Interview: Ashok Dhawale, AIKS

‘Manifestation of growing resistance by farmers’

Print edition : April 13, 2018

Ashok Dhawale. Photo: Kabya Lama

Interview with Ashok Dhawale, national president, AIKS.

ON March 12, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) pulled off a major victory. A farmers’ protest rally which began in Nashik grew into a major movement within days. The Long March, as the movement was called, attracted nearly 50,000 farmers. They reached Mumbai to draw attention to the deepening agrarian distress. Dr Ashok Dhawale, national president of the AIKS, spoke to Frontline about the struggle and its impact. Excerpts:

The Long March was a massive show of strength by farmers from across Maharashtra. It is perhaps the biggest such agitation seen in recent years. Could you tell us how the momentum built up and what eventually led to the rally?

There were three major protests that led up to the Long March. In March 2016, the AIKS led a sit-in satyagraha. Around one lakh farmers from all over Maharashtra occupied the main square in Nashik city for two days and two nights. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was forced to call a meeting at which he gave some assurances. However, little was done. It was decided in October 2016 that another big action would be taken. Over 50,000 Adivasi farmers gheraoed the home of Adivasi Development Minister Vishnu Savara at Wada in Palghar district. This was also a two-day, two-night protest. A meeting was held in Mantralaya [the State Secretariat] and the demands of the Adivasi farmers were conceded. This time a government circular was issued. The first time we did not get anything in writing, but this time we insisted on a written assurance. From June 1, 2017, there was an 11-day farmers’ strike in the State demanding loan waiver and remunerative prices. Farmers refused to supply milk, vegetables and fruits to the cities.

This was a joint struggle with other organisations, with the AIKS playing a major role. The Chief Minister tried to buy his way out of the first meeting. Dr Ajit Nawale from the AIKS walked out of it and the AIKS brought other farmers’ organisations together. The Maharashtra bandh held on June 5 in support of the striking farmers was a huge success. The strike continued for 11 days. Eventually, on June 11, five Ministers declared in the full glare of the media that they would give a full loan waiver. Fifteen days later, the government went back on its promise and put several onerous conditions. Following this, on August 14, 2017, close to two lakh farmers blocked roads at 200 places [mainly National and State highways] in 31 districts. They were protesting against the betrayal of the government on loan waiver.

By the beginning of 2018, we had a situation where no demands were met; neither the loan waiver nor remunerative prices nor implementation of the Forest Rights Act [FRA]. Following an extended meeting of the AIKS in Sangli on February 16, it was decided to bring the two streams of struggle, one for land rights and the other for loan waiver and fair prices, together. The Kisan Sabha then took a decision to start the Long March.

Was there any significance in the timing?

Yes, there was. We wanted the State Assembly session to begin. We planned it in such a way that we would reach Mumbai by March 12, a Monday, the beginning of a working week. We started the Long March soon after the Holi festival.

Could you explain the demands in detail and place in context why the agrarian community needs attention now than ever before.

At the first protest, we asked for a complete loan waiver; remunerative prices at one and a half times the cost of production as recommended by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission; implementation of the FRA and drought relief. In October, along with these demands we sought concrete steps for the prevention of malnutrition-related child deaths; generation of employment [under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]; provision of education facilities; and a revamp of the public distribution system [PDS] in Adivasi areas. All these demands were once again brought forward during the Long March.

It is a sad and shameful fact that Maharashtra tops the States as far as suicides of debt-ridden farmers are concerned. As per data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, nearly 75,000 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra owing to the neoliberal policies since 1992. The all-India figure is nearly four lakh farmer suicides since 1992. That is why the two demands of loan waiver and remunerative prices [to prevent farmers from falling repeatedly into the debt trap] have assumed such importance all over the country in recent years.

One of the main demands of the movement was the transfer of land rights in the tribal belt. This would involve environmental and social issues.

