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When Mumbai raged red with farmers’ anger

When 35,000 to 40,000 kisans marched into Mumbai with a quiet discipline, dignity and agency rarely seen in the prevailing political climate, they taught urban citizens a few things.

mumbai Updated: Mar 14, 2018 15:14 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai×,mumbai news,farmers' protest
Farmers under the banner of the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, walked 180 km over six days to reach Mumbai.(Praful Gangurde/HT Photo)

Mumbaiites will carry memories for a long time of the extra-ordinary march by farmers and adivasis which culminated in the city earlier this week. The most abiding would be of feet – calloused, bruised, blistered, and bloodied – of footwear worn out from ceaseless walking 180 kilometres over a week, of faces that bore the lines of struggle and deprivation, of neat rows of blinding red columns across the city’s flyovers.

When 35,000 to 40,000 kisans marched into Mumbai with a quiet discipline, dignity and agency rarely seen in the prevailing political climate, made their point loud and clear to the Maharashtra government without throwing a single stone, forced the Maharashtra government to accede to their demands, and left just as quietly, they had taught urban citizens a few things.

This was unintentional, of course. When the farm labourers, small farmers and adivasis led by the All India Kisan Sabha had left Nashik on March 5, they knew that they do not exist for millions living in Mumbai and Thane. Rural distress and agrarian crisis enter urban conversations or concerns mostly during elections, natural disasters, and as markets for corporates.

Despite a shockingly large number of suicides by farmers and farm labourers over the years – nearly 2,500 last year itself in Maharashtra – Mumbai remained disconnected with the issue. The protesting kisans managed to dent this indifference and disinterest a wee bit. People joined the dots between the sub-sets of borrowers: farm loans of small amounts (Rs1 to Rs1.5 lakh) which indebted farmers and tore apart their lives with the ease of doing business (and fleeing) enjoyed by the likes of diamonds-designer Nirav Modi.

Their marginalisation and anger juxtaposed with their discipline and dignity moved many Mumbaiites as few issues have. People came out of their homes and offices to offer everything from footwear to food and water. Finger-happy activist Mumbaiites gasped at the blistered and bleeding feet, wondered at their commitment to their cause.

But the marching farmers did not need Mumbaiites’ bleeding hearts. They asked for our engagement with their issues which ultimately affect us all. That engagement may not come around but they made many Mumbaiites familiar with certain terms: Minimum Support Price, land transfer to their names under Forest Rights Act, the Swaminathan Commission report, intricacies of the farm loan waiver and so on. Will the Devendra Fadnavis government remain true to its promises made to these marginalised farmers-adivasis? More Mumbaiites will be watching now.

The third learning is about agitational politics. They showed that little can be achieved without an agitation, that socio-economic solutions are undeniably political. Mumbai has seen large morchas in the last two years: Dalits’ morcha in 2016, Maratha Kranti Morcha, protest against Bhima-Koregaon violence. But the farmers-advisasis’ morcha was evidence that the most under-privileged and marginalised can agitate and bend a government’s will, that they have a right to their anger and their agitation methods. These were better and more disciplined than of other morchas. Their walk of last few miles to Azad Maidan in the dead of the night to avoid inconveniencing Mumbaiites will be admirably recounted in the years to come.

This must have something to do with the politics of it all. The All India Kisan Sabha is the farmers’ association of the CPI (M), the political party which was summarily written off after the Tripura state election. When the Left is at its lowest in Maharashtra and Mumbai, it managed to turn the city red. That’s because the Sabha has been at these issues for years, studying and documenting, organising and campaigning, and finally leading. Some 40 different farmers’ groups have come together on a single platform to articulate agrarian crisis.

Above all, the Left-led morcha showed Mumbai that a protest does not have to mean violence the way Shiv Sena or Dalits’ groups have interpreted it. The city has been stunned by saffron many times, bled blue at others. After decades, it turned red with cold and dignified rage. Only the likes of BJP MP Poonam Mahajan saw “urban Maoism” in it all.

First Published: Mar 14, 2018 15:14 IST