Land Inequality in India: Current patterns of land inequality in India are related to a historically feudal-like caste system of social stratification. When the British colonized India, they used the traditional Zamindari system to facilitate the collection of taxes from Indian peasants. After independence in 1947, the Indian government addressed the problem of rural land inequality by abolishing the Zamindari system, and individual states passed land ceiling acts to limit the amount of land that individuals could own. Nevertheless severe inequalities in the distribution of land remained as powerful landowners used the bureaucracy, as well as cunning or force, to maintain or increase their landholdings despite the reforms. Substantial portions of the rural population are landless Dalits who labor on the land of higher castes. Other Dalits have small plots of land that they have cultivated for years or even generations, however, since many lack an official land title they are subject to having their land confiscated at any time.
Adopting a developmentalist paradigm, the Indian government, with the support of the World Bank, began building large dams to facilitate industrial agriculture. The result was environmental degradation and the displacement of people, often without adequate compensation. Moreover, since the 1990s India has adopted neoliberal economic policies leading to the penetration of transnational agribusiness, which promotes industrial models of farming and pressures states to eliminate land ceilings to facilitate the production of monoculture export commodities such as cotton or rice. The result has been increased land alienation.
Landlessness has also intensified in India as a result of deforestation. Adivasis are increasingly being alienated from forest land due to timber and mining operations and the encroachment of intensive agriculture. Land alienation has also resulted from the Forestry Department taking over land for forest monoculture projects and the setting up of tiger reserves. Typically, people are not adequately compensated, if at all, when displaced from forestland. As a cumulative result of these processes and more, the highest levels of poverty in India are in rural areas among landless Dalits and Adivasis (Sundaram & Tendulkar 2003).
Regime Type in India: India is a (relatively) high-capacity democracy, albeit one with extreme poverty and sharp divisions between caste, class, region, and religion. The Indian Constitution proclaims commitment to an egalitarian social order and the government has in principle shown concern for land inequality, but in practice legal and administrative measures to promote land redistribution or prevent land alienation have not been effective. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, for example, Adivasis have been forced off their land despite the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code of 1959 that banned the transfer of land from Adivasis to non-Adivasis, without the permission of the government, and a more stringent 1976 code that banned all such transfers. Moreover, the Madhya Pradesh Land Ceiling Act, which limits the amount of land an individual can hold, has not been adequately enforced (Ramagundam 2001). As in Brazil, systematic biases in institutional politics, along with corruption and violence, have been used to promote the interests of more powerful groups. In this context, Ekta Parishad emerged to struggle on behalf of small farmers and the landless.
Ideology of Ekta Parishad: Ekta Parishad draws explicitly from the ideas and philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi, with its name, “Unity Forum,” reflecting its Gandhian roots. Gandhi’s conception of society rejected both state capitalism and state socialism, instead favoring a decentralized network of self-reliant and self-governing communities that used property held in trust.
Central to the work of Ekta Parishad are the Gandhian concepts of swadeshi and sarvodaya. Gandhi used the term swadeshi (self-sufficiency) to refer to a way of life based on economic self-reliance, local production, and the meeting of basic human needs (Hardiman 2003: 77-78). It captures Gandhi’s critique of Western industrialization and modernization, which he argued was fundamentally flawed because it encouraged individual greed and led to extreme inequality. Gandhi used the term sarvodaya (welfare of all) to refer to the uplifting of the poorest sectors of society and the leveling of extreme inequalities. The Gandhian idea of people-centered development rejects competition and private property, and embraces local production and self-sufficiency (Bondurant 1988; Das 1979; Vettickal 2002).
In the post-independence era the Indian state distorted and co-opted Gandhism. They claim to be the successor of the freedom struggle, uphold Gandhi as the ‘Father of the Nation,’ and symbolically appropriate the prestige associated with Gandhi’s name (Guha 2000). Nevertheless, inherent in Gandhism is a revolutionary content which if properly used could transform capitalist land use relations (Ramagundam 2001: 125). Similar to how liberation theology has sought to revitalize the revolutionary ideas of early Christianity that promoted social justice, Ekta Parishad attempts to revitalize the original spirit of the revolutionary Gandhi. The founding convener of Ekta Parishad, Rajagopal Puthan Veetil, states,
“There is a need to redefine Gandhi or more correctly understand Gandhi
and his philosophy with honesty. [In] post-independence India state
appropriation of Gandhi has transformed the experimenter from a rebel to
a meek seeker of spirituality. It has been fatal for his legacy. His thoughts
have been mauled and reproduced to suit the state agenda. Any radical
redefinition of Gandhi therefore is seen as un-Gandhian [by the state]”
(quoted in Ramagundam 2001: 40).
