Face-to-Face with violence and non-violence, Rajagopal P.V.

As I look back I can see so many incidents where I came face to face with violence as well as active non-violence. There are too many of them but in this small article, I would like to try to capture some. My biggest encounter with non-violence was when large numbers of dacoits surrendered in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s photograph between 1972-74. Even though many things could have gone wrong while we were preparing for the surrender, ultimately the dacoits did surrender and non-violence succeeded where violence had failed. Guns were piled up on top of each other and dreaded dacoits folded their hands to a large crowd and said good bye to the gun culture. Slowly they walked into the bus to go to a prison where they would have to spend many years before they will be out again. It was an unforgettable sight for all those involved in the surrender, reconciliation and rehabilitation process. This project convinced me about the power of non-violence and gave me the conviction to pursue my life long exploration into non-violence.

My next experience came while I was on a padyatra in Chambal Valley in 1999. After covering many villages for about a month, one evening our team arrived in a village. Winter was just beginning. We had a fire outside and all of us were sitting around the fire talking to the villagers. This was an adivasi village and one after another the villagers started complaining about the atrocities of powerful people. They said that they are planning to leave the village. They did not consider the village safe anymore for their lives. Their land was being occupied by powerful people at gun point, their women were being molested, their animals were being taken away and they were being made to work for no wages by the powerful on lands that were once theirs.  As we were engaged in our discussion we suddenly found a dozen well built men walking towards us with guns on their shoulders. I was anticipating that something unpleasant would happen but I continued my discussion with the local people to give them confidence. Those who came were also made to sit down around the fire place. In their presence, the villagers were not complaining any more. So I could guess that these are the people who are threatening the adivasis. Once everyone settled down I started talking to the villagers and requested them not to leave the village. I said that even in people who we consider are very bad, there are some good aspects. I told them that this padayatra was basically to awaken the good side of human beings and encourage them to protect the weak rather than oppressing them further. I must have said many more things. In a way I wanted to appeal to the people with guns to change their attitude and behaviour. After I spoke there was silence for some time. Then one of the gun men stood up and said “we are sorry for what we have done to the villagers. You will never again hear such complaints from the villagers again. We take the responsibility to protect them.” All others who came with him said almost the same thing. That evening we all ate together and the villagers finally decided not to leave the village but to stay on.

After some days on the same route we were in a village doing a public hearing with the local adivasis. One after another, the adivasis started complaining about a particular person in the village who was occupying their land. Because he had a tractor, he was ploughing all the land and the adivasis are not able to use their land. At the end in my speech in response to the complaints, I made an appeal to the farmer asking him to give away the land of the adivasis and not to invite any confrontation between him and the adivasi families. I also told the adivasis to get organized non-violently to take their land back. The meeting was about to end when I saw a well-built tall man walking towards the dais. I invited him to the dais without knowing who he was but I saw that the adivasis were murmuring amongst themselves. At this point my friend Rakesh told me that this was the man who is occupying the land of the adivasis. To my surprise, I saw him coming towards me with a coconut and Rs 100 in his hand. I stood up to receive the coconut and the money and also hugged him with warmth. He said he wanted to say a few words. So we offered him the mike. In his statement he said he knew that the adivasis are against him and he was sorry for occupying their land and causing them deprivation. He said “I wanted to use this opportunity to announce that I am giving up my control over your land and will be happy to use my article to plough the land of the adivasis free of cost.” This was quite unexpected. None of knew why such a thing happened. Someone later asked him why he decided to give up the land and he said that he knew the padayatra was coming to his village and he also knew that the padayatra was in support of the adivasis. So he was waiting for an opportunity to correct himself in the larger interest. I am always surprised by such incidents. It is difficult to know in which corner of the heart you will suddenly make a positive decision that will surprise even the person taking the decision. The capacity of every individual to suppress the crocodile in oneself and wake up the compassion is an interesting process. The behaviour changes according to who are you feeding, the crocodile or the compassion.

