations is Ekta Parishad. Its president, Rajagopal, was in Britain recently to talk about his vision. Anne van Staveren met him.
Rajagopal is following in Gandhi’s footsteps. He is planning to lead a peaceful nonviolent march, called Jansatyagraha 2012, through a thousand Indian villages to persuade the government to give land rights to India’s poorest people. Supported by Quakers and other development agencies, he wants to make this a global march.
His plan is for the march to begin in Orissa in October 2011. As 100,000 people walk peacefully into Delhi in October 2012, he wants global support from marches in cities around the world. Supporters may walk for some time during the 13 months and already some Quakers are planning to join him.
In India the struggle for land rights is critical. While India makes huge strides towards industrialisation, competition grows for land, forests and water. More than half the population depend on agriculture and they are being squeezed off the land. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Multinationals and mining companies have destroyed whole swathes of forest. “The forest was their supermarket. Their lives depended on it. We have really messed up land and life and it is the poorest who suffer,” Rajagopal says. “The process of development affects climate and climate affects people. Many moved to a new culture in the slums in the cities; they can’t survive and they die there, very fast.”
But Rajagopal says this is not just a problem for India: while economies are failing around the world he sees ordinary people being pushed to the edges. He wants to mobilise those vulnerable people and offers Jansatyagraha as a global model.
“We need to create a climate for change. In some countries this is about land; in others it is about jobs and security. Something is wrong with the system. We need to look again at what is development. How do we bring more happiness in life and security?
“In order to make the state engage in dialogue, we need mass movements which are non party-political. Between silence and violence there is active nonviolence. Most of the time, we are criticising violence, now nonviolence has to become a sharper tool. Violence has become too violent: people who use violence have new methods and say ‘I am willing to die to make you die’. Gandhians and Quakers have to reflect on this. How do we make nonviolence become a more effective tool? We have to scale-up and seek solidarity across the globe. Gandhi said democracy is all about people’s capacity to control the state when power is abused.”
Rajagopal is committed to the politics of serving people, which is very different to the politics of ruling people. “You cannot be a real organiser if you are not rooted into some kind of spiritual base. You draw strength from that base and unless you cultivate this base, there is no strength.”
The Indian government is listening to the marching people. Three years ago Rajagopal led Janadesh (“people’s verdict”) 2007. Walking for nearly a month, 25,000 people covered 340km, each carrying a sack containing a few clothes, a plate and cup and a thin quilt. Extreme exhaustion overcame eight marchers who died and three more were killed by a lorry accident. When the orderly three-mile-long procession arrived in Delhi a government minister met them and promised a new panel would create policies, guide states and monitor land distribution. The government listened and two key policies were changed.
Rajagopal is president of Ekta Parishad (a movement of around 11,000 community-based organisations), which interprets nonviolence in the same way as Gandhi, as an active force in bringing about social change. “Poor people asserting themselves in a nonviolent way, was the key to success of Janadesh,” he says.
The process of mobilising masses of people is a slow, meticulous one. “People are made to think they are nobody. So we need to help change their perceptions. They need to think ‘I know how to harvest, plant and plough and these are important skills. Poverty is man-made and so I can change it.'”
Quakers in Britain have supported Ekta Parishad for a number of years and have delivered training on nonviolence with them through Turning the Tide, a programme of Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW). QPSW hosted Rajagopal’s visit to Britain in August when he was the key speaker at a Quaker conference, “What do we mean by peace?”, and also an enthusiastic gathering of Quakers and other peace activists at Manchester Meeting House.
Reflecting on his visit, Stuart Morton, QPSW programme manager for Asia, said: “We would like as many Friends and their meetings to connect to Rajagopal and Ekta Parishad – so that we can support the work and learn about the human condition in which we are both part of the problem and have the potential to be part of the solution.” Please contact
firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join an email list of those Quakers interested.
The slogan of the march in 2012 will be “Gaon me Jeena durbar he…Chalo ab shahar Ki (Life in the village is impossible…now let us walk to the cities) Gaon do ya shahar do….Hame bhi to jeene do (Give us village or city…allow us to survive).
Satyagraha is a philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance developed by Mahatma Gandhi.
If you would like to financially support QPSW’s South Asia programme, through which we support Ekta Parishad,
020 7663 1112