Strategy and Tactics of Ekta Parishad: The strategy of Ekta Parishad is that of a mass movement, i.e., it recognizes that substantial change cannot occur by relying on institutional political channels, therefore it mobilizes large numbers of people to engage in militant protest and civil disobedience to pressure the government to address land-related problems.
The mechanism through which Gandhian ideology is translated into action is satyagraha (the power of truth). Satyagraha prescribes nonviolent action in which people refuse to cooperate with laws and social relations perceived to be unjust and willingly suffer the consequences of noncooperation. Along with noncooperation, satyagraha involves constructive programs, i.e., building non-coercive, just, decentralized, and democratic social relations autonomous from oppressive state or economic forces. For example to promote swadeshi, Gandhi organized boycotts of British manufactured cloth and the spinning of khadi. To promote sarvodaya, constructive programs were implemented by Gandhi to improve the lives women, Dalits, and Adivasis, and to promote communal harmony.
A main method used by Ekta Parishad in its satyagraha campaigns to promote land reform is the padyatra. A padyatra is an extended foot march that may last from days to many months. It draws on the cultural tradition of Hindu spiritual pilgrimages, and is used to mobilize the masses to generate pressure against the opponent. Perhaps the most well known padyatra was Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, a 24 day march to the Arabian Sea where he stopped in villages to give talks, rally support, and encourage village officials to resign from their positions in the British administration. The Salt March was part of a broader campaign of civil disobedience that not only challenged the British salt laws but also promoted the mobilization of people into the nonviolent resistance movement against British imperialism (Weber 1997). Since its founding in 1990 Ekta Parishad has organized dozens of small-scale padyatras. Since 1999, Ekta Parishad has undertaken seven major state-wide padyatras, and in 2007 it organized a major padyatra campaign referred to as Janadesh (People’s Verdict) that mobilized 25,000 landless people and supporters in a 350 kilometer march from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi (discussed below).
The padyatra is well suited to the Indian context. Culturally, it is a well-recognized repertoire rooted in Hinduism and politicized by Gandhi. Geographically, it is a useful method for providing a means for communicating with people in rural areas where the network of roads and electricity is sparse. The padyatra has been effective in mobilizing support in isolated rural villages and establishing connections between villages.
Similar to the use of the land occupation by the MST, Ekta Parishad has utilized the padyatra in a highly organized and disciplined manner which requires substantial planning and preparation. Ekta Parishad activists based in the countryside make logistical arrangements concerning the route of the padyatra, and arrangements for feeding and accommodating the marchers. On the eve of the padyatra, a “Declaration of a Satyagraha” is released that declares the intent and purpose of the padyatra. The declaration states the problems that exist concerning land issues, such as land inequality, land alienation, violence against small farmers and the landless, and lack of rural development. The declaration states that repeated appeals concerning land rights to government officials have failed to bring any action, therefore, there is a need for a large-scale mobilization and civil disobedience that the government cannot ignore.
Each state-wide padyatra focuses on the land-related problems in a particular state and begins with a mass rally in a major city that mobilizes thousands of people. At the rally speeches are made by Ekta Parishad activists and movement sympathizers. Following the rally, the padyatra commences, with a core of activists and supporters traveling throughout the countryside from village to village by foot and jeep. In each village where the activists stop a public hearing is held. Ekta Parishad activists write up petitions based on the grievances aired by the villagers. The petitions are collected and Ekta Parishad keeps records of the grievances expressed in each village. By the end of he padyatra, thousands of petitions are collected and submitted to the appropriate officials. Moreover, Ekta Parishad activists prepare a case study for each village visited during the course of the padyatra, summarizing the problems with regard to the distribution of land, land alienation, lack of infrastructure, corruption, and violence.
During the padyatras press releases are made and the media is encouraged to cover the events. Sometimes padyatras involve acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking highways with the march or sit-ins at government buildings. The padyatra ends in the same way that it begins, with a mass rally in a city. Depending on the length, the padyatra will pass through hundreds of villages. The first and longest state-wide padyatra, the six month Madhya Pradesh padyatra in 1999-2000, for example, passed through approximately 1,500 villages.
The impetus driving the organization of Ekta Parishad was the realization that isolated rural struggles are more prone to repression whereas a state and national level presence would empower and protect marginalized rural people. Ekta Parishad emerged in the early 1990s to broker connections between previously unconnected Gandhian organizations dealing with rural development issues. By doing so it provided a network through which their power could be magnified.
As a Gandhian organization, Ekta Parishad adopts nonviolent resistance as a matter of principle. Nevertheless it is strategic in its use of methods of nonviolent action. Ekta Parishad attempts to prevent the escalation of violence by avoiding violent confrontations with the police or gundhas (hired thugs) paid off by landowners or transnational corporations to facilitate the process of land alienation. Like the MST, Ekta Parishad realizes that its comparative advantage is with nonviolent methods of resistance and it prefers to deal with its opponents on its own terms, not on the terms set by its opponents.