It was after a careful consideration of environmental and social issues that Parliament enacted the FRA in 2006, under pressure from 61 Members of Parliament belonging to the Left parties. Tribal people have been cultivating land in forests for generations and have also been preserving the forests for centuries. The FRA, for the first time, gave them land rights for up to four hectares over and above the forest land that they were cultivating. It also gave them rights over minor forest produce. However, although 12 years have passed since the adoption of the Act, the FRA has not been implemented by many States. Only Tripura [when it was under Left rule] and Kerala under the Left Democratic Front have implemented the FRA. In Maharashtra, the struggle for land rights over forest land was started by the AIKS more than 50 years ago and is continuing. It was one of the prime demands of the Long March.

By the time the farmers reached Mumbai, there were an estimated 50,000 protesters. Clearly, this reflects the widespread distress and discontent in the farming community. How did the AIKS mobilise farmers on such a massive scale?

The Long March started in Nashik with 25,000 farmers and ended in Mumbai with over 50,000 farmers drawn from all over the State participating. We concentrated on mobilisation from February 20. The AIKS held meetings in hundreds of villages emphasising the need for protest. We told the farmers that unless they joined the protest in full strength the struggle would have no impact on the government. We distributed leaflets and spread the message across the State. Special credit must be given to J.P. Gavit, seven-time Member of the Legislative Assembly and former State president of the AIKS, who worked relentlessly to mobilise people and encourage them to join the movement. He was joined by the entire AIKS team in the State, which has worked collectively all along. Collective leadership is very important for the lasting success of any struggle.

A protest or struggle comes in all forms. This time we decided to walk the 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai in six days, which means about 30 km of walking a day. AIKS leaders also walked the entire distance along with the farmers.

We are a modest organisation and so the logistics had to be planned carefully. Activists had done recces for night stops. We placed water tankers along the route. Farmers brought rice, dal, oil and firewood. Volunteers cooked food. We had arranged for an ambulance with doctors to stay close to the marchers. Fortunately, there were no casualties. By the time we reached the outskirts of Thane and Mumbai, people began contributing food, footwear and other needs. It was truly heart-warming to see the tremendous support of the working class and the middle class, cutting across the barriers of religion, caste and creed in these cities.

You and the other AIKS leaders who participated in the Long March have said that the spirit and energy of the farmers was inspiring.

There were thousands of women in the march. Their grit and determination was amazing—and also humbling. Many walked barefoot. Yet they marched on.

The rally gained a lot of publicity. Quite unusual at a time when farmers do not make news. This seems to have had an impact on the State government. Your comments.

The print, electronic and social media played a magnificent role. We are indeed grateful to all sections of the media for taking the fight for justice of farmers to the entire country. It began with a video we took of farmers walking down the hill of the Kasara Ghat near Igatpuri on day three. The red banners, red caps and sheer numbers really woke up the press. The video went viral and after that we started getting a lot of coverage. Once the media started publicising it, people across Maharashtra began to join the movement. The message of the march also resonated all over India because the four main demands of this march—loan waiver, remunerative prices, land rights and pensions—were actually the demands of farmers across India.

There were also some burning State issues that we took up. Farmers in all regions are in distress. There has been great loss of the cotton crop in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions owing to the pink bollworm pest attack. It is estimated that cotton worth Rs.12,000 crore has been destroyed. We demanded immediate and adequate compensation. The backward regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada also account for the largest number of farmer suicides in the State. There is the river-linking project in Nashik, Palghar and Thane districts, which will affect thousands of Adivasi farmers as the project will submerge their villages. We gave the government a better alternative. Common issues such as these were a uniting factor for the farming community.

We saw an outpouring of help from the people of Thane and Mumbai.

Yes, the outpouring of public support in urban areas was truly overwhelming. People came out with water, sharbat, biscuits, food and footwear for the marchers. The highlighting of the distress by the media exposed people to the grave agrarian crisis, the fact that these are poor people fighting for justice. Further, the march was completely peaceful, totally democratic and non-violent. This was greatly appreciated.

