Sharad Joshi: Son of the soil

Sharad Anantrao Joshi (1935-2015) was an inspiring leader who never lost focus when it came to the welfare of farmers.

Published : Dec 23, 2015 12:30 IST

March 31, 1993: A rally organised by the Shetkari Sanghatana in Delhi.

March 31, 1993: A rally organised by the Shetkari Sanghatana in Delhi.

SHARAD JOSHI’S life was sprinkled with notable events, but one particular incident, for its sheer magnitude, encapsulates the man’s facility for power, competence and extravagant show.

In 1986, Chandwad village of Nasik district in Maharashtra was witness to a gathering of over two lakh peasant women. For weeks ahead of the meeting, posters had come up depicting a peasant woman carrying her tools and her baby on her back. The headline on the poster came from a stirring Independence-era song in Marathi that asked “How long must I go on dying?” with the strapline providing the answer: “ Stri Shaktichya Jagarat Stri-Purush Mukti ”… (when the power of women is awakened both men and women are liberated). It was like a war cry to the hundreds of thousands gathered and a throwback to an earlier era when a queen from Chandwad battled fiercely for her kingdom even after her husband was killed.

The massive event was orchestrated by Joshi and his Shetkari Sanghatana. With typical flair, he gave a new twist to an old theme, injecting fresh life into it and stirring up people. Feminists and leftists had all along been saying the same thing as he was—that peasants and women should act in a united manner—but Joshi took all the three threads and wove a seemingly new idea. Focussing just on peasant women, he urged the sisterhood to join forces saying they held the power of liberating themselves and all of their socio-economic class.

The idea caught on like wildfire and Joshi pumped it for all it was worth. The Chandwad meet was a huge success and the controversies it generated were lapped up by the media. Fuelled by his success, Joshi hit out at what he saw were less effective power groups—feminists and leftists. Despite similarities in outlook and ideals, Joshi was at loggerheads with the Left, referring to its leaders as “tankless generals”. Feminists, too, were at the receiving end of his sniping. He tried to get them to rally around his cause by telling them to ditch the “sinking ship of Marxism”.

In the euphoria of the time, many questions were not asked, and in retrospect, Joshi’s exalted role as a male leader of women is now sometimes seen in a different light. But none of this takes away from the fact that Chandwad was an awakening that got the fiery Joshi and his women’s organisation, Shetkari Mahila Aghadi (which is the largest organisation of rural women), considerable headlines. That he held fiercely to his viewpoints was proven a couple of decades later when he was the only member of the Rajya Sabha to vote against the Women’s Reservation Bill in 2010. (He was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 2004 to 2010.) His argument was that women should be made electorally robust at the panchayat level before reservation was introduced at the national level. Otherwise, they would be made puppets and their long-term upliftment would collapse, he said. Chandwad highlighted a key characteristic of Joshi as a man of many parts and many controversies, but all held together by great passion.

One of Maharashtra’s acclaimed political leaders, Joshi was a good student and had a brilliant career as an academic and a professional. Born in Satara, Joshi had his formal education in Mumbai after which he taught economics for while in Savitribai Phule Pune University. Later he joined the Indian Postal Services, which he then quit to work with the international bureau of the United Nations Chief Informatics Service in Berne, Switzerland. After a 10-year stint, he returned to India.

Public life

His public life truly began when he founded the Shetkari Sanghatana in 1970, an all-Maharashtra farmers’ organisation which promised farmers “freedom of access to markets and to technology”. Moved by the plight of farmers, essentially tillers, who were exploited when it came to getting the best price for their produce, Joshi campaigned to link production costs with the market price of the farm produce.

In his typical style, Joshi immersed himself in the problem before emerging with a solution. He bought land in Pune district and became a farmer. His own land was rain-fed and he understood the travails of the majority of farmers who barely survived without irrigation. His response to the problem was to agitate. During the infamous agitation of 1989, when onion farmers grew violent and burnt public property at a railway station, Joshi was right there in the fray and took it to fever pitch, blocking the Pune-Nasik highway for nine days. Needless to say, their demand for better prices was acceded to. The tactic became his trademark, and cane, soya, wheat and cotton farmers too benefited from it. It was part of the ironies of his life and belief that though he fought ardently in the interests of farmers, his training as an economist and his affinity with technology made him lean towards agricultural biotechnology.

Joshi was a firm believer in economic liberalisation. He disapproved of the state-imposed obligation for farmers to sell via the local Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees, saying that they should be allowed to sell wherever they got the best price and that they should be allowed to determine their own price. His beliefs extended to both the domestic and export markets. Catching on to the mood of the time, he advocated special economic zones in areas such as organic farming, medicinal plants and the manufacture of hybrid seeds. Mindful of international standards, he spoke of the need for credible agencies to certify the produce from organic farms. Although a proponent of liberalisation, he wanted the domestic market to be protected from the international market. To some people, this was typical of his contrary nature, but it was also part of his commitment that he did not lose focus when it came to the welfare of farmers.

Political entry

Although the Shetkari Sanghatana kept up its work, Joshi realised that it had its limits because of its apolitical nature, especially in a State like Maharashtra where the fate of farmers was linked to political powerhouses. To counter this, he formed his own political party, the Swatantra Bharat Paksh, in 1994, hoping that it would unite farmers and give them a political voice. But the game changed as soon as politics entered the picture. When the fight was a socio-economic one, farmers were ready to come under one umbrella, but when politics entered the picture, so did its accompanying companions of caste, region, cooperatives, and so on. His fervour aside, Joshi was out of his league fighting old established practices in bastions that Maharashtra’s politicians guarded carefully. He was defeated twice in elections. In 2004, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Bharatiya Janata Party. This caused strife within his party, and his faithful deputies quarrelled with him and branched out on their own.

Although his interest and ideals ranged far and wide in his later political years, Joshi nevertheless was the guiding light for those who continue the work he started. People like Raju Shetti and Raghunath Patil, both farmers and leaders in Maharashtra, are at the forefront of the fight for the rights of agriculturists and agricultural labour. His passionate devotion to this cause resulted in a sociopolitical awakening of farmers. His work was even acknowledged by politicians of a different hue. After his death, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis tweeted: “Am saddened by the demise of an advocate, an activist and a leader of farmers whose struggle for better marketing facilities and new farm technologies will be remembered.” And his legacy is summed up by the psephologist and former Aam Admi Party leader Yogendra Yadav when he called him “a visionary, a passionate advocate of farmers and an inspiring leader”.

Joshi was 80 when he died of prostate cancer. He was given a state funeral. He is survived by his two daughters.

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