Moreover, when violence is used against its activists, Ekta Parishad attempts to publicize the events to promote backfire. For example, in 2001 an Adivasi Ekta Parishad activist in Chhattisgarh was murdered by Forest Department officials engaged in evicting Adivasis from forest land. In an effort to publicize the murder a booklet was produced documenting the violence. The booklet Truth Force: The Land Rights Movement in India, written by an Englishwoman, was published in 2003 by the English NGO Action Village India in association with Ekta Parishad (Drakakis 2003). It has been translated and published in German and Portuguese and distributed in India, Europe, and Brazil. The purpose was to educate people about Ekta Parishad and promote outrage against the violence, both nationally and transnationally.
Ekta Parishad also implements a wide range of methods besides padyatras, such as sit-in fasts (dharnas) at the offices of government officials. It has also organized land occupations, although the tactic has not been used nearly as systematically or extensively as in Brazil, since it is less suited to the Indian context, for a variety of reasons including: (1) more than in other cultures, in Indian culture land provides a spiritual and cultural rooting and identity and is not perceived merely as a means of production; therefore people find it difficult to occupy land in which they have no bond; (2) due to population pressure and the way in which land has been divided, there are not large tracts of unused land in India as there are in Brazil; (3) under the Indian law of eminent domain, the state claims ownership of all land not under private ownership, and hence the scope of unoccupied land is extremely limited; (4) to a greater degree than in rural Brazil, the landlord and the government official are often the same person in rural India; and (5) instances of successful land occupations in which occupiers become legal owners of the land are rare, dissuading others from taking the step (Pimple & Sethi 2005: 245-247). While highly effective in the Brazilian context, the land occupation has failed in other contexts where the strategy was not sufficiently matched with the context (e.g., Baletti, Johnson, & Wolford 2008).
The padyatra, on the other hand, is well suited to the Indian political, cultural, and geographic context. It draws on Hindu culture and the legacy of Gandhi, it is useful for mobilizing people in isolated rural villages, and it is effective in raising public awareness about land alienation and rural violence. In a context where land occupations are not feasible and direct confrontations with landowners are less productive, padyatra campaigns have succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people and forcing the government to address the land problem.
Outcomes: Since 1999 Ekta Parishad has organized seven major state-wide padyatras: (1) Madhya Pradesh (from 10 December 1999 to 18 June 2000), (2) Bihar (11 September to 11 October 2001), (3) Madhya Pradesh (14 April to 2 May 2002), (4) Chhattisgarh (30 January to 25 February 2003), (5) Madhya Pradesh (11 September to 2 October 2003), (6) Orissa (30 January to 24 February 2004), and (7) Chhattisgarh (16 May to 5 June 2005).
Each padyatra has had some level of success. The Madhya Pradesh padyatra in 1999-2000, for example, resulted in the distribution of over 150,000 land plots to landless people, land titles were given to small farmers without titles, and the eviction of tribal people from the forests was halted. Moreover, a statewide task force was organized to examine the problem of landlessness and to suggest mechanisms to redress the issue (Ramagundam 2001). Nevertheless, such task forces only represent a first stage in addressing land issues as the effectiveness of such entities is a function of continued vigilance and pressure by grassroots organizations.
In addition to state-wide padyatras, Ekta Parishad organized the Janadesh campaign that involved a 350 kilometer march from Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi by 25,000 landless people in October 2007. The Janadesh, or “Peoples Verdict” satyagraha, was the largest Gandhian mass mobilization since the struggle for national liberation against British imperialism. From October 2 to October 28, 2007 approximately 25,000 landless people, mostly Dalits and Adivasis, marched 350 kilometers along the national highway from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi. Political rallies and press conferences were held in towns along the way to publicize the event and the issues for which the landless were marching. The campaign received international as well as national media attention. The purpose of the padyatra was to mobilize public awareness about land alienation and rural violence and to put pressure on the government to implement land reform.
Upon reaching New Delhi, the landless people set up an encampment at a fairground. Ekta Parishad then threatened to march to the parliament building and engage in a sit-in and fast (dharna) for an indefinite period until the government agreed to their demands for a new land reform policy. As a result of the pressure, the government accepted the demands of the Janadesh and agreed to organize a National Land Reform Committee headed by the Rural Development Minister with 50% of its members selected by Ekta Parishad. The committee is responsible for drawing up a new National Land Policy and empowered to pressure state governments to enact appropriate land reform legislation. At the time of this writing it is too early to know what concrete reforms will be implemented, but at minimum the Janadesh has succeeded in raising the public’s awareness about land-related problems and conflicts, forced the government to publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of the issues and concerns of the landless, and put land reform on the national agenda (Weedon et al. 2007).