The last four years of the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been marked by various forms of agitations. One agitation by a group of citizens destroyed public property worth millions of rupees; another group came out to defend the rapist of an eight-year-old child; one came out to defend a fake guru; another came out to lynch members of minority groups; and then there are citizen groups that call themselves senas (armies) and can practically have their way about anything they take a fancy to.
What’s common to many of these agitating groups is the fact that they had violent intent. Rampant violence and aggressive posturing are used as instruments to intimidate civil society, the government, and, almost always, minorities.
They also understand how to manage the media very well. Given how selective and biased the Indian media have been in the last few years, these agitators know that unleashing violence is a sure way of staying in the spotlight. Nothing gets the nation’s attention like burning cars, bloodied faces, flogging of naked bodies and scared little children huddled inside a bus.
And, then, one day, a huge group of citizens decided to hit the streets. More than 45,000 farmers walked more than 200 kilometers on foot. It took them six days in soaring temperatures to traverse through the Maharashtra countryside.
They didn’t make it into news initially. When they finally did, a member of Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called them “urban Maoists.” The chief minister of Maharashtra state called them “landless tribals.” When the media finally took note, they counted the water bottles, biscuit packets and flags in the hands of the marchers and held debates on who was paying for them. By the time they reached Mumbai, a certain section had branded them as leftists, Marxists, Leninists and criminals with a sinister agenda.
This citizens’ group of more than 45,000 did not react to these reports or indulge in name-calling. Not a single one of those thousands lost control. No one thought of yelling threats into the camera and putting them on social media. They had their backs against the wall and were fighting for their basic livelihoods.
So what explains this restraint? Why go through so much self-inflicted pain? Why is it that the only photos that went viral were of bleeding feet with soles of their feet peeled off?
The farmers struck a chord with the very people who, the media claimed, would be inconvenienced by the march. These people rejected the media’s propaganda and instead came out in support
Non-violence and self-inflicted pain are not old political tools. They are pretty modern and were refined into a fine art by Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi. It was not surprising that to many, this march reminded them of Gandhi’s Dandi March, which he undertook in 1930 to protest against taxes imposed by the British colonial government.
The people who lined up to meet the farmers along the way were not different from those who greeted Gandhi decades ago on the way to Dandi, a village in what is now Gujarat state. The farmers struck a chord with the very people who, the media claimed, would be inconvenienced by the march. These people rejected the media’s propaganda and instead came out in support.
An organizer of the march narrated how the participants had brought with them a truckload of food for the six-day journey and how they went back with another truck full of food given to them by people they met along the way. It was not just a crowd that did not turn into a mob, it was a crowd that turned bystanders into participants.
Another set of photos that came out from the march showed farmers with small solar panels on their heads and plugged into mobile phones in their hands. A few were smiling. Most of the videos from the march were of elderly women who talked of the immediate threats to their livelihoods without any anger.
Where does such resilience come from? How do people go through so much and still not be angry or desperate or vicious? How do 45,000 people walk a straight line when the party in power can’t keep its thousands of “fringe elements” in check?
I am not a Gandhian. I do not even know what that term means. I grew up with the semi-academic contempt for him that many put on display to look more intelligent than they are. And, strangely, in spite of all that, the Farmers’ Long March reminded me of Gandhi’s philosophies time and time again. This is how magical those marches have been; this is how millions would have cried hearing about their struggles; this is how an arrogant regime must have failed to disrupt the bond that honest, peaceful humans make when they seek justice.
Gandhi has been reduced to a pair of spectacles in India today. His ashram is the site of photo shoots for the regime’s guests. So is the site of his cremation. But even a regime that builds temples to his killer can’t do away with this symbolism. It still needs to put up giant hoardings of Gandhi while destroying everything he stood for. It still needs his name to call a nation to clean its streets. It still needs to invoke him when it needs to appeal to the nation’s soul.
I am sure an IT cell somewhere would describe Gandhi as the most perfect troll in the Indian political ecosystem.