Bhookh se maut nahin hoti, jal, jungle, zameen chheenney se hoti hai (hunger doesn’t kill you, you die when your forests, water and land are taken away from you), says feisty Bitoli Didi of Sitapur City in Sitapur district, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Bitoli Didi and her fellow villagers have been relentlessly fighting for their community forest rights to be recognized under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. This law, brought in after widespread advocacy by civil society across India, reverses colonial history by recognizing community claims to govern, manage, and use forests. Addressing hundreds of people at the ‘Save the Constitution’ rally on 10th December, 2018, organized by the National Alliance of People’s Movement, Bitoli Didi affirmed that their communities assert a way of life in opposition to ‘development’ that thrives on the ‘loot of resources’.
The “Save the Constitution March” proclaimed the sacred nature of the constitutional values of social justice, liberty and equality.
In the last year or so, India has witnessed inspiring public protests and rallies that have challenged the steady creep of authoritarianism in the Indian democracy. They have, instead, projected expressions of respectful, life affirming, democratic, peaceful and self-reliant ways of being. On March 12, 2018, after walking for days from different parts of the state of Maharashtra, 50 thousand farmers gathered in Mumbai demanding their rights to forest land, loan waiver, and an increase in minimum support price for their crops, among many others. On 30th November, 2018, over 35,000 farmers marched again from various regions of India to Parliament Street in Delhi, seeking similar demands, as also a special session in the Indian parliament dedicated to a discussion around agrarian distress. Following this was a two month long Samvidhan Samman Yatra (Save the Constitution March), that started on 2nd October, 2018 from Dandi (where Mohandas Gandhi concluded his historic Salt March) and culminated in Delhi on the 10th of December, after walking more than 25,000 kms through 26 states in 65 days. The demand was to save the fundamental constitutional values based on social justice, liberty and equality that have been severely threatened in the last five years under the rule of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“During the Samvidhan Samman Yatra, while travelling through several states we learnt how not only people in Gujarat but also in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, are also struggling for justice and fair compensation for displacement, yet, this government has done nothing”, says Gomti Bai from Kandwa Tehsil in Madhya Pradesh village in Narmada Valley, whose land was submerged years ago when the height of the Sardar Sarovar Project dam was raised. It is not just Gomti Bai but tens of millions of farmers, tribals and workers who have suffered because the “development” juggernaut has favored only a few.
The Indian youth have also pitched in with their effort. Young activists from over 50 organisations from across the country participated in the Young India Adhikar (rights) March on 7th Feburary, 2019 to protest against the Central government’s education policy and growing unemployment. The demands included spending at least 10% of the Gross Domestic Product on education, ending gender discriminatory rules, stopping fund cuts and not scuttling the reservation norms and, most importantly, ensuring freedom of expression. On April 4th 2019, thousands of women across India marched to demand their democratic constitutional rights, raising the issues of justice, safety of women and inclusion in policy making.
A group of prominent civil society leaders releasing the “Reclaiming The Republic” manifesto in New Delhi.
In the lead-up to the 2019 national elections in India a concerted effort has been made by civil society groups to question the current trajectory of Indian politics where a vast number of pressing economic and ecological issues have been buried under the false promise of “development”. Many concerned citizens and organizations have released people’s manifestos with a belief in the idea of a plural and democratic India, to put pressure on political parties. In early February, a group of civil society activists released a manifesto called “Reclaiming the Republic[i]” which detailed 19 issues that should be taken up for 2019 elections. The range of proposals included: electoral reforms, media reforms, repealing of draconian laws (repeal of Section 124A (sedition) and 499 (criminal defamation) of the Indian Penal Code, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the National Security Act and amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act), social security, affordable health care, effective implementation of the Right to Education Act, an independent and empowered Environment Commission to lay down environmental standards and regulations, enact anti-discrimination law, strengthen accountability and transparency among various others.
In late February, Vikalp Sangam (‘Alternatives Confluence’), an alliance of about 50 civil society organizations working on a range of issues, released a ‘People’s Manifesto for a Just, Equitable and Sustainable India[ii]’. The range of alternatives stood on five key principles: the well-being and health of all is ensured by providing opportunities to engage in materially, culturally, ethically and spiritually fulfilling lives and livelihoods; everyone has meaningful avenues of directly participating in decision-making; there is no discrimination based on gender, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, ‘race’, ability, sexual orientation, and other such differences; the diversity and pluralism of cultures and knowledges and faiths is respected and enabled to co-exist harmoniously; and there is respect for the rest of nature and the ecological conditions on which all life depends.
These manifestos have emerged against the backdrop of a number of challenges posed to the Indian republic especially in the last five years. The attempt through these manifestos is to protect and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards. The current system alienates those in power from the public, concentrates power in the state or non-state actors like corporations, intentionally disempowers people, and fails to deliver on socio-economic services like social security and livelihoods for a large segment of the populace. Therefore, these manifestos talk about the need for a distinct and divergent kind of politics that empowers people and communities on the ground to govern and manage their lives and to also make the state accountable and transparent. In addition to transformation in politics, they also stress the need to democratize the economy followed by sensitivity and commitment to ecological and cultural diversity. The elements of these manifestos also challenge the development juggernaut which thrives on the violation of people’s rights to dignified livelihoods, environment, and exploitation of resources for material needs.
Social movements in India are trying to reimagine the political discourse in the country, focusing on economic equality and ecological sustainability.
At present India is witnessing its 17th general election with the usual brouhaha about mammoth rallies, and displays of the power of money. The major political players and parties have shown no intention of intervening in the current ecologically and economically ruinous model of “development”. The “Vikalp Sangam” and “Reclaim The Republic” manifestos, on the other hand, have been conceived and articulated by ‘common’ people and declare quite unequivocally that they refuse to accept the diktat of governments and corporations over their lives. They also promote peaceful and non-violent means of boosting public morale, spreading messages of justice, inspiring bystanders, and offering a chance of civic participation usually confined to the simple act of voting once in a while during elections. At the core of these interventions stands these movements’ commitment to safeguard and restore India’s contemporary civilizational values (some of them enshrined in the Constitution) to ensure economic equity, social parity, environmental sustainability, annihilation of caste and patriarchy, and well-being for all. These social movements and manifestos offer a renewed imagination of democracy, wellbeing and development in India. They signal that even as the ruling regime contorts the truth, buys off the media, uses law and order as an instrument to benefit the rich, the emerging movements can and will resist the trends towards authoritarianism and fascism, and establish alternative ideas of being and living, expand inter-connections amongst struggles around the world, and show that resistance can and will be fertile!
First published by Radical Ecological Democracy on 19 May 2019
Shrishtee Bajpai is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam.