- Dr Ashok Dhawale
President, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS)
It was truly an amazing struggle, the like of which has not been seen in Maharashtra in recent times. It caught the imagination of the peasantry and the people, and received their generous support, not only in the state but all over the country. It received the backing of parties and organisations all across the political spectrum. For the week from March 6 to 12 that the Long March of nearly 200 Km lasted, it became the centre of attraction for the entire national and state media, both print and electronic, and also the social media. #KisanLongMarch was the number one trending All India hashtag the whole day March 12.
As the editorial in People’s Democracy and Loklahar, titled ‘Long March: A Brilliant Victory’ wrote, “The kisan march was unique in the way it was conducted with discipline, determination and a collective display of peasant power. The sight of a sea of red flags moving in a massive procession captured the attention of people everywhere and the national and regional media took this visual message to all corners of the country. No mass protest in recent times has had the nationwide impact as the kisan march.”
Beginning at Nashik with over 25,000 farmers marching in unison, including thousands of peasant women, it concluded in Mumbai with over 50,000 farmers. Red flags of the Kisan Sabha, red banners, red caps and red placards highlighting the main demands of this Long March, made it a huge ocean of red. By far the largest mobilisation was that of thousands of Adivasi peasants from Nashik district, under the inspiring leadership of AIKS former state president J P Gavit, seven-time and sitting MLA of the CPI(M). The next was from Thane-Palghar district, followed by Ahmednagar district. There was representation from several other districts in the state, which rose markedly in the last two days of the Long March.
BETRAYAL OF BJP REGIME CONDEMNED
The Long March was organised to condemn the BJP state and central government for consistently betraying all their assurances given to the peasantry during the last two years on issues like farm loan waiver, remunerative prices, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, stringent implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), temple lands and pasture lands to be vested in the names of the tillers, increase in various pension schemes to poor peasants and agricultural workers, issues connected to the public distribution system, compensation for losses sustained by farmers due to disastrous pest attacks like the pink bollworm on cotton, opposition to acquisition of peasants’ lands in the name of fancy and elitist projects like the bullet train and super highways, and a complete change in the river linking scheme proposed to be started in Nashik, Thane and Palghar districts, so as to ensure that tribal villages are not submerged and water is made available to these districts and to other drought-prone districts in Maharashtra.
BACKGROUND OF MASS STRUGGLES
The Long March in March 2018 was the culmination of three years of constant struggle led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in Maharashtra since October 2015.
A statewide AIKS campaign called the Peasants Rights Awareness Campaign was launched for a month from October 5 to November 10, 2015. Extended AIKS district council meetings were held in 24 districts of the state. AIKS leaders Dr Ashok Dhawale, Kisan Gujar and Dr Ajit Nawale, along with other state office-bearers, attended all these meetings. In these meetings, the burning issues of peasant struggle were identified; the nature of the struggle was discussed; and the steps for organisational strengthening were decided.
In the second week of December 2015, over 50,000 peasants under the AIKS banner came on to the streets in 29 tehsil centres of 15 districts in all the five regions of the state on the four burning issues of land rights, loan waiver, remunerative prices and drought relief.
On January 7 and 8, 2016 respectively, the AIKS held two regional-level loan-waiver and drought relief conventions at Selu in Parbhani district for the Marathwada region, and at Malkapur in Buldana district for the Vidarbha region. Both were well-attended.
On January 19, as per the call of the joint state convention of the CITU-AIKS-AIAWU on October 31 at Parbhani, over 1,33,000 workers, peasants and agricultural workers held a massive joint statewide jail bharo stir for their demands against the BJP-led central and state governments. The largest number of those arrested – over 92,000 – was of the AIKS.
On January 28, the AIKS held a state-level convention in Nashik that gave a clarion call for an unprecedented statewide siege (mahapadav) of one lakh peasants from March 29 onwards in Nashik city. This struggle call was the culmination of the six-month long AIKS campaign in Maharashtra outlined above. Two lakh persuasive and attractive leaflets and 12,000 posters for the campaign were published by the AIKS and they were distributed to all the districts in the convention itself. District councils later also published thousands of leaflets.
From February 7 to March 1, 23 AIKS district conferences were held after village and tehsil conferences. They prepared for the struggle and also strengthened the organisation.
