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Gandhi Memorial Lecture 2013

Gandhi as Radical Social Visionary: Learning from the Grassroots Movement Ekta Parishad

Paul Schwartzentruber

A talk to the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council of Ottawa, given at the College of the Humanities, Carleton University, January 31, 2013

I have had the privilege to encounter and learn about Gandhi only in my later years through the work of a grassroots movement in India called Ekta Parishad (‘Unity Forum’). I have learned about Gandhi, I mean, through my experience of coming to terms with the work of Ekta Parishad, an organization that is inspired by Gandhi’s life and thought. That particular experience has led me to a particular understanding of Gandhi; I think, one I will call the ‘social visionary’ or better, the ‘radical social visionary.’ Of course, there are many ‘Gandhis’ in India (I mean, many versions of the cultural icon still called the ‘Father of the Nation’ or the ‘Mahatma’)--some admired, some despised, some put on money and in offices and some simply dismissed as a crank from a bygone era. Gandhi has been often captured to give his blessing to things that would have made him shudder. However there are precious few who dare to claim that their present work is an interpretation and a continuation of Gandhi’s vision on the ground. Ekta Parishad is one of these.

I say that my experience has made me ‘come to terms’ with Ekta Parishad and Gandhi because I want to stress just what a stretch it has been for a modern Westerner to get to the grassroots of rural India and from there to encounter a very different and vibrant Gandhian activism. Now it is true that Westerners have been ‘discovering’ India (and re-discovering themselves through India) since the time of Kipling and before. Whether it is Kipling or E.M. Forster or Verrier Elwin (the intriguing Englishman who was devoted to tribals in India), it is clear that a great cultural divide has separated the modernity of the West from rural and traditional India. It is so great in fact that the Westerners are often tempted to sentimentalize or ‘Orientalize’ the India they encounter, that is, to turn it into an imaginary counterpart of their own desires. The Westerners of an earlier generation, who came to learn from Gandhi himself such as Madeleine Slade, Lanza del Vasto, the great French Gandhian, or Joan Bondurant the American scholar, also had to struggle with this of course.

Gandhi himself, however, (who had good experience and knowledge of the West of his time) was much more practical in this regard in that he maintained we could learn from each other and challenge each other even though we had and would continue to have very different destinies. This, by the way, is the secret which the boosters of globalization don’t want us to know: that our differences are real and will enrich each other. We really don’t need to mimic each other in order to communicate, to wear the same jeans and sunglasses and eat the same burgers.

(Of course there is also now a powerful occidentalization going on in India, that is, an idealization of the modernity of the West in the imagination of Indians. This is something that Gandhi himself feared and foresaw. It is, as some would say, the deepest long term effect of colonialism. (Here I refer you to that brilliant book, The Intimate Enemy, by Ashis Nandy. In the light of this Westernization of the imagination, the hope for a different and unique future for the civilization of India is just tossed aside.)

Well, in the midst of all of those powerful forces on both sides I went to India, in a quite innocent way really. My own experience of coming to terms has been of a more simple kind though it has still shaken me to the core. Let me mention just two aspects of it. First, I think I have come to understand that Gandhi’s ‘traditional civilization’ of villages still exists (though it is now bombarded from every side by a new and rather vicious modernity from within India and only survives in increasing poverty and isolation—much like native communities in Canada). I have seen it clearly enough to begin to understand it in its difference from anything else I have ever experienced.  I was warmly welcomed there as an ‘other’ and have been trying to take stock of my otherness ever since. Now, this is not a perfect civilization but it embodies many values that we have lost or never realized. It is dense and rich in the human sense. It lived and lives still in a form that is sustainable. It is imbued with hospitality and humanity and a spiritual depth.