We came to know that two papers of the 10th standard board examinations were being held on March 12. In order to ensure that the examinations were not disrupted, we walked throughout the day on March 11 and again through the night on March 11/12 to reach Azad Maidan [in south Mumbai] by dawn. We took a short rest after entering Sion from Thane and at around midnight once again started to walk to reach the city. This sensitivity towards schoolchildren was widely acknowledged by people from all over the country.

Leaders of other political parties were seen on the platform at Azad Maidan. Were they trying to get some mileage out of the success of the Long March?

Left parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Peasants and Workers Party and the Communist Party of India supported us from the very beginning. Many top leaders from other political parties such as the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the Republican Party of India, the Samajwadi Party and the Aam Aadmi Party extended their support. The way we saw it was that the support from across the political spectrum strengthened the peasant struggle. Noticeably, the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] was nowhere in this.

Was the outcome of the march agreeable to farmers and AIKS leaders? The Chief Minister has once again given some assurances. Could you comment on the decisions taken?

For the first time, a formal agreement was reached and, on our insistence, a written covering letter to the agreement from the Chief Secretary was given. We also demanded that the agreement between the State government and the AIKS be placed on the floor of the State Assembly the next day. This was done by the Chief Minister. In the past, we were let down by this government; therefore, this was a significant move.

The government has given concrete and time-bound assurances to our demands concerning the implementation of the FRA, loan waiver to farmers, remunerative prices, and issues such as linking of rivers, temple lands, pasture lands, old-age pensions, revamp of the PDS, and compensation to cotton farmers in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions.

There is a larger picture here. At a time when we see less and less of public dissent, the Long March proved that people do have a voice and can be heard. As someone who has participated in numerous rallies, what is your opinion?

Yes, the victory of the Long March has certainly given hope to the country and to all its fighting sections. It has also given a fillip to democracy and secularism. Most important, the sight of thousands of poor peasant women and men, marching relentlessly day after day in the scorching heat, many of them barefoot, bruised and bleeding on tar roads, stirred the conscience of the nation. This made people aware of the economic injustice and social inequality prevailing in the country. I am sure the sight must have made many people want to fight against injustice and inequality.

The Long March should also be seen as an integral part of a movement of farmers that is breaking out all over the country. The march was directed against the anti-farmer, anti-people, pro-corporate, neoliberal policies of the BJP-led Central and State governments. It was a manifestation of the growing resistance of farmers to the deepening agrarian crisis in the country. The success of the Long March will certainly lead to a consolidation of the resistance of farmers all over the country against neoliberal policies of the ruling classes that are leading to their devastation.

Another vital point is that this struggle cuts across all barriers of religion, caste and creed. Farmers came together in unison in this march as a class. In the final analysis, that is the only way to effectively counter the communal, casteist and divisive conspiracies of the BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh regime.

We witnessed the relevance of the Left, which is the only section that fights for the marginalised. What is your next move?

The Left, since its inception, has been committed to fighting not only for farmers but for all economically exploited and socially oppressed sections of society who form the overwhelming majority in the country and the world. Therefore, no matter how many statues of Lenin the reactionaries may vandalise, the relevance of the Left will not only remain, but, I assure you with full confidence, grow in the years to come.

Our next move has been decided at the meeting of the central kisan committee of the AIKS held in New Delhi. We have decided on an unprecedented campaign of collecting 10 crore signatures of farmers from across India to demand full loan waiver and remunerative prices. On August 9, the 76th anniversary of the Quit India Movement, lakhs of farmers led by the AIKS will submit these signatures to every District Collector in the country and conduct a peaceful and democratic countrywide jail “bharo” [courting arrest] agitation on these demands. At the same time, we shall take up through struggles issues relating to land rights and other local demands of peasants all over the country. And we are certain that we shall overcome.

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