ONE LAKH PEASANTS LAY SIEGE TO NASHIK
As a result of all these intensive preparations, the AIKS held a historic one lakh-strong independent statewide rally on March 29, 2016 and an unprecedented day and night sit-in satyagraha for two days and two nights on March 29-30 at the CBS Chowk in the heart of Nashik, which paralysed the city. The four main issues of this struggle were land rights under FRA, peasant loan waiver, remunerative prices and drought relief. This militant peasant action received massive and sustained coverage in both print and electronic media. Sections of the electronic media covered it live on both days. This struggle placed the AIKS for the first time at the centre stage of the peasant movement in Maharashtra.
The rally was addressed by CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, AIKS General Secretary Hannan Mollah, renowned journalist P Sainath, AIKS leaders Dr Ashok Dhawale, J P Gavit MLA, Kisan Gujar, Dr Ajit Nawale and leaders of other mass organisations.
On March 30, the beleaguered Maharashtra Chief Minister Shri Devendra Fadnavis invited the Kisan Sabha for talks. A one hour discussion was held with the Chief Minister, three other Ministers and senior officials in the Vidhan Bhavan in Mumbai in the midst of the assembly session. Some of the demands were conceded, but were never implemented. The AIKS, therefore, began concerted struggles for their implementation.
STRUGGLE FOR DROUGHT RELIEF
On May 3, 2016, around 1000 peasants and students from all the eight districts of the Marathwada region, led by the AIKS and the SFI, broke two police barricades and marched right inside the compound of the Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner’s office. This militant action was conducted on the burning demands related to the grim drought situation in the region. The agitators occupied the office for over an hour until the officers agreed to hold a meeting with the AIKS-SFI delegation the next day, in which all officials dealing with drought-related issues were summoned from all the eight districts. For two days and one night on May 3 and 4, all the agitators camped right outside the Commissionerate.
Under this pressure, in the meeting that was held on May 4, most of the major demands that lay within the administration’s purview were conceded. The specific demands that were conceded related to the provision of drinking water, work and wages under MNREGA, fodder for cattle, agricultural inputs for peasants, fee waiver for students, land issues related to temple lands and forest lands and so on. The Aurangabad struggle was also widely covered by both print and electronic media due to the grave nature of the drought and also due to the militant nature of the two-day action.
10,000-STRONG ‘COFFIN RALLY’ IN THANE
The AIKS led a 10,000-strong novel ‘Coffin Rally’ in Thane city, near Mumbai on May 30, 2016 to focus on the issue of peasant suicides. The peasants carried bamboo frames (called tirdi in Marathi) covered with white cloth, on which dead bodies are carried. This dramatically highlighted the grave issue of suicides of debt-ridden peasants in Maharashtra. This rally, which was addressed by AIKS President Amra Ram, was widely covered by the media, especially since it highlighted the grave issue of mounting peasant suicides. The subsequent state conference at Talasari in Palghar district on May 31 and June 1 was attended by AIKS General Secretary Hannan Mollah.
50,000-STRONG MAHAGHERAO IN WADA
Another major struggle took place on October 3-4, 2016, when over 50,000 Adivasi peasants, women, youth and students from various tribal districts of Maharashtra held a gherao of the house of the BJP Tribal Development Minister at the sub divisional centre of Wada in Palghar district. The struggle was jointly led by the AIKS, AIDWA, DYFI, SFI and AARM. The main issues were the stringent and immediate implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), malnutrition-related tribal child deaths, work and wages under MNREGA, the plight of the PDS, health services and the problems of tribal students.
The gherao continued for 16 hours and all highways leading from Wada to Mumbai, Thane, Bhiwandi, Palghar, Dahanu, Talasari, Surat and Nashik were completely blocked. The minister had fled a day before in fear of this action. When the people refused to move nonetheless, the Minister had to send the state Tribal Development Commissioner for talks with the delegation and had to send a fax agreeing to a high-powered meeting in the state secretariat at Mumbai on October 7. It was only after a four hour nightlong discussion with the Commissioner, where he conceded many demands, that the gherao was lifted at dawn on October 4 with a huge public meeting.
The meeting of the delegation with the Tribal Development Minister, half a dozen secretaries of related departments and half a dozen district collectors of tribal districts took place in Mumbai on October 7. It continued for over five hours and the minister was forced to concede several long-standing demands about FRA implementation, malnutrition-related tribal child deaths and other issues. The minutes of the meeting and a special government circular was released to all concerned officials in the state, which put the demands conceded in writing. This struggle resulted in a major victory. There was some initial progress in implementation, but it then floundered.
