The joint peasant struggle in Maharashtra, which began with the novel peasant strike on June 1, reached a new crescendo on August 14, the eve of Independence Day. By a happy coincidence, August 14 was also the 111th birth anniversary of the legendary leader of the historic Warli Adivasi Revolt in Thane district and former AIKS national president Godavari Parulekar.
The Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Organisations had given a clarion call in the last of the 15 large district conventions held from July 10 to 23, which mobilised over 40,000 peasants, to block all national and state highways across the state on August 14.
The main demands of this sustained struggle were complete peasant loan waiver excluding the richer sections, which the state government had promised during negotiations with the Coordination Committee on June 11 and which it had betrayed within a fortnight, implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, particularly the one about ensuring Minimum Support Price (MSP) for agricultural produce at one and a half times the cost of production, radical changes in the fraudulent Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana which is meant to enrich the corporates and fleece the peasants, removal of the ban on the cattle trade, halt to unjust land acquisition in the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Highway, Mumbai-Delhi Industrial Corridor, Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train and such other projects, old age pension to peasants and agricultural workers, waiving of arrears of electricity bills and expansion of irrigation facilities.
Responding to this call, over 1,60,000 peasants blocked national and state highways (Chakka Jaam) for hours together in at least 183 centres in 27 districts of Maharashtra. These figures could well be higher, since highways were blocked spontaneously by peasants in several centres even where there was no peasant organisation to lead them. That was the most remarkable feature of this struggle. In several centres thousands of peasants were shown to have been arrested, since the police just had no machinery to actually arrest such a huge mass.
Another significant feature was that nearly half of the total participation in this mass action was of the AIKS, which mobilised over 75,000 peasants in this struggle in 22 districts. It may be recalled that the AIKS had the largest total mobilisation in the 15 district conventions in July as well.
At the same time, other farmers’ organisations like Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Shetkari Sanghatana, Prahar Shetkari Sanghatana, AIKS (Ajoy Bhavan), Baliraja Shetkari Sanghatana, Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha, Lok Sangharsh Morcha, Shetkari Sabha and many other groups also mobilised well. Both the print and electronic media covered this action excellently.
The districts with the largest total participation were: Ahmednagar - 39,000, Thane-Palghar – 25,000, Parbhani – 20,000, Nashik – 12,000, Beed – 10,000, Nandurbar – 10,000, Dhule – 7000, Amravati – 5,000 and Kolhapur – 5,000.
The districts with the largest AIKS participation were: Thane-Palghar – 25,000, Ahmednagar – 13,000, Nashik – 10,000, Parbhani – 10,000 and Beed – 6,000. Leaders and activists of the CITU, AIAWU, AIDWA, DYFI and SFI also participated in the struggle in several places. The SFI and DYFI led an independent and effective campaign in rural areas around the slogan ‘We are Children of Peasants’ in support of the peasant struggle in educational institutions and areas in the state.
All the leaders of the Coordination Committee – Convenor Dr Ajit Nawale, Raju Shetty MP, Raghunathdada Patil, Bachhu Kadu MLA, Jayant Patil MLC, J P Gavit MLA, Dr Ashok Dhawale, Kisan Gujar, Namdev Gavde, Raju Desle, Kishor Dhamale, Pratibha Shinde, Sushila Morale, Sanjay Patil, Karan Gaikar and many others led the road blockade actions at various places across the state.
On Independence Day, August 15, the Coordination Committee had given another call. It had said that the national flag at the district headquarters should be hoisted not by the guardian ministers, the policies of whose government were responsible for the rising spate of suicides of debt-ridden peasants, but by toiling peasants themselves.
Accordingly, in many places this attempt was made but it was crushed through state repression. In two places, Parbhani and Ahmednagar, the police resorted to brutal lathi charges and hundreds of peasants were arrested. Among those arrested were AIKS state general secretary Dr Ajit Nawale, Balasaheb Patare, Subhash Lande, Sanjeev Bhor, Mahesh Nawale and others at Ahmednagar and AIKS state joint secretary Vilas Babar, Rajabhau Rathod and others at Parbhani, while AIKS leaders Limbaji Kachre, Ramkrishna Shere, Uddhav Poul, Anjali Babar, Rameshwar Poul, Ramdas Poul and many others were lathi charged at Parbhani. While the Ahmednagar peasant leaders were released in the evening, Vilas Babar and Rajabhau Rathod of Parbhani are still in custody seven days later.
In Sangli, AIKS state treasurer Umesh Deshmukh and Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana leader Mahesh Kharade were picked up by the police from their homes on the morning of August 14 itself and were thrown into police lock-up till the evening of August 15. This was the third time during this peasant struggle that the police in Sangli resorted to this repression against peasant leaders.
In Nashik also, AIKS and AITUC leader Raju Desle, Prakash Chavan, Nana Bachhav, Karan Gaikar, Ganesh Kadam, Anil Bhadange, Dattu Bodke and others were picked up on August 14/15 and were released on the evening of August 15.
On behalf of the Coordination Committee, AIKS national joint secretary Dr Ashok Dhawale immediately released a statement denouncing the BJP-led state government for resorting to arrests and lathi-charges on peasants on Independence Day, on top of its betrayal of its own assurances.
CHIEF MINISTER RATTLED
The magnificent peasant response elicited by the August 14 statewide Chakka Jaam call rattled the ruling BJP and especially its Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. On August 17, in his speech at the meeting of the BJP state executive in Mumbai, he lashed out for half an hour in a completely unbalanced fashion at the Coordination Committee and its leadership. He accused the peasant struggle of trying to create anarchy by making the demand for a complete loan waiver; he came down on the Left leadership by making the time-worn and silly charge that these are the people who open their umbrellas when it rains in China; and in a pseudo-nationalist move that the BJP-RSS leadership nowadays always falls back upon, he branded the call to let toiling peasants hoist the national flag instead of guardian ministers as sedition. He also came down heavily on the media for giving wide coverage to the peasant struggle and also for focusing on the corruption scandals involving some BJP ministers, sarcastically saying that their ‘shops’ don’t run without such tantalising news against the government! His speech clearly betrayed the growing nervousness of the powers that be at the growing response to the peasant struggle.
Convenor Dr Ajit Nawale immediately hit back at the Chief Minister and released a video recording which was shown simultaneously alongside the Chief Minister’s speech in the Marathi electronic media the same evening and was published in the print media the next day. In the video, Dr Nawale made the following points: Such unbalanced reactions of the CM will not solve the peasants’ problems, only a change of policies will; Struggling for peasant demands is not sedition, following policies that lead to suicides of thousands of peasants is sedition; If the demand for peasant loan waiver spreads anarchy, was the chief minister who regularly used to make the same demand when he was in the opposition spreading anarchy?; If demanding peasant loan waiver is sedition and anarchy, is giving loan waivers and tax concessions to the tune of lakhs of crores of rupees to corporates patriotism and good governance?; Those who stayed away from the freedom struggle and thus actually helped the British imperialists have no right to lecture us on patriotism; Those who refused to unfurl the national flag on the RSS headquarters till 2001 have no right to teach us about the sanctity of the national flag for which we have fought and sacrificed from the days of the freedom struggle.
The AIKS state council met briefly on August 19 at Solapur to review this struggle and to plan for the future. It congratulated all AIKS activists throughout the state for their consistent initiative and sterling contribution. The next meeting of the Coordination Committee will be held soon to decide the future course of action.