MAHARASHTRA Kisan Long March: A Remarkable Struggle

Ashok Dhawale

ON October 3-4, 2016, over 50,000 adivasi peasants, women, youth and students from various tribal districts of Maharashtra held a gherao of the house of the BJP tribal development minister at the sub divisional centre of Wada in Palghar district. The struggle was jointly led by the AIKS, AIDWA, DYFI, SFI and AARM. The main issues were the stringent and immediate implementation of the Forest Rights Act, malnutrition-related tribal child deaths, work and wages under MNREGA, the plight of the PDS, health services and the educational problems of tribal students.

The gherao continued for 16 hours and all highways leading from Wada to Mumbai, Thane, Bhiwandi, Palghar, Dahanu, Talasari, Surat and Nashik were completely blocked. The minister had fled a day before in fear of this action. When the people refused to move, the minister had to send the state tribal development commissioner for talks with the delegation and had to send a fax agreeing to a high-powered meeting in the state secretariat at Mumbai on October 7. It was only after a four-hour nightlong discussion with the commissioner, where he conceded many demands, that the gherao was lifted at dawn on October 4 with a huge public meeting.

The meeting of the delegation with the tribal development minister and officials of tribal districts took place in Mumbai on October 7. The minister was forced to concede several long-standing demands. The minutes of the meeting and a special government circular were released to all concerned officials in the state, which put the demands conceded in writing. This struggle resulted in a major victory. There was some initial progress in implementation, but it then floundered.

On May 11, 2017, the AIKS organised an ‘Aasood’ (whipcord) state convention followed by the ‘Aasood’ state rally to the house of the state agriculture minister at Khamgaon in Vidarbha region to focus on the issues of peasant suicides, loan waiver and remunerative prices. All these independent struggles over two years put the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha for the first time in the mainstream of the peasant movement in the state and helped it to become a key constituent of the united peasant struggle that began in June 2017.

Historic Farmers’ Strike

In the historic united farmers strike that lasted for 11 days from June 1-11, 2017, the AIKS played a crucial role. Farmers refused to get their milk, vegetables and fruits for sale in the markets in the cities. The AIKS took the lead in bringing other farmers’ organisations together to continue the strike when some blacklegs tried a sell-out in a midnight meeting with the chief minister on June 2/3. Due to his role in opposing this sell-out at that meeting, AIKS state general secretary Ajit Nawale was elected convenor of the Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Organisations. A massive joint Maharashtra bandh was successfully held on June 5 to support the farmers strike, followed by other large mass actions.

On June 11, a group of five ministers of the state government was forced to hold talks with the Coordination Committee and they publicly agreed to give a complete loan waiver to the peasantry. But within a fortnight, although it announced a deceptive loan waiver package of Rs 34,000 crore and a waiver of up to Rs 1.5 lakh per farmer, it betrayed its promise of a complete loan waiver and imposed several onerous conditions that would leave a great majority of farmers out of the loan waiver orbit.

Massive joint agitations were held against this betrayal, including a united campaign tour of 15 large district conventions in July that mobilised over 40,000 farmers despite the monsoons and a state-wide  road blockade on August 14 in which over two lakh farmers blocked national and state highways at over 200 centres in 31 districts of the state. The AIKS participation in this joint road blockade action was the largest - over 85,000.

By a conscious decision, all the above independent and united struggles by the AIKS were peaceful and disciplined. Throughout the campaign for all these struggles, apart from concentrating fire on the BJP-Shiv Sena state government, the BJP-led central government of Narendra Modi was also severely castigated for its policies.   When the state government refused to relent on both the crucial aspects of loan waiver and land rights, the AIKS took the decision of the Long March and the Assembly Gherao.

Two shocking objective facts explain the massive peasant response to all these struggles.

One, the question of farmers’ suicides. Since the advent of neoliberal policies in agriculture begun by the Congress government in 1991 and carried forward with great speed by successive Congress and BJP governments – the Modi government being the worst culprit – 4,00,000 debt-ridden farmers in India have been forced to commit suicide in the past 25 years, with Maharashtra accounting for nearly 75,000 peasant suicides in the same period.

Two, the question of starvation of adivasi children. Thousands of adivasi children in the state, and also all over the country, die every year due to malnutrition and starvation. These facts reflect the deepening agrarian crisis and distress.

Preparations for Long March

AIKS state council meeting on February 16, decided to hold the long march and meticulous preparations for this enormous endeavour began. There were barely three weeks as the march began on March 6. The state assembly would be in session.

The most important task was mobilisation of peasants. Hundreds of meetings were held in the villages, thousands of leaflets were distributed, and registration drives were conducted. A press conference was held in Mumbai on February 21 and at Nashik on March 2 to publicise the long march.