WHIPCORD RALLY AT KHAMGAON
On May 11, 2017, the AIKS organised an ‘Aasood’ (Whipcord) State Convention followed by the ‘Aasood’ State Rally to the house of the BJP state Agriculture Minister at Khamgaon in Buldana district of Vidarbha region to focus on the issues of peasant suicides, loan waiver and remunerative prices. Mahatma Jotirao Phule had written a celebrated book titled “The Whipcord of the Peasant”. It was from this that the Whipcord Rally was so named.
All these independent struggles over two years put the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha for the first time in the mainstream of the peasant movement in the state and helped it to become a key constituent of the united peasant struggle that began in June 2017.
HISTORIC FARMERS STRIKE
In the historic united Farmers Strike that lasted for 11 days from June 1 to 11, 2017, the AIKS played a crucial role. Farmers refused to get their milk, vegetables and fruits for sale in the markets in the cities. The AIKS took the lead in bringing other farmers’ organisations together to continue the strike when some blacklegs tried a sell-out in a midnight meeting with the Chief Minister on June 2/3. Due to his role in opposing this sell-out at that meeting, AIKS state general secretary Dr Ajit Nawale was elected Convenor of the Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Organisations. A massive joint Maharashtra Bandh was successfully held on June 5 to support the farmers strike, followed by other large mass actions.
On June 11, a group of five Ministers of the state government was forced to hold talks with the Coordination Committee and they publicly agreed to give a complete loan waiver to the peasantry. But within a fortnight, although it announced a deceptive loan waiver package of Rs 34,000 crore and a waiver of up to Rs 1.5 lakh per farmer, it betrayed its promise of a complete loan waiver and imposed several onerous conditions that would leave a great majority of farmers out of the loan waiver orbit.
Massive joint agitations were held against this betrayal, including a united campaign tour of 15 large district conventions in July that mobilised over 40,000 farmers despite the monsoons and a statewide Chakka Jaam (Road Blockade) on August 14 in which over two lakh farmers blocked national and state highways at over 200 centres in 31 districts of the state. The AIKS participation in this joint Road Blockade action was the largest - over 85,000.
By a conscious decision, all the above independent and united struggles by the AIKS were peaceful and disciplined. Throughout the campaign for all these struggles, apart from concentrating fire on the BJP-Shiv Sena state government, the BJP-led central government of Narendra Modi was also severely castigated for its anti-peasant, anti-people, pro-crony corporate and neo-liberal policies and its dangerous communal and casteist conspiracies.
When the state government refused to relent on both the crucial aspects of loan waiver and land rights, the AIKS again decided to take up cudgels against the betrayal of the BJP state government, and took the decision of the Long March and the Assembly Gherao.
Two shocking objective facts explain the massive peasant response to all these struggles.
One is that ever since the advent of the neo-liberal policies in agriculture that were begun by the Congress government in 1991 and carried forward with greater speed by successive Congress and BJP governments – the Modi government being the worst culprit – four lakh debt-ridden farmers in India have been forced to commit suicide in the last 25 years, as per the figures of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) under the Union Home Ministry. Of these, Maharashtra has the notorious distinction of being the largest ‘graveyard of farmers’, accounting for nearly 75,000 peasant suicides in the same period.
The second is that thousands of Adivasi children in the state, and also all over the country, die every year due to malnutrition and starvation – a result of multiple factors like landlessness, unemployment, breakdown of the public distribution system and the health care system. An analysis of the impact of neo-liberal policies on agriculture is, of course, beyond the purview of this piece. But these two searing facts are enough to throw blinding light on the deepening agrarian crisis and agrarian distress in the state and the country.
METICULOUS PREPARATIONS FOR THE LONG MARCH
Meticulous preparations for the Long March, including planning its logistics to the last detail, were carried out by the AIKS collective state leadership right from February 16, 2018, when the decision was taken at the extended meeting of the AIKS state council at Sangli. Barely three weeks remained before the start of the march. March 6 was decided because it was a few days after the Holi festival on March 1/2 and because the state assembly would be in session throughout the march. The most important task was, of course, the mobilisation for the march. Hundreds of meetings were held in the villages, thousands of leaflets were distributed, and registration drives were conducted. A press conference was held in Mumbai on February 21 and at Nashik on March 2 to propagate the Long March.