In 2002 when we were on a padyatra in Bihar. One evening about 100 of us who were in the padayatra arrived in a village in Jahanabag district. The village meeting was thinly attended and there was an air of unwelcome. When the meeting began, one retired military man named Laxman stood up and he said all those who are speaking about land reforms or redistribution of land are anti-farmers. He said that these people are creating class conflict in society and as a result the village has decided not to welcome the padayatra. After his long speech, there was a bit of silence. I asked whether I coulc speak a few words before they sent us off from the village. In my short statement I told them two things: 1. In a globalizing world any day their land can be acquired by an industry. They cannot stop it unless they have the farm labourers on their side. The farm labourers will be on their side if they also become small farmers and stay in the village.  So in the larger interest it is better to offer them some land and make them stay in the village rather than pushing them into cities and slums; and 2). I also told them that their produces were bought by the market for a price that the farmers cannot make any profit from. Rather than paying the labourers poor wages because they are defeated in the market, it is better to pay the labourers fair wages and take their help to fight the market.  I must have said a few more things in an effort to convince them that we are not anti-farmers but we are more interested in justice being done to farmers as well as labourers. After I finished my talk Laxman stood up again and this time he was very warm. He said he appreciated the arguments and he thought he was wrong in concluding that we are anti-farmers and that we were there to create class conflict. I remember that Laxman and team not only cooked a good meal for us but also came along in the foot march for the next 1-week to tell the farmers why they should support the padayatra.

Sometime later in Bihar, I was conducting a youth camp for about 100 young people. We were working on a canal project . The young people were having a lot of fun in working together in cleaning a canal that will irrigate the land of small farmers of that village. The program for the day comprised of four hours of manual work and four hours of intellectual discussions.  The intellectual discussions were mainly done in group work and it was organized in a way that the group would make a presentation at the end to the larger plenary and would also prepare a drama in the evening on the same theme. Manual work, songs, games and drama all put together was a lot of fun. The young people learnt non-violent methods to deal with the various problems that they are facing at the village level. During the evaluation on the last day, we were surprised when a young man named Ganesh stood up and said he belonged to an armed group, MCC ,and he came to the camp in order to check what is being taught. He also said that he has now decided to adopt non-violence and devote his full time to work with Ekta Parishad. I couldn’t resist asking him whether his decision would have a negative impact in the group that he is working with at the moment. He was very confident in answering that he was the area commandant of the region and that he could make his own decisions. Since then, Ganesh has been an active worker of Ekta Parishad, very involved in mobilizing people non-violently. If Ganesh can change because of his participation in a youth camp there are 100s of young people who can change provided there are given an opportunity to change.

The village of Madpo is in the district of Navada in Bihar. We were organizing a work camp in order to reconstruct a small dam that was washed away in the flood. About 100 young people from all over Bihar assembled for this work camp and the entire village was also involved not only in the work camp but also in cooking and feeding the young people from outside. We knew that it was a naxal affected area and a particular group had influence and control over the village. Luckily they stayed away when the youth camp was going on. One day a messenger came to us asking whether we needed the help of the armed group in order the blast the rock that we were trying to break. They were trying to help us complete our task of building the dam. Some of us thought that this was good offer. Why should we waste so much of our energy in breaking the rock when they can easily blast it in the night. This led to a small debate in the group where some people thought it is a good idea and others thought it is a wrong idea. I vaguely remember that at around 12′ O clock in the night, we concluded the discussion by saying that the same equipment to blast the rock today will be used to blast a railway track after some days. So it is good not to engage people who believe in violence in a camp where non-violence is being taught. These are the occasions when young people learn to analyze and decide about the appropriateness of methods/means from the lens of non-violence. Much later in 2011, in a large campaign against corruption when young people decided to burn copies of the Lokpal Bill, I couldn’t resist intervening and saying that the culture of burning may not be a good beginning for youngsters in a non-violent social movement.  What is temporarily good may not necessarily be good in the long run. Practitioners of non-violence will have to balance between short-term and long-term perspectives.

Let me now recollect some of those incidents where I faced violence in its naked form. This was back in 1971. Soon after we started our work in the Chambal Valley, our ashram was away from this small town called Joura. One winter night I could hear some noise outside my room in which I along with my two fellow inmates of ashram were sleeping. Thinking that someone has come late in the night to the ashram, I opened the door . As I stepped out of the door, I saw 3-4 people rushing towards me with a gun. They caught hold of me and tied my hands behind my back. Some of them started beating and kicking me. Listening to my screams, other inmates of the ashram also came out and they were also treated in the same manner. After thrashing us for some time they pushed all of us into the same room and locked the room from outside. In the morning when the milkman came he got us out of the room  by unlocking the room. After this incident many local people who were friends of the ashram repeatedly requested us not to stay in the ashram during the night but to sleep in the town. For us it was important to continue to stay in the ashram and prove that by using force and violence nobody can drive us away. Interestingly, this was the same venue where the mass surrender of dacoits took place about 1-1/2 years later.

