Being in Janadesh

Being with 25,000 people last year on the Janadesh March for 28 days on the national highway in India for a month was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. As I reflect back on this one-year anniversary –back to October 2nd, 2007, I still marvel at how these people that I had worked with for a decade could build up this movement, and be the architects of one of the biggest non-violent actions that has ever taken place in the world. Having been there to watch this amazing social experiment unfold day after day for a month, I can never forget the unparalleled determination that these people had demonstrated in standing up for their rights non-violently.

In evaluating the achievements in the aftermath of the Janadesh march in the last one year, did it yield some results? The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh did set in motion a Land Council that is set to implement a land reforms policy and his government is currently engaging legislators in political debate. The March has helped the government to implement rehabilitation legislation and a tribal land bill. But more important than policy change has been that the people have become emboldened. These people who actively participated in the march are now working daily to influence their state officials, their local communities, their representatives and they are all doing this using active non-violence.

The non-violent training that people have received is from Ekta Parishad (known in English as Unity Forum) has been two decades of work. This brand of Gandhian formation is rigorous and based on acts of service and voluntary sacrifice. The attribute of being able to withstand pain and difficulty with patience is believed to be a necessary condition for resisting injustice in the society. The more unjust the society, the more one has to have internal strength. The leaders have had to exemplify these virtues to the local people so that they could build a collective resistance and therefore a sufficient social power to be effective at counteracting the state.

Building a non-violent movement among the poor is a slow process that needs to go at the speed of the people in the movement. They needed to imbibe and act out a vision that they saw as their own. The two primary building blocks are awareness raising or conscientization of villagers around control of livelihood resources that has to be acted out in marches or sit-ins or other forms of civil protest; and secondly, leadership training, specifically of youth and women. Once this is achieved, then having various middle-class support groups is vital for sustaining the movement.

Conscientization and Non-Violence

What is noteworthy about Ekta Parishad is that it defied the myth that it is easier for affluent people to be non-violent. Those without livelihood, land and access to resources would find it harder to be non-violent because they are entrapped in conditions that do not allow them to freely seek a peaceful life. Moreover, there is a clear inequity in resource distribution, which means that for many, they are losing while others are gaining. How can poor people sit quiet? Such a sense of injustice could justify aggressive back-lash and violence. In the case of Ekta Parishad, people are gaining through non-violent action. The gain is measured not only in terms of material benefits but also in terms of mitigating the effects of violence that are occurring on them.

A good example of this is Gangaram who came to the Janadesh after having a life of intense struggle against the feudal system wherein his whole family was bonded to different landlords. Gangaram was a bonded labourer for four decades and he was expected to do backbreaking work, being paid roughly 500 rupees annually (equivalent to 20 Canadian dollars).  In 1995, Ekta Parishad released Gangaram and his brothers from bondage and then they were rehabilitated along with 28 families on a 50-acre piece of land that was formerly a Dairy development site in northwestern India. The life after his release in 1995 was completely different; he went from not speaking to anyone, to becoming an articulate senior leader for Ekta Parishad in Sheopur fighting for the rights of other members if his community.

Not only are these 28 families engaged in farming on their land and living peacefully, but they are actively engaged in non-violence helping other families with the conscientization that is necessary to shift land relations in favour of the poor in a way that persuades and minimizes the retaliation.

Non-Violent Leadership Training

In the non-violent leadership training of rural youth, people are respected for the knowledge they have cultivated. People are able to speak without reprisal. There is little emphasis on reading and writing. The main communication is through manual work, through song and plays, and through social action planning and discussions. The main area of study is to understand the unequal power relations, especially with regard to livelihood resources (land, water, and forests) on which rural people depend. This is done showing the youth different kinds of methods of non-violent resistance that can be taken up in certain circumstances. The youth are then encouraged to practice this social action in their village areas. All of the training is done in a spirit of collegiality, making it non-threatening to the political and status quo forces.

In spite of their training in non-violence, the young people would soon find a resistance to their demands by the vested interests in their villages. Many cases exist of young people having to bear the onslaught of resistance, in some cases incarceration and in others they were jailed for varying lengths of time. The young people work on accepting difficulties and remaining patient and non-retaliatory. In response to all these situations strategies were developed so as to spread out the struggle geographically so that a group of oppressors could not contain the struggle to any one area.

Returning to the Janadesh march to give an illustration of non-violent leadership, o the 18th day of the March, three tribal leaders were readying themselves for the day’s activities when a truck veered from its side of the road crossed over the barrier and ran over them dying instantly. These fatalities left the group of thousands of people who were marching without anger; they did not apprehend the driver that had committed this crime.  Nor did they halt the march and return home. Knowing what is expected of them in a non-violent struggle, they carried on for the sake of the three martyrs and their families and showed their respect for those who had died. This is an illustration of non-violent leadership training.

A Canadian Perspective on Non-Violent Leadership

As a Canadian on the Janadesh March, I found it hard to eat barely once a day and that too always after everyone else had eaten. I had to sleep when the work was done –often less than four hours a night on a busy highway, and then to be awakened early for an active day involving walking and talking to the press and special guests, directing actions of events and meetings, working with people’s issues of sickness and community life. It was one of the most intensely challenging jobs that I have had to face in my entire life, but it was life-changing.

As the march progressed, initially I thought less of myself for not being able to keep the same high spiritedness as some of the other Indian leaders, and then it dawned on me that this was my formation in leadership of a social movement. I was not the leader but a part of the leadership. This was an opportunity to experience leadership in which one person was not imposing his/her will on others but where people are ennobled to carry out their tasks for others. This kind of leadership did not give into other peoples desires. I found that this kind of non-violent leadership required a different skill-set, but it certainly was effective in resistance systemic injustice.