The question has often been asked - how were the logistics of the Long March dealt with? Rice, dal, chillies, oil and firewood for the food of the participants was collected by peasants from the villages themselves and was stored in several tempos. The tempos used to go ahead and volunteers would cook and keep the food ready for the marchers when they reached the designated spots every day for lunch and dinner. Hired water tankers for drinking were stationed at various points along the way. An ambulance with a doctors’ team of Kisan Sabha sympathisers and the necessary medicines collected by the CITU-affiliated Medical Representatives Union were kept along with the Long March. AIKS state and Nashik district office bearers made three reconnaissance trips from Nashik to Mumbai and back to decide on the appropriate places to have lunch, dinner and to rest in the night.
The marchers walked an average of 30 to 35 Km per day in the scorching sun and on the second last day, the distance that had to be covered stretched to 43 Km! It goes without saying that all AIKS leaders walked with the peasants throughout. The way that tens of thousands of poor and landless peasants, including women in large numbers who deserve to be specially lauded and saluted, marched with determination 30 to 35 Km per day for seven days in searing heat, hundreds of them without footwear on tar roads, with bruised and bleeding feet, evoked not only massive public support for their cause, but also massive public anger against the callous and insensitive BJP-led state government.
OVERWHELMING RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE
All this was reflected in the overwhelming response from the working class, the middle class, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and all other socio-economic sections in Mumbai and Thane cities. The Long March was not only welcomed with open arms in several localities, but the people themselves donated generously in both cash and kind – water, sharbat, biscuits, food and even footwear - in both these cities. The biggest and most spontaneous reception to the Long March was in the Dalit locality of Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar at Ghatkopar in Mumbai. The Dabbawalas of Mumbai also contributed their mite to the cause. Farmers from Raigad district under the leadership of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) brought 1.5 lakh rice bhakris and dry fish for the marchers on the last day at Azad Maidan. The CITU, AIDWA, DYFI and SFI in Mumbai and Thane-Palghar districts launched a campaign amongst the people in support of this Long March, but the mass response went far, far beyond that. This response of the people further steeled the marchers in their resolve.
The CPI(M) Maharashtra State Committee had, of course, given full support to this Long March right from the beginning. Another Left party, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) had also supported it throughout. CPI leaders were present at Nashik to greet the march when it began. All other political parties except the BJP – viz. Congress, NCP, Samajwadi, Republican, AAP, MNS and also the Shiv Sena, which is a partner in the state government, openly supported the Kisan Sabha Long March and their top leaders either joined the march for a time or pledged their support when it had stopped for the night or when it culminated at Azad Maidan. The massive response of the people and the media was the key reason for this unprecedented support of many unlikely forces right across the political spectrum.
SENSITIVE AND HUMANITARIAN DECISION
The Kisan Sabha leadership took the sensitive and humanitarian decision of walking day and night on the last day, from 11 am on March 11 when the march started from Thane city to 6 am on March 12 when it reached Azad Maidan in the heart of south Mumbai. This decision was taken to avoid the inevitable traffic snarls on March 12 that would have surely disrupted the final board examinations of tens of thousands of SSC students in Mumbai and would have led to the loss of a precious year in their lives. Tens of thousands of peasants took this decision democratically by a massive and unanimous show of hands on the night of March 11 when they reached the Somaiya Maidan at Sion in Mumbai city. Their noble sentiments were expressed in these memorable words, ‘It does not matter if we have to suffer some more, but we will not let our children in Mumbai suffer.’ They had their dinner, rested for an hour or two, and restarted their march to Mumbai after midnight. This gesture drew the unstinted admiration of people not only in Mumbai, but all across the country. Several prominent celebrities in India also expressed their appreciation at this gesture.
GOVERNMENT FORCED TO BEND
All this put tremendous pressure on the BJP-led state government. Actually, the state government had not bothered to make any contact with the marchers till March 11, the penultimate day of the march, when their state Irrigation Minister Girish Mahajan met the leaders during the march itself and the memorandum of demands was handed over to him. Initially, before the march began, they had almost certainly underestimated its likely size. Later, the massive response to the Long March of the peasantry, the people and the media, which they had least expected, shocked them into taking action.
On March 12, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Ministers Chandrakant Patil, Girish Mahajan, Eknath Shinde, Pandurang Fundkar, Subhash Deshmukh and Vishnu Savra, along with a battery of top officials of various departments, held a three hour discussion with Kisan Sabha leaders in the Vidhan Bhavan. Also present were leaders of the opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil (Congress), Dhananjay Munde, Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare (NCP).
