What Mumbaikars Can Learn from the Kisan Morcha

Social Commentary

What Mumbaikars Can Learn from the Kisan Morcha

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The scene at Nariman Point was much like any other Monday morning, if you overlooked the heavy police presence. Ostentatiously dressed college kids headed to Inox for the matinee show, distracted office-goers scurried along the wide footpaths, and food vendors were setting up their makeshift stalls. But today, there were a few outliers against the backdrop of the tall, stately buildings that make up the southernmost tip of Mumbai – about 35,000 outliers, comprised of farmers and adivasis from the rural regions of Maharashtra.

Inside one of these towering buildings, Vidhan Bhavan, leaders of the All India Kisan Sabha that marched from Nashik to Mumbai over the past week were meeting representatives of the Maharashtra government to decide the fate of one of the largest farmers’ protests in recent memory. But looking around the street, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that.

I found myself outside Vidhan Bhavan, awaiting the arrival of the 35,000-strong contingent of protesters who had gathered earlier at Azad Maidan. The media, in its usual tizzy of blowing things out of proportion, had made it sound as if the morcha was going to decamp outside the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly and disrupt life in the state’s capital. Yet, at the very spot, it was clear that the media had succumbed to its usual paranoia about how a bandh/protest/flood/cricket match can send Mumbai into a spiral from which only its fabled spirit can save it. The arrival of 35,000 protesters in the city was announced like an invading army, with headlines drumming up questions about how the march might disrupt students giving their SSC examinations that morning, and how life in the financial capital would come to a standstill.

And yet, it took a contingent of the poorest, most disenfranchised Indians to show Mumbai how to stage a protest without “disrupting” life for the rest of its privileged citizens.

I heard from some impromptu leaders of the morcha that the protestors had learnt the night before that Mumbai’s children would be headed to their board examinations today. Not wishing to hold up traffic or inconvenience the examinees, the contingent marched through the night from Sion to reach Azad Maidan in the wee hours of this morning.

“Lal salaam!” shouted the seated masses whenever a leader came up on the dais to speak.

Pratik Gaikwad/Arré

The men and women had spent the past week trudging through 180 kilometres in the escalating March heat. The drive to confront the government for reneging on promises made in the election and denying them their ancestral lands must have powered their legs. You knew you were getting closer to the protesters’ camp because the number of police vans and personnel increased with every step. Even so, there wasn’t a sense of hostile tension, like there had been with the Bhima-Koregaon protests in January and the 2012 Azad Maidan riots. In 2012, my college opposite Azad Maidan went into lockdown while the mob destroyed vehicles and the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial. In contrast to that memory, I walked freely among the crowds gathered today. The cops stood in circles, having relaxed conversations with the protesters, probably catching a glimpse of some of their own. Some were even taking selfies with the grounds and the crowds in the back.

A sea of red covered the grounds. The giant canopy erected to cover part of the ground was red, the Gandhi topis the farmers were wearing to fight the searing heat were red, and the flags and banners of the AIKS (All India Kisan Sangh) being waved were red. “Lal salaam!” shouted the seated masses whenever a leader came up on the dais to speak. The crimson tide was punctuated with the bright colours of the village women’s attire, and the urbane ensembles of the reporters at the scene. Groups of political party workers, from CPI (M), AAP, and Shiv Sena, roved through the crowds, offering soundbytes to anyone with a mic, including me.

In a manner befitting their Gandhian topis, the general sentiment among the protesters was that they would not leave Azad Maidan and continue the non-violent dharna until their demands were met.

Prakash Reddy, Mumbai Secretary for CPI (M), spoke to me at length, declaring that the government had failed to make good on its promises made to farmers in the 2014 elections. He listed out the reasons for this march of unprecedented proportions, the most prominent being a demand for loan waivers for indebted farmers, recognition of land rights for adivasis, a lack of educational opportunities, and the unavailability of ration cards were concerns as well.

By 1 pm, the sun had reached its apex and was beating down on the crowd. It was definitely a huge gathering, but not the 35,000 the news had been telling us would derail the city. The sea of mostly tired faces, now queueing up in an orderly manner for lunch being served out of the back of a truck, must have shamed Mumbaikars at Churchgate station.

There was clearly no derailment of any sort on their minds. In a manner befitting their Gandhian topis, the general sentiment among the protesters was that they would not leave Azad Maidan and continue the non-violent dharna until their demands were met. As I walked toward the ground’s exit, a few of them lay down to nap away the hottest part of the day.

The farmers called of their protest on Monday after the government promised to meet their demands.

Rishikesh Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

I returned to Vidhan Sabha to see if any developments had occurred. It was the same as I had left it. Even though inside the building, the Powers That Be were likely deciding whether or not this multitude of farmers and adivasis marched to the state’s capital in vain, life went on uninterrupted in South Bombay.

The exhausted but hopeful crowd at Azad Maidan existed in a bubble separated from the rest of the city. Although some Mumbaikars did their bit to distribute food to the marchers, the minute the rest of us realised that the protest wasn’t going to inconvenience our lives in any way, we decided to stop giving it a second thought.

I can only hope the government doesn’t do the same.