Land-movements and Nonviolence in India

By Rajagopal PV

In India, the most publicized land-movement was the Bhoodhan movement. In the 1950s and 60s, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave walked across the country asking for land as gift. His strategy was to ask land-owning families to treat him as one of their own and give him one share of the land which can then be redistributed to the landless people. It took 14 years for him to walk across the country and collect a little more than 4 million acres of land. This was a very radical approach based on his philosophy of 'change of heart'.

This approach was often criticized by the left-political parties because they thought that Vinobha Bhave was trying to protect the land-owners and prevent a forceful law that will enable the state to take way the land of the farmers. I will not use this opportunity to analyze the success or the failure of this movement as there is already a lot written about it. But it is very interesting to see how an individual can use a particular strategy to redistribute land from the powerful to the powerless. Even though the socialist and the left were all building their movement around the agenda of land-distribution, land is no longer on their agenda. With the arrival of globalization, there is a drastic shift in the thinking of those who believed in socialistic or leftist ideologies. They are also slowly submitting themselves to the idea that globalization is inevitable and nothing much can be done to protect land and livelihood resources of the people. At this stage let me also recognize the role of radical groups who believed in violence as a method to redistribute land. Though there were not able to distribute land in the real sense, at least in the areas were they have their presence, people still hold on to land and livelihood resources or successful to some extent in preventing the onslaught of globalization. Janadesh and Jansatyagraha are proposing the middle path in land redistribution. We believe that it is difficult to have the scale of moral power of Vinobha Bhave to solve the problem by using this element of compassion. It is also not worth to shed blood and creating permanent animosity between groups in our efforts towards land -distribution. The approach we have taken is to use nonviolent mass action to pressurize the government to solve this problem through a legal framework. Within the legal framework the government can do a lot in terms of implementing the laws that are already there but these laws can be implemented only if the government is willing to take a position in support of the marginalized communities. Because the ruling class is drawn from the communities with land and resources, it is not easy for the ruling class to take a radical position in support of the weak and marginalized. For the international readers let me give some examples.

In India we have a ceiling act. This act provides that every farmer can have up to 20 acres of irrigated land and about 40 acres of un-irrigated land (These numbers vary from state to state). If this act is implemented in letter and spirit there will be a lot of surplus lad available for re-distribution to the landless. A lot of manipulation took place with the awareness of government officials and as a result the amount of surplus land available for re-distribution is limited. Another example is the recently enacted Forest Rights Act of 2006. This was the result of many years of struggle by several groups. Through this law, the claims by adivasis for the land they have been cultivating can be settled in their favour. You will be surprised that in a country were 80 million people are adivasis only 1 million people got land in the last 5 years (With 8 members per family, this comes to 12.5% distribution rate) which in itself is an indication of our level of performance in support of poor people. Because of pressure from civil society groups, the government has constituted several committees to look into this problem of land-holding pattern and land-distribution in the country and come up with recommendations. In the last 10 years there were many committees and there were many interesting recommendations on the table. Different committees have repeatedly said that if the livelihood resources are not distributed it will lead to mass scale migration to cities and may also lead to increased level of violence in rural India. Unfortunately these recommendations are not translated into meaning policies and laws. Like many other countries, India is also divided into two parts. On one side poor people are demanding land and livelihood resources and on the other side national and multinational companies are asking for land and resources. In a globalizing world where the decisions are mainly tilting in favour of global forces it is important to have nonviolent social movements like Janadesh and Jansatyagraha to remind the state that they cannot be one-sided. The decisions need to be all-inclusive.

Though India has a history of nonviolent struggles under the leadership of Gandhi and many others, we tend to ignore the power of nonviolence in dealing with our problems today. While we constantly discuss about our history and our proud of our nonviolent struggle government tends to use force to put down the voice of those who are raising issues in support of the marginalized. Governance through a process of consultation and dialog hasn't become a culture even in most advanced democracies. The natural tendency is to say that the elected government should have the freedom to decide for everyone. They know what is in the interest of the county. And in this analysis the voices of the marginalized gets further marginalized. Through Janadesh and Jansatyagraha we are trying to bring their voice on the central stage. How long can a state be oppressive and how long can a state ignore the voices of the oppressed. While at the level of India there are many efforts that are being made, we feel the need for international solidarity in making nonviolence work and work in the interest of powerless and marginalized.

Let me use this opportunity to inform you the kind of nonviolent strategies that we have put together in our ongoing struggle that began from 2 October 2011. The first strategy was to choose the international day of nonviolence for launching this action. We began a yatra (a road-trip) from Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India on 2 October. We will begin our historical march from Gwalior on 2 October. The second strategy was to involve large number of organizations cutting across political ideologies. We are trying to bring about 2000 organizations on board for our action in 2012. The third strategy was to travel across the country through the yatra and visit most of the nonviolent struggles where people are trying to organize themselves against the transfer of resources to powerful lobbies and from each one of the struggle, we are taking soil samples to create an exhibition in Delhi to educate people about the history of each one of these struggles. Another important strategy is to train 12,223 activists to lead the historical march of 1 lakh people. Each one of them needs to know how a long march can be organized with deep commitment to nonviolence. Another strategy put in place is to get the old generation freedom struggle groups who worked under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi to sit in Delhi while the marginalized communities are on the road. There are many other strategies that are being used to make the entire process not only nonviolent but also highly participatory. So the entire struggle is designed by keeping land and livelihood resources as the core agenda without compromising on the philosophy of nonviolence. Through this process we hope that the land agenda will come back on the table and the government will be forced to act in a way that a powerful structural remedy can be found to enable land-distribution, sustainable agriculture and poverty eradication.