The question has often been asked - how were the logistics of the long march dealt with? Rice, dal, chillies, oil and firewood for the food of the participants was collected by peasants from the villages themselves and was stored in several tempos. The tempos used to go ahead of the marchers and volunteers would cook and keep the food ready for the marchers when they reached the designated spots every day for lunch and dinner. Hired water tankers for drinking were stationed at various points along the way. An ambulance with a doctors’ team of Kisan Sabha sympathisers and the necessary medicines collected by the CITU-affiliated Medical Representatives Union were kept along with the long march. AIKS state and Nashik district office bearers made three reconnaissance trips from Nashik to Mumbai and back to decide on the appropriate places to have lunch, dinner and to rest in the night. This was in itself a difficult task.

The marchers walked an average of 30 to 35 km per day in the scorching sun and on the second last day, the distance that had to be covered stretched to 43 km! All AIKS leaders walked with the peasants throughout.

There were thousands of women in the march. Their grit and determination was amazing – and also humbling. Many of them walked barefoot, with bruised and bleeding feet. These women were specially lauded and saluted.

The way that tens of thousands of poor and landless peasants marched relentlessly with determination 30 to 35 Km per day for seven days in scorching heat, hundreds of them barefoot, bruised and bleeding on tar roads, stirred the conscience of the nation. It evoked not only massive public support for their cause, but also massive public anger against the callous and insensitive BJP-led state government. It made people aware of the economic injustice and social inequality prevailing in the country. This sight must have made many people want to fight against injustice and inequality.

During and after the strenuous march every night, hundreds of men and women still had the energy to sing and dance to the tune of their quaint musical instruments. Culture was an inseparable part of their lives. That they did this night after night despite all the physical exertion was indeed admirable and it enthused all others too.

Overwhelming Response

The people responded with great love and appreciation for the long march. People from the working-class and the middle-class – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits – welcomed the march with open arms in several localities. Groups of hundreds of people, including youth and women in large numbers, congregated at various spots en route to felicitate the marchers. They donated generously – both in cash and in kind. Ordinary people came forward to give us water, sharbat, biscuits, food and even footwear. In my 40 years of life in the Left movement, I must admit that I have never come across such a spontaneous outpouring of support and solidarity.

The reason for their solidarity in their own words was, “We are also the children of farmers; our roots lie in the villages; we know the plight of farmers; and that is why we have come out in your support.” 

The biggest and most spontaneous reception was in the dalit locality of Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar at Ghatkopar in Mumbai, the very place that had seen the shooting down of 11 dalits in police firing under the BJP-Shiv Sena regime 20 years ago. The dabbawalas of Mumbai also contributed to the cause. In the most touching move, farmers from Raigad district under the leadership of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) brought 1.5 lakh rice bhakris and dry fish for the marchers on the last day at Azad Maidan. The CITU, AIDWA, DYFI and SFI in Mumbai and Thane-Palghar districts launched a campaign amongst the people in support of this long march, but the mass response went far beyond that. This response of the people further steeled the marchers in their resolve.

The CPI(M) Maharashtra state committee had given full support right from the beginning. Another Left party, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) had also supported it throughout. CPI leaders were present at Nashik to greet the march when it began. All other political parties except the BJP – viz. Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Samajwadi, Republican, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and also the Shiv Sena, which is a partner in the state government, openly supported the Kisan Sabha long march and their top leaders either joined the march for a time or pledged their support when it had stopped for the night at Sion or when it culminated at Azad Maidan. The massive response of the people and the media was the key reason for this unprecedented support of many unlikely forces right across the political spectrum.

The print, electronic and social media all over the country played a magnificent role. That highlighted not only the march but also the deep agrarian crisis and burning peasant issues with relevance for the whole country.

Sensitive Decision

The Kisan Sabha leadership took the sensitive and humanitarian decision of walking day and night on the last day, from 11 am on March 11 when the march started from Thane city to 6 am on March 12 when it reached Azad Maidan in the heart of south Mumbai. This decision was taken to avoid the inevitable traffic snarls on March 12 that would surely have disrupted the final board examinations of tens of thousands of SSC students in Mumbai and would have led to the loss of a precious year in their lives. Tens of thousands of peasants took this decision democratically, at the suggestion placed by J P Gavit, by a massive and unanimous show of hands on the night of March 11 when they reached the Somaiya Maidan at Sion in Mumbai city. Their noble sentiments were expressed in these memorable words, ‘It does not matter if we have to suffer some more, but we will not let our children in Mumbai suffer.’ They had their dinner, rested for an hour or two, and restarted their march to Mumbai after midnight, reaching their destination at dawn. This gesture drew the unstinted admiration of people not only in Mumbai, but all across the country.

Government Concedes

All this put tremendous pressure on the BJP-led state government. Actually, the state government had not bothered to make any contact with the marchers till March 11, the penultimate day of the march, when their state irrigation minister Girish Mahajan met the leaders during the march itself and the memorandum of demands was handed over to him. Initially, before the march began, they had almost certainly underestimated its likely size. Later, the massive response to the long march of the peasantry, the people and the media, which they had least expected, shocked them into taking action.