General secretary of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) Jayant Patil, MLC, who had helped the Kisan Sabha struggle all along, and state president of the Janata Dal (Sharad Yadav group), Kapil Patil, MLC, were also present during the discussions.
The Kisan Sabha delegation included Dr Ashok Dhawale, J P Gavit, MLA, CITU former state president Narasayya Adam, ex-MLA, Kisan Gujar, Dr Ajit Nawale, Subhash Choudhari, Savliram Pawar, Sunil Malusare, Irfan Shaikh, Ratan Budhar, Barkya Mangat, Radka Kalangda, Umesh Deshmukh, Sidhappa Kalshetty, Vilas Babar and DYFI state vice president Indrajeet Gavit. These were AIKS state office bearers who actually walked in the Long March, along with AIAWU state leader Manohar Muley and CITU state leader Vinod Nikole.
In the light of the earlier bitter experiences with the present government, the Kisan Sabha had taken the clear position right in the beginning that it would not withdraw this struggle without official written assurances. These written assurances on all the demands were given within an hour of the conclusion of the talks, with the signature of the chief secretary of the state government. Three Ministers of the state government – Chandrakant Patil and Girish Mahajan of the BJP and Eknath Shinde of the Shiv Sena – came on their own to the victory rally at Azad Maidan and pledged to implement the agreement that had been reached. The Kisan Sabha also insisted that the agreement arrived at should be placed on the table of the House by the chief minister in the state assembly that was then in session. Accordingly, the chief minister tabled that agreement in the House on March 13.
Concrete time-bound written assurances have been given by the government on AIKS demands concerning the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), river linking proposal adversely affecting tribals in Nashik, Palghar and Thane districts, loan waiver to farmers, mechanism for remunerative prices, vesting of temple lands, regularising houses on pasture lands, no land acquisition without consent, increase in old-age pensions, improving the public distribution system and compensation to lakhs of farmers in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions who have suffered huge losses of the cotton crop due to pink bollworm pest attacks, hailstorms and other issues. The agreement reached on March 12 between the Government of Maharashtra and the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha has been published in the CPI(M) central Party organs People’s Democracy and Loklahar.
RESOUNDING VICTORY RALLY
The resounding AIKS victory rally of over 50,000 farmers at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on the evening of March 12 was addressed by CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, ex-MP, CPI(M) state secretary Narasayya Adam, ex-MLA, PWP general secretary Jayant Patil, MLC, Janata Dal (Sharad Yadav group) state president Kapil Patil, MLC, former AIKS president Amra Ram, ex-MLA, AIKS joint secretaries K K Ragesh, MP, and Vijoo Krishnan (who had taken part in the first two days of the march), renowned journalist P Sainath, CPI(M) central committee member Mahendra Singh, AIDWA general secretary Mariam Dhawale and vice president Sudha Sundararaman, CITU vice president Dr D L Karad, and by leaders of this Long March - AIKS president Dr Ashok Dhawale, AIKS former state president J P Gavit, MLA, AIKS state president Kisan Gujar and AIKS state general secretary Dr Ajit Nawale – and, earlier in the day by other leaders of the AIKS, CITU, AIAWU, AIDWA, DYFI, SFI and by a wide spectrum of the supporting political parties, organisations and individuals.
All the farmers left Mumbai on the night of March 12, with tremendous confidence generated by this victory, buttressed with deep gratitude towards the people of the city, the state and the country who had supported them to the hilt in this struggle. The massive nationwide public response to this Long March was a tribute to the valiant, peaceful, democratic and unprecedented struggle waged by tens of thousands of peasants under the collective leadership of the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha.
This massive response was also a reflection of the fact that the demands of land rights, loan waiver, remunerative prices and pension, which were essentially directed against the neo-liberal policies of the BJP-led governments in the state and at the centre, were actually the demands of the peasantry of India as a whole. And one of the most important gains of this Long March was that the peasantry struggled together as a class, rising above the divisions of religion, caste and creed. It showed that, in the last analysis, class struggle and class solidarity is the only way to fight back the dark forces of communalism and casteism.
One battle has been won, but the war still remains. And after the victory in this battle, this war shall be fought with even greater grit and determination all over the country!