Humbled by Nonviolence

By Jill Carr-Harris | 2008-10-01 12:00:00

Last year I marched for a month with 25,000 other people for 28 days on a national highway in India. This was the Janadesh march — one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I had worked with these people for a decade, but I’m still marveling at how they created one of the biggest nonviolent actions in world history. I’ll never forget the determination that they demonstrated in standing up for their rights and calling for land reform.

So what were its results? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh created a Land Council to implement a land reforms policy and his government is currently engaging legislators in political debate. The march has helped the government to implement a tribal land bill. But even more important than the policy changes is the effect on the people themselves; they have become emboldened. Those who participated in the march are now working daily to influence their state officials, their local communities, and their representatives — and they are using active nonviolence.

For two decades, Ekta Parishad (known in English as Unity Forum) has been training people in Gandhian nonviolence. This rigorous training is based on acts of service and voluntary sacrifice. The participants believe that the ability to withstand pain and difficulty with patience is required for resisting injustice in society. The more unjust the society, the more one has to have internal strength. The leaders have had to exemplify these virtues to the local people to foster their collective resistance and build up enough social power to counter the state effectively.

Building a non-violent movement among the poor is a slow process. It can only go at the speed of the people in the movement, as they enact a vision that they see as their own. Movement-development has two aspects. First, the villagers must acquire a critical consciousness about the control of essential resources, and their new awareness has to be acted upon, whether in marches, sit-ins, or other forms of civil protest. And, second, youths and women have to be trained as leaders. Then, once both of these developments have been achieved, the movement can be sustained only with the support of various middle-class groups.

Nonviolence and the Raising of Critical Consciousness

Ekta Parishad disproved the myth that it is easier for affluent people than the poor to be non-violent. According to that myth, those without livelihood, land, or access to resources are trapped in conditions that do not allow them freedom to seek a peaceful life. Moreover, because of the inequitable distribution of resources, many are losing while others are gaining. How can poor people act quietly? The injustices could justify their aggressive backlash and violence. But in the case of Ekta Parishad, people are gaining through nonviolent action. Not only are they gaining material benefits, but they are mitigating the effects of the violence that has been done to them.

A good example of this is Gangaram, who came to the Janadesh after a life of intense struggle against the feudal system. His whole family had been bonded to different landlords. Gangaram was a bonded labourer for four decades and he was expected to do backbreaking work, being paid roughly 500 rupees annually (equivalent to 20 Canadian dollars). In 1995, Ekta Parishad released Gangaram and his brothers from bondage. Along with 28 families, they were rehabilitated on a 50-acre piece of land in northwestern India that had formerly been a dairy development site. After his release, Ganagarm’s life became completely different. Whereas he had not spoken to anyone before, he became an articulate senior leader for Ekta Parishad in Sheopur, fighting for the rights of his community.

Now these 28 families are farming their land and living peacefully. Moreover, they are actively engaged in nonviolence, helping raise the critical consciousness of other families so as to promote land relations in favor of the poor by persuasion and minimizing retaliation.

Nonviolent Leadership Training

In the nonviolent leadership training program for rural youth, people are respected for the knowledge they have cultivated. They are able to speak without reprisal, but there is little emphasis on reading and writing. Instead, communication is mainly through manual work, through song and plays, and through social action planning and discussion. The point is to understand the unequal power relations, especially with regard to the control of land, water, and forests on which rural people depend. The youths are shown different methods of nonviolent resistance and are encouraged to practice them in their villages. The training is done in a spirit of collegiality, to make it non-threatening to the political forces of status quo.

Nevertheless, the young people soon find resistance against their demands by the vested interests in their villages. In many cases, young people meet strong opposition, including being jailed for varying periods. The young people work on accepting difficulties and remaining patient and non-retaliatory. Strategies of response have been developed to spread the struggle geographically so that a group of oppressors cannot contain it within any one area.

One event took place during the Janadesh march that illustrates non-violent leadership. On March 18, three tribal leaders were preparing for the day’s activities when a truck veered from its side of the road, crossed over the barrier, and ran over them. They died instantly. Yet the thousands of people who were marching continued without anger. They did not apprehend the driver that had committed this crime, nor did they halt the march and return home. Knowing what is expected of them in a nonviolent struggle, they carried on for the sake of the three dead leaders and their families. This shows the nature of nonviolent leadership training.

As a Canadian on the Janadesh march, I found it hard. I ate barely once a day, always after everyone else had eaten. I had to sleep when the work was done — often less than four hours a night on a busy highway — and then had to be awakened early for an active day. I kept walking and talking to the press and special guests, directing actions of events and meetings, working with issues of sickness and community life. It was one of the most intensely challenging jobs that I have had to face in my entire life, but it was life-changing.

As the march progressed, initially I thought less of myself for not being able to keep the same high spiritedness as some of the other Indian leaders, and then it dawned on me that this was my formation in leadership of a social movement. I was not the leader but a part of the leadership in which no one person was imposing his/her will on others. This kind of leadership served others without giving in to others’ desires. This nonviolent leadership required a different skill-set, but I found it an effective way of resisting systemic injustice.

Jill Carr-Harris has been a development worker in India since 1985.

The Janadesh campaign

The Janadesh campaign for land reform in India has three specific demands, namely:

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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