Second, I have also come to learn that who I thought Gandhi was before I went to India— that is, a kind of Eastern social reformer and political activist--was completely wrong: Gandhi, I would now say, was far more radical than I imagined or could have imagined here in the West even with the help of Richard Attenborough. His dissent from both traditional and modern paths is so radical that it cannot simply be integrated in either framework.1 As the best interpreter of Gandhi--Ashis Nandy--has noted, Gandhi claimed that the “cultural periphery was in fact the centre” (namely, the poor, the powerless) and in so doing, he raised the ultimate threat to both colonialism and traditional Indian culture. Gandhi also radically revised ‘the weights and measures,’ the internal values of Indian culture to highlight its power as a true alternative to the modernity of industrialized England. It was a society of service/seva rather than one of competition, he insisted (but each had to serve everyone else, he whispered!) “Honour,” Gandhi asserted “universally lay with the victims rather than the aggressors” (Final Encounter, 67); true power was the ability to accept and undertake voluntary suffering. It was an inner reality, and ethical act of great political potential. This was hard and bitter medicine for those who had or sought power rather than goodness as Chief Theresa Spence has reminded us again recently.

I want to say more about this radical version of Gandhi but I will first need to tell the story of my encounter with Ekta Parishad.

I met PV Rajagopal, the founder of Ekta Parishad in 2008 in Canada. He was here trying to find an audience to which to speak about the Janadesh padayatra which he had led in India the year before. The ‘people’s verdict’ was a  foot march (recalling Gandhi’s famous Salt March in 1930) in which 25,000 landless poor from throughout the country walked in procession along the national highway from Gwalior to Delhi. (Picture the 401 from Toronto to Ottawa.) They ate and slept on the highway. They fed and cared for themselves during the march with one meal a day and some volunteer ambulances. These were the rural, village poor—most of them tribal people or Adivasis—who sang and danced and persevered through 40 degree heat walking, often in bare feet, 10 kilometres a day during the 28 day march. When they arrived in Delhi, they were surrounded by police and finally met by the Rural Development minister who, in the end, promised land reform and a land reform council chaired by the Prime Minister. He also promised resolution of the many land claims on behalf of the dispossessed.

Rajagopal told me this story and showed a film of the march that had been made by a Swiss filmmaker. Afterwards, he told me about his work for the previous twenty-five years visiting tribal villages, giving empowerment workshops for tribal youth and women. He is a soft-spoken but extremely intense man who jokes easily about himself and his work. I had never met anyone like him and so when he said ‘Come and see what we are doing,’ I began planning my trip almost immediately.

On my first trip to India in 2009, I spent six weeks travelling on a kind of underground railroad from village to village and  training site to training site, by jeep with Rajaji through Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, by night train to Bhopal and then to an organic training farm in Katni and finally to an ashram near Madurai. I met activists of all kinds, from young village workers who somehow scraped by on 3000 Rps per month to retired professors who were dedicating themselves to developing a new model of grassroots education. I ended my trip on the ocean in Kerala at a community centre set up for victims of the tsunami and of black sand mining, where I also ate my first coconut.

Naturally, after this trip my head was spinning when I returned to Canada. Not only because of what I had seen but also because of the new understanding that was beginning to emerge from that.

I had interviewed Rajaji rather extensively during our travels together and learned something about the vision behind his work. He saw that his struggle was ultimately against the forces of globalization and specifically the money that was pouring in to India to exploit and develop the rural areas under the guise of modernizing and by collusion of the state and central governments and the financial houses. The tribal people with whom he worked were on the cutting edge of this so-called ‘development’. How big was this problem? (Keeping in mind that almost everything in India happens on a large scale!) The displacement of the partition is one of the founding stories of India as modern state. That displacement, and the communal violence between Muslim and Hindu that happened in the years around 1946 affected and displaced about 16 million people directly.  Gandhi fought this resolutely in his old age and it broke his heart to see it happen. It has haunted the imagination of Indians since then. But by contrast, it is now estimated that more than 60 million tribal people and Dalits have been displaced in the last fifty years as a result of India’s modernization. That’s more than three times as many people and twice the population of Canada.  And this goes almost unnoticed. It is fair to say that their displacement is one of the biggest factors in the creation of India’s urban slums and also a significant factor in the high levels of poverty in the country. Having lost the dignity of their culture and traditional land, India’s tribals often end up becoming a pool of cheap labour in Mumbai and Delhi.

