Indian farmers protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of farmers walked more than 100km to demand better crop prices and land rights. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee
Indian farmers protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of farmers walked more than 100km to demand better crop prices and land rights. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

A massive general strike to shut down India was planned today but one of the main protest groups for Dalits, India’s lowest caste, called it off at last moment.

The protest planned by Dalit groups, farmers and Army veterans with several demands was expected to shake up the government and hold it accountable on important issues ahead of next year’s election. But the Dalit group All India Ambedkar Mahasabha pulled out, while the other two groups took to the streets.

All India Ambedkar Mahasabha said it canceled the all India strike as one of its key demands — restoration of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 — was met, and they wanted to give the government time to consider other demands.

Activists said the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Act of 1989 was diluted by a March 20 order of the Supreme Court, which had removed restrictions on granting anticipatory bail to public servants under the Act and said that a public servant could only be prosecuted under this law with permission from higher authorities.

Govt met key demand by Dalits

On April 2, Dalits held nationwide protests against the top court’s order and it resulted in significant violence. Nine people were killed. Following the protests, the Lower House of the Parliament passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2018, restoring the original provisions of the act, as the government had promised. The Act is meant to safeguard the Dalits (Scheduled Caste) and tribals from discrimination and atrocities.

However, their other demands, including withdrawing all cases against activists detained under the National Security Act, including the leader of another Dalit organization, the Bhim Army’s Chandrasekhar, remain unaddressed.

But with the strike called off, questions have been raised about how genuine the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha is. Vijay Jatav, a leader of the Bhim Army, told Scroll the strike was a “hoax” and a ploy to get Dalit votes by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a de facto political arm. He said the Bhim Army would not have participated in the strike.

Army veterans and farmers join hands

The Army veterans and farmers’ group went ahead with their protests. The Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement held a rally at Jantar Mantar in the capital New Delhi, which was also attended by the Congress and opposition party leader Rahul Gandhi. The farmers’ association All India Kisan Sabha has also continued with their plans to get arrested and fill jails across 400 districts in the country in protest over the poor condition of farmers and the government’s agricultural policies. Under the joint banner of People for Responsible Governance, they decided to hold sit-in protests, a relay hunger strike and rallies.

This is the first time that army veterans have joined a protest with other organizations and they have jointly protested to “put an end to the hate-driven mob violence and lynching plaguing the country.” All parties called for faster arrest and prosecution of people responsible for such murders and those who backed them.

The veterans have addressed crucial issues raised by opposition parties time and again and jointly demanded the scrapping of the government’s ambitious bio-metric based digital identity program Aadhaar and passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, which that guarantees 33% of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women. They said the Aadhaar program had “wreaked havoc” on welfare schemes, mainly meant for the poor.

“We have ex-servicemen all over the country. After their retirement, most have gone back to farming and other jobs. So, we also support the farmers’ demands. We all share the demands made by the Dalit organizations,” Priyadarshi Chowdhury, coordinator for the Ex-Servicemen Movement, told the media.

Army veterans have been disgruntled with the Modi-led government on many accounts. But their main demand is the implementation of “One Rank One Pension” (OROP) policy, as recommended by the Koshyari Committee, with an automatic annual revision of pensions, instead of the current policy of periodic review once in five years. They asked the Supreme Court to do this, but the government told the court that such changes couldn’t be made.

OROP means that all people in the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force will get the same pension for the same rank and same length of service regardless of their date of retirement, and increase in the pension for present soldiers should be automatically passed on to others.

The strike was tactfully scheduled on August 9, the day the Quit India movement was launched by Mahatma Gandhi against the British colonizers. “It happens to be the day on which Mahatma Gandhi asked the British to Quit India and now, we are asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to quit Sarkar [government],” said Y Kesava Rao, president of Rytu Sangham, a farmers’ body in the southern state Andhra Pradesh. He told the New Indian Express that farmers in the country had suffered losses of around Rs 2 lakh crore and farmer suicides had increased by 26%.

The Kisan Sabha has demanded the fixing of the minimum support price (at which government purchases crops) for all crops at 1.5 times of the input cost along with guaranteed procurement of crops, a one-time waiver of farm loans and distribution of land to landless farmers. This comes following repeated protests by farmers across India, who have been hit by indebtedness, low crop productivity and climate change.

They also did not welcome the government move, in July, to hike the minimum support price for 14 Kharif crops that are cultivated in between April to October. Minimum Support Price is an important part of agricultural price policy and is supposed to help and incentivize farmers.