It was back in 1998 that Gangaram was killed. Gangaram was a bonded labour in Chambal valley like many other adivasis. It was during a youth training program in Sheopur that many adivasis told me that they have no permission to leave their village as they are under bondage. That led to a huge operation by social workers to release hundreds of bonded labourers from bondage of big farmers. Gangaram and twenty others were given a piece of land as part of their rehabilitation package. But this was not acceptable to the powerful people in that area. How can these adivasis who were like slaves until yesterday become land-owners was the question bothering many of the poweful people in villages. While the adivasis were preparing their lands for cultivation, the powerful groups attacked them. This was a severe attack and many were bleeding. Gangaram died on the spot and others were rushed to the hospital. It was the second of October and I got a telephone call asking me to rush to Sheopur to attend the funeral. After the funeral I was face-to-face with Gangaram’s wife and children. She was crying. Deep in my mind I knew that the sacrifice that Gangaram made is one important step in the liberation of highly oppressed adivasis of Sheopur. But  I also knew that the violence of that scale will demoralize adivasis. Directing a change process without losing life is a challenge that I was always faced with.

During Janadesh in October 2007, when 25000 people were walking to Delhi demanding land and livelihood resources, a truck ran into our rally. 3 people died on the spot. For some time I did not know how to respond. Looking at the body of your comrades spread in pieces all over the road is the most painful thing that can happen to anybody. Putting the body in honourable fashion for last rituals on one hand and controlling a group of 25000 people and their emotions on the other hand is a challenging time even for the most experienced non-violent activist. I did not know how people would respond when they were face-to-face with such violence where 3 of their comrades were killed. Looking back nowt I feel all the more convinced about the importance of non-violent training to your people before we initiate any large action in which there is a potential for violent incidents. Unless people are trained to deal with violence non-violently there is always an in-build danger that people will respond emotionally and that response can be violent.

Back in 1999, we were on a padyatra covering a distance of 3500 km from the border of Rajasthan to the border of Orissa. This was our non-violent response to large number of evictions in the name of dams and national parks in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Our initiative as a movement was to inspire enough confidence among the adivasis to occupy their lands as a reaction to eviction.  One evening, the padyatra arrived in front of a liquor shop which the local women were protesting against. As we moved closer to the shop one or two men walked out and the local women told us that they are the teachers of the school. Even before I could do anything, some young people from my group under the leadership of Kanta and Gokaran moved into the shop and broke everything. It took some time for me to control the situation. The people in the small town started rushing to the place where the incident took place. After a small speech to the audience we decided to talk to the rest-house where we were resting for the day. We were sure that the shop owner would file a complaint with the police station and the police would come to arrest some of us. Though I was not happy about the incident itself and I did not like the way my team members behaved I was faced with a moral question. So I asked the local organizers to tell the police station that if at all they want to hold some one responsible they should hold me responsible and arrest me since I wash the leader of the team. Probably the police did not want to interfere with the yatra and the next day morning, we walked to our next destination. Later on I understood that Gokaran and Kanta had a family background were alcohol played a negative role in their lives and it was natural for them to react in that fashion. That brought a new dimension to my thinking. People who are victims of oppression and abuse may tend to react violently when they get an opportunity unless they are trained otherwise.

Every one of us comes face-to-face with violence and non-violence. Each one of these incidents can teach us a new lesson. Even the most unpleasant incidents can become an important lesson in your search for a non-violent solution to the problem. This may immediately create a lot of conflict within our own mind but a process of reflection on why such a thing happened or why a particular individual behaved in a specific fashion at a particular instance will answer many of our anxieties. Like a child will have to fall many times before he or she can walk properly,  or like a cyclist who has to fall few times before she can start cycling without falling, someone who is in search of non-violent solutions will have to face many conflicting situations before she learns to resolve the conflict of others. Similarly one has to learn to resolve small conflicts before trying to resolve larger conflicts. This is a time consuming process and I believe there is no short-cut.

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