Foundation for non-violent action

Gandhian thought had a strong influence on every aspect of Ekta Parishad’s. organizational character. In keeping with Gandhian thought, Rajagopal had internalized Gandhian values that modelled a behaviour that was a crucial component of training. He used all his social actions as way of strengthening his inner self, and in controlling his fears, and egocentric tendencies as a way to become inherently non-violent, and then to demonstrate this to others. Even though Ekta Parishad workers may not necessarily explicitly work on strengthening their inner self, their continued engagement with Ekta Parishad can be seen as implicit process of acquiring spiritual and moral strength necessary to be an effective satyagrahi. Ekta Parishad workers are intentionally paid a nominal stipend for their work that is barely sufficient to meet the everyday expenses of their families. The pay is kept low for a number of reasons. Firstly, it enables the worker to understand the struggles of the population s/he works with. Secondly, this makes the worker focus on minimizing their needs and living within what is necessary for them. There is a constant process of ethical decision-making and self-sacrifice for the worker as s/he has to learn to limit their wants. Thirdly, it reduces the gap between the worker, an external animator (activist) and the target community and community leaders. As the movement is not led by middle-class individuals, this ensures that communities that are affected by structural violence are the leaders and they have a crucial role in the movement. Fourthly, each day is a reaffirmation of the worker’s commitment to the cause of the society over pursuing individual interests. The self-transformation and learning that occurs is that working for minimal pay strengthens the voluntary spirit, which is the foundation on which the leadership of the worker is developed.

The main question for people that carry out non-violent action is: who should be targeted when and how, for achieving what?

Who should be targeted? When EP workers first started working in a village, the ‘who’ emerges from discussion on local issues and it is usually the village elite that has encroached on people’s lands and/or animals, or a contractor who does not pay fair wages, or a government official who wields enormous power in the lives of villagers and is often disrespectful when they approach him/her for services. The process of refining their critical analysis is a learning process that often culminates in the state being one of the target audiences for non-violent action.

Non-violent action or dialogue is not used to polarize the opposition force as a way to prove the rightness of one’s claims. Rather, non-violent action refuses to recognize the perpetuator (in the case of Ekta Parishad, it is the state) and its legitimacy to rule, and therefore continuously pursues non-cooperation tactics that are disruptive without being anarchical. Since the perpetuator is controlling the conditions of social and economic power through force (that is, brute force, money power, partisanship, etc.), the main strategy is to build non-violent resistance at the root of the violent structure. Throughout the non-violent struggle, Ekta Parishad draws attention to the state’s gradual takeover of the land and livelihood resources (also water and forest) on which the majority of poor depend. This is at the heart of the power relations. As India is rapidly industrializing, cheap labour is needed to produce goods and services. This is the basis on which the non-violent action is galvanized.

When, why and how should the non-violent action be carried out? As an example, it could be during election periods or those moments that appeal to the public’s sense of moral responsibility. For purposes of clarification, it is useful to sight an example. In May 2000 Ekta Parishad staged a ‘sit-in’ (dharna) against the State Government pointing out that land grievances were not being adjudicated by the state administration. This sit-in was called while a longer foot-march was going on in another part of the state. Since the foot-march had not got sufficient media coverage in the state capital after four months, a method was needed to bring the issue to the attention of the political decision-makers and the public. On a searing hot day at 43 degrees centigrade in mid-summer, 500 hundred people came together in a sit-in with black umbrellas on which they wrote their slogans in white ink and then proceeded to block the main thoroughfare of the city throughout the day. This was very captivating for the media and the general public and as a result a lot of attention was given to it in the print and the electronic media. So in spite of a foot-march travelling across the state with relatively no media coverage, this one-day sit-in caught the imagination of the political leaders immediately. This tactic of using the “umbrella dharna” meant that the issues “were seen and therefore were heard” and this was instrumental for the government later to set up a Task Force to review all the land claims six months later.

The question of how is by making the state feel constantly uncomfortable through protest and persuasion. This has to be strategically interspersed with the willingness to use extreme non-violent action. The question for what or why this is being done, needs to be constantly reinforced that is, the people have basic democratic rights, and the state’s responsibility is not to obstruct people’s rights, but realize them.

The direction of all non-violent action is to have a leadership that can sustain non-violence even if difficult situations, and to train people to be have a discipline in following non-violent action, whatever the situation. By choosing non-violence, this is resisting the other force (no matter how strong), and the success of non-violent action is to see that the opposing force is by not able to sustain their hold on power over others.