On March 12, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, ministers Chandrakant Patil, Girish Mahajan, Eknath Shinde, Pandurang Fundkar, Subhash Deshmukh and Vishnu Savra, along with a battery of top officials of various departments, held a three-hour discussion with Kisan Sabha leaders in the Vidhan Bhavan. Also present were leaders of the opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil (Congress), Dhananjay Munde, Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare (NCP).

General secretary of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) Jayant Patil, MLC, who had helped the Kisan Sabha struggle all along, and state president of the Janata Dal (Sharad Yadav group), Kapil Patil, MLC, were also present during the discussions.

The Kisan Sabha delegation included Dr Ashok Dhawale, J P Gavit, MLA, CITU former state president Narasayya Adam, ex-MLA, Kisan Gujar, Dr Ajit Nawale, Subhash Choudhari, Savliram Pawar, Sunil Malusare, Irfan Shaikh, Ratan Budhar, Barkya Mangat, Radka Kalangda, Umesh Deshmukh, Sidhappa Kalshetty, Vilas Babar and DYFI state vice president Indrajeet Gavit. These were AIKS state office bearers who actually walked in the Long March, along with AIAWU state leader Manohar Muley and CITU state leader Vinod Nikole.

 

In the light of the earlier bitter experiences with the present government, the Kisan Sabha had taken the clear position right in the beginning that it would not withdraw this struggle without official written assurances. These written assurances on all the demands were given within an hour of the conclusion of the talks, with the signature of the chief secretary of the state government. Three ministers of the state government came on their own to the victory rally at Azad Maidan and pledged to implement the agreement that had been reached. The Kisan Sabha also insisted that the agreement arrived at should be placed on the table of the house by the chief minister in the state assembly that was then in session. Accordingly, the chief minister tabled that agreement in the house on March 13.

Concrete time-bound written assurances have been given by the government on AIKS demands concerning the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), river linking proposal adversely affecting tribals in Nashik, Palghar and Thane districts, loan waiver to farmers, mechanism for remunerative prices, vesting of temple lands, regularising houses on pasture lands, no land acquisition without consent, increase in old-age pensions, improving the public distribution system and compensation to lakhs of farmers in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions who have suffered huge losses of the cotton crop due to pink bollworm pest attacks, hailstorms and other issues. The agreement reached on March 12 between the Government of Maharashtra and the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha has been published in People’s Democracy and Loklahar.

Resounding Victory Rally

A resounding victory rally of over 50,000 farmers was held at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on the evening of March 12.

All the farmers left Mumbai on the night of March 12, with tremendous confidence generated by this victory, buttressed with deep gratitude towards the people of the city, the state and the country who had supported them to the hilt in this struggle. The massive nationwide public response to this long march was a tribute to the valiant, peaceful, democratic and unprecedented struggle waged by tens of thousands of peasants under the collective leadership of the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha.

A Battle Won, The War Remains

This massive response was also a reflection of the fact that the demands of land rights, loan waiver, remunerative prices and pension, which were essentially directed against the neo-liberal policies of the BJP-led governments in the state and at the centre, were in fact the demands of the peasantry of India as a whole. The long march was an integral part of a movement of farmers that is breaking out all over the country. We have seen the huge and consistent Kisan Sabha-led farmers’ struggles in Rajasthan and elsewhere in the country. We have seen the major united actions led by broad platforms like the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan (BAA) and the Kisan Sansad and Mahila Kisan Sansad organised in Delhi last November by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).

The AIKS central kisan committee has decided to broaden and intensify this struggle all over the country. We have decided on an unprecedented campaign of collecting 10 crore signatures of farmers and all citizens across India to demand a loan waiver, remunerative prices, land rights, pension and comprehensive crop insurance. On August 9, the 76th anniversary of the Quit India Movement, lakhs of farmers in the country will submit these signatures to every district collector and will then conduct a peaceful and democratic countrywide jail bharo agitation on these demands. The slogan will be: Just as Mahatma Gandhi told the rapacious British imperialists to Quit India, so also the farmers of the country will tell the anti-farmer, pro-corporate, communal, casteist and divisive Modi-led BJP government to Quit India!

One more major decision taken is to organise a massive countrywide Mazdoor-Kisan Rally in Delhi onSeptember 5, 2018, jointly by the CITU, AIKS and AIAWU.

Another crucial gain of this long march was that the peasantry struggled together as a class, rising above the divisions of religion, caste and creed. The massive peoples’ solidarity with it also cut across all these barriers. It showed that, in the last analysis, class struggle and class solidarity is the only way to fight back the dark forces of communalism and casteism.

 

 

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