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12 January 2015

Another Rabble-Rouser?


I
f you have seen the crowd during the August 2011 movement led by Anna Hazare and then if your jaws dropped when you saw lakhs turn up to hear BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi even in the south Indian state of Kerala where the party was near absent, you have seen nothing. You must know PV Rajagopal, president of Ekta Parishad, who commands a following of lakhs of landless and homeless people across the country, concentrated mostly in the central provinces though.
Rajagopal addressing one of his mammoth rallies in 2012
If you have not seen the size of a crowd Rajagopal can lead, it is because New Delhi, then a Congress bastion, did not allow his procession to ever reach the country’s capital. Which government of a democracy would not turn jittery at the sight of a disciplined queue at least 1,00,000 strong comprising emaciated bodies and impoverished faces of tribal folk and other poor people entering the capital of the country after marching through about 500 km?
Two years ago, driven to his wits end by the news of such a march approaching New Delhi, then Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh had rushed to meet Rajagopal in Agra and stop his procession right there. It was the ultimate build-up. But it was not an Anna-type media celebration that could not sustain the momentum beyond 2011 [Anna was all ready for another showdown in New Delhi, but the activist who was egging him, former Aam Aadmi Party legal head Ashwini Upadhyay, dumped his non-partisan Adarsh Bharat Abhiyan to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)].
Rajagopal talking to fellow activists in course of Jansatyagraha 2012. His wife, Canada-born Jill Carr-Harris, can be seen in the frame, too
Rajagopal — along with Rajendra ‘Waterman’ Singh — was an eminent torchbearer of the Lokpal movement. They went their separate ways following differences with Arvind Kejriwal who now heads the AAP. Ekta Parishad has international collaborators like the Lokpal movement did. Its partners are Ekta Europe, Gandhi International (a French NGO), Sarvodaya USA, Ekta Canada, South Asia Peace Alliance (SAPA), South-South Solidarity and the domestic SAID-India.
After consolidating a membership of 200,000 people (majority women) across six states, Rajagopal had begun using the Gandhian technique of foot-march or padayatra to galvanise greater support among the poor for their right to a roof over the heads of each family. With a track record of 10 state-level foot marches, he led a national march to Delhi in October 2007. In the march, Janadesh 2007, 25,000 people marched 340 km from Gwalior to Delhi and compelled the government to take action and land reforms and forest rights. Delhi-based newspapers relegated the news to some inside pages, and television did not pick it up at all.
Yet, in 2012, a Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government wary of the poor man’s power — to damage the ruling dispensation’s image further — was forced to sign a historic 10-points agreement at Agra, culminating the Janstyagrah foot march from Gwalior to Delhi. Ramesh and Rajagopal signed on the dotted line. The rally Ekta Parishad had named as Janadesh 2007.
The rally Ekta Parishad had named “Janadesh 2007”
However, similar to government’s initial bluff to Anna, the promises to the homeless have not been met just as promises to India against Corruption (IaC) were not met despite the much broadcast ‘victory’ Anna had declared on 8 April 2011 [a toned down version of the bill for a national ombudsman was passed in 2013 that IaC’s offshoot Aam Aadmi Party was not satisfied with].
The main promise the UPA government had given to the leader of an intimidating procession was that to bring into effect a national Land Reform Policy. Rajagopal had, of course, warned in Agra that his Jansatyagrah would resume if the government did not work on the agreement. And we know it did not. This is how far the government went:

  • It increased the grant amount of Indira Awas Yojana from Rs 45,000 to Rs 75,000 and made necessary allocation to the states in the Budget.
  • It formulated a draft National Land Reform Policy for radical land reforms in the country by a GoI-constituted National Task force on Land Reform, but then the government could not pass the Bill.
  • It formulated a draft on “Homestead Bill”, but did not introduce it in Parliament.
  • Then Minister Ramesh sent many advisories to the Revenue Ministers of different states on the issues pertaining to land rights, but no satisfactory follow up action was taken up by the state governments.
  • Then Minister of Tribal Affairs Kishore Chandra Deo sent many letters for a fair implementation of PESA and FRA, but State Governments did not take any action.

The stratum of society Rajagopal caters to
And then the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was formed. Ekta Parishad hoped that the newly elected government would take action in favour of the poor and marginalised communities of India. Rajagopal has reminded Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of Rural Development Chaudhary Birender Singh time and again that the 10-point agreement between Janastyagrah 2012 and Government of India must be followed up with concrete action, but there has been “no positive follow-up from the central government”, an email from Ekta Parishad to this correspondent reads. The email carries signatures of the organisation’s top activists Ransingh Parmar, Pardeep Priyadarshi, Ramesh Sharma, Aneesh Kumar KK and Anil Kumar Gupta.
Instead, the NDA government brought changed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) ordinance, 2014, which is “very unfair and unjust to farmers and small landholders of the country” according to Rajagopal’s organisation.
“Now it is very much clear that the new government has no intention of giving any importance to the agreement of Janstyagrah 2012 and Government of India, which was took place in Agra during the Janstyagrah 2012 movement,” the email communiqué says.
Hence, Ekta Parishad has decided to launch yet another foot-march on 15 March, resuming the movement it had called off on 11 October 2012 stopping in Agra instead of reaching Delhi. The president of Ekta Parishad will lead this foot-march along with thousands of farmers, labourers, tribal and landless people across the county. This foot-march will start in the afternoon of 15 March from Agra with more than 3,000 marginalised, poor, tribal people and farmers from across the country.
The much smaller size of the procession owes to two factors: crowd management and politics. Rajagopal had confided in this correspondent in Hardwar in 2013 that it was a herculean task for him to monitor a queue of one lakh activists, moving from its head to tail with a medical team again and again, and sending off those who couldn’t withstand the gruelling, long journey. In terms of politics, Ekta Parishad is more optimistic about this government’s sensitivity towards the poor than it was about the UPA’s. The question is whether this will help the negotiations, or Modi’s government will take these people for granted, forcing them to come back with a much larger strength that Rajagopal has shown in the past he can command. The third possibility: This government has been imposing restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs; Ekta Parishad can hit the same roadblock.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.