On Sunday, September 28th, 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was welcomed by an audience of nearly 20,000 people in Madison Square Gardens, NYC. Earlier this year, his political party, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), swept the Indian elections, ousting the Congress Party and claiming an uncontested majority position in Indian politics. Given the BJP’s close association – and PM’s Modi’s personal and political history – with the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), his rising influence as a global political leader is of particular consequence to those who struggle for the rights, freedom and dignity of all people. This is especially true of the struggles of the poor in India, who – as in most places in the world – include people of multiple faiths and traditions. By Daniel Jones and Shailly Gupta Barnes
The more we learn about the problems facing our communities and others around the world, the clearer it becomes that there will be no solutions without a sustained global social movement of the poor. For this reason, we are always looking to build relationships with organizations of the poor in other countries that are coming to similar conclusions. In early September, we had the opportunity to take part in a powerful exchange with exactly this kind of group, when we were welcomed by Ekta Parishad and International Initiatives to their International Youth Program (IYP) on Non-Violence in Tamil Nadu, India.
Ekta Parishad (Unity Forum) is an organization of the poor, especially the rural poor, in India. It evolved from a history of NGO community development work into a poor people’s movement to secure rights to key ‘livelihood resources’: land, forest, and water. In its early years, Ekta Parishad’s work was concentrated in adivasi (indigenous) communities who have experienced decades of displacement from their tribal lands and resources. In more recent years, as India has experienced a rapid intensification of land-grabs by transnational companies for the purposes of speculation and production for big agribusiness, even larger sections of its rural population have been dispossessed and displaced beyond. This has given Ekta Parishad’s work to secure rights to livelihood resources even more urgency and global significance, and has brought those directly affected by the land grabs into the movement. Over the course of its 25-year history, the movement has expanded into broader sections of society to include the landless poor, bonded laborers, poor women, children, and the elderly.
These marches brought the poor of India together across politics, caste, religion and region to demand their common right to the land.
A primary area of their work is in bringing these people together to engage in non-violent marches around their rights. In 2007, Ekta Parishad organized a 350km march from Gwalior to the Indian capital, Delhi. They called the march Janadesh, which translates to “Verdict of the People.” You can see an in-depth video about the march below. The march was one of the largest non-violent actions of the poor in recent history, with 25,000 poor men, women and children walking down the national highway and threatening a hunger strike in the middle of the capital. The march was repeated in 2012 in the Jan Satyagraha (“People’s March for Justice”) with 100,000 people. These marches brought the poor of India together across politics, caste, religion and region to demand their common right to the land. They are currently planning for another march, Jai Jagat (“Victory to the World ”) 2020 – a 15-month march of more than 7,500km from Delhi to Geneva.
We first met Ekta Parishad leaders Rajagopal and Jill Carr-Harris in Peru at the April convening of the Social Movements Working group of the International Network of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net). Our co-director Larry Cox and other leaders from our network made an immediate connection with them on the basis of our shared values, and we were excited to have the chance to deepen our relationship with them at the IYP training from September 4th – 9th, 2014. In particular, we wanted to learn more about their approach to and understanding of non-violence, not just as a set of tactics or a strategy for policy change, but as a way to transform the social structures that produce poverty and perpetuate systems of exploitation, oppression and violence.
The IYP training brought together 15-20 leaders, with a special focus on youth, from grassroots organizations and movements from Brazil, Nepal, Senegal, South Africa, Colombia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Italy and Germany. During the few days we were there, we learned about non-violence in poor people’s struggles for land reform and against land grabbing, for women’s rights and gender equity, and for people’s control over the decisions that affect them. Over and over again it became clear that the poor all over the world are up against common forces invested in the current global economic system, which is constantly advancing in its work of dispossession and extending its control over the resources we need to survive.
Indeed, this gathering of grassroots leaders from around the world conveyed both the challenges and possibility of realizing this kind of broad social transformation today.
We spent time diving deep into the theoretical and theological constructs and concepts of non-violence. A large part of the training included small group discussions around the political, social, economic and cultural dimensions of non-violence. In the small group focused on non-violent economy, we considered activities that are emerging in grassroots communities and poor people’s struggles that are both non-violent forms of resistance as well as creative alternatives to the status quo. For example, we looked at the practice of establishing seed banks that enable farmers to liberate themselves from exploitative seed monopolies, while also creating alternative social relations of mutual support and community.
The training also included visits to local villages where Ekta Parishad has trained village leaders and developed educational programs for children, performances by a local children’s drama group and a professional street theater group from Chennai, morning and evening multi-faith prayers, singing and seasonal celebrations. These cross-cultural exchanges were just as important as the more formal sessions in appreciating the broad social transformation that Ekta Parishad envisions and is working towards.
Indeed, this gathering of grassroots leaders from around the world conveyed both the challenges and possibility of realizing this kind of broad social transformation today. Learning about non-violent movements and organizations of the poor claiming and demanding basic economic rights in every continent, and meeting with people who are committed to these struggles for the long haul, made it clear that building a global Poor People’s Campaign for today is both a concrete possibility and absolute necessity for all of our struggles. As we shared about the reality of poverty in the US, the organizations of the poor here, and our commitment to the work of reigniting Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, leaders from Ekta Parishad, from Brazil, and elsewhere began to relate their organizations’ struggles with ours. “[A Poor People’s Campaign] in the United States, supported by the poor in the third world, would completely change things,” stated one leader from Ekta Parishad, highlighting the power and potential of overcoming the divisions between people in struggle in the global North and the global South, and building the unity of the poor globally.
Ifran Engineer said the Quran is “the voice of the oppressed that cry out for justice and love for all,” and cited chapter and verse to show that piety means doing justice, that God demands that you fight for justice even in cases where justice goes against your own interests.
This common ground was emphasized again in a meeting we had after we left the training with Irfan Engineer, Director of the Center for the Study of Secularism and Society. CSSS is an organization that studies communal and religious violence, including violence against women. Their work focuses on revealing how religions can be a crucial resource for uniting the poor across lines of division, and for building the strength and moral force of the united action of the poor. They also do extensive research on how religious identity is used by political operators and the economic elite to “contain” the politically threatening results of mass poverty and turn the poor violently against each other. Some of their most recent research has involved a close look at the efforts of the BJP, the party of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to build and spread Hindu nationalism in India.
CSSS also does powerful exegetical work with the Quran. Continuing in the legacy of Muslim scholar and liberation theologian Ashgar Ali Engineer, Dir. Irfan Engineer described the Quran as “the voice of the oppressed that cry out for justice and love for all,” and cited chapter and verse to show that piety means doing justice, that God demands that you fight for justice even in cases where justice goes against your own interests. We saw a lot of commonality between our work and that of CSSS, and are excited to build on the inspiring conversations we had in India.
After these several days, and as we move forward towards building a Poor People’s Campaign for today, we draw strength and faith from Ekta Parishad and the leaders we met, and from all those with whom we are marching together towards justice and freedom.
Jai Jagat! Victory to the World!