This is what Rajagopal and Ekta Parishad are confronting and attempting to resist. As a Gandhian from his youth, he knew in his bones that their  marginalization and dispossession could only be resisted nonviolently, with the technique of satyagraha which Gandhi himself had developed (originally from the insight of the great Tolstoy, namely, “that the Indians had allowed themselves to be enslaved”). The corollary was that with courage and fearless adherence to the truth, one could also free oneself. (I note another of Gandhi’s radical concepts.) “The poor,” Rajaji told me “have a power that the wealthy can never have. They already know how to endure. They can walk all day. They can sit and sit until justice is finally done. After all, they have nothing to lose.” Moreover, as Gandhi had explained in Hind Swaraj, Rajagopal knew that social change can only begin in the acts of the individual, that the ethical and the political could not be separated and that the solutions must be personally rooted rather than simply bureaucratic and in policy form. (Again, this is a truth that Theresa Spence has reminded us of recently.) Resistance to the forces of violence let loose in modern times could ultimately only come from ‘soul force’. This set him firmly apart from the Naxalites who, in most ways, had compromised with violence as a means.

All of this began to roil around in my mind back in Canada where complacency, indifference and the addictions of consumerism seemed to make these kinds of truth utterly irrelevant. I also began to question the model of political ‘reform’ that I had grown up with—namely that an elite of educated people could reform the ‘system’ (essentially by voting for the right party and passing the right laws) so that the victimization of the poor could ultimately be ended. This is a pale version of real democracy of course, but it seems all that we have time or energy for and we are puzzled when it always seems to deliver a government no one really wants.  Moreover, after a lifetime of trying, I realized that the system only seemed to become denser and denser in its control of the forms of opposition to it. The idea of reforming it seemed to be undermined by its own inner grammar--it needed and tolerated victimization in part because so many professionals were employed to ‘service it’. ‘Serving the needy’ had become a big part of the economic engine and yet it did not seem to erase the disparity. At the same time, education, health care and the social services all created a vast audience of more and more dependent and ‘needy’ citizens. Finally, as we become more technologically advanced, I realized that we had lost more and more of the skills of self-reliance and community—skills that I had seen everywhere still practiced in India with ease and assurance.

The Gandhian approach I had seen in Ekta Parishad certainly recognized the effects of victimization but it tolerated no ‘victims’. I mean to say that each person—without exception or excuse—was asked to take responsibility for their own situation and for changing it.  It was never a question of blaming others or the system, and always a problem of how to move forward together. In a Gandhian world there are no ultimate enemies either, one’s opponents (no matter how dark) are always ultimate partners to be won over with truth and soul force. As I looked around, with my new perspective, I did indeed find philosophers and mystics in the West who had tried to looked at the world in a similar way—George Grant (the Canadian political philosopher), Thomas Merton (the Trappist monk), Raimon Panikkar  (the theologian of religious diversity) and the mystic Simone Weil whose understanding of personal responsibility and the acceptance of suffering echoes very closely that of Gandhi himself. Interestingly, each of them had been somehow touched by Indian civilization and found a way to give that shape here in the West.

Meanwhile, Ekta Parishad was now preparing for another march—the Jansatyagraha, in October 2012. 100,000 people were to be marshaled to walk again from Gwalior to Delhi. I made several more trips to India, attempting to help in some small ways working with the young volunteers, the website and the advocacy work. There were always visits to the villages and twice I was able to join in one of the regional padyatras that were used for mobilizing and publicizing. I joined one in the Chambal valley for two days and another in the jungles near Chilikaat Lake in Orissa for three. Frankly, they were the most difficult things I have ever done and, though they were uplifting, I also found them utterly exhausting. However, the experience of walking along beside the tribal men through cities and villages or simply in the countryside gave me a sense of belonging I have rarely felt. When I reflected on this later, I recalled Rajagopal saying that being in the truth means not hiding behind self-conceits, illusions or ideologies. It is a state where there is simply nothing you have to hide or be ashamed of. It puts one in touch with an “unbearable lightness of being” if I may quote the poet. In the case of the tribals on the march, they were standing up for simple justice, being who they were and not being willing to be ignored or swept away by the strong desires of the more sophisticated and the wealthy.

I felt something like that simple truth too, I think, among the people with whom I was walking and now I can recognize the very different consciousness in which we live most of the time here. Rajaji likes to joke that it is hard enough to wake up a person who is asleep but it is very hard to wake up someone who is a ‘pretending to be asleep’. In the West, it seems to me, we all carry around this deep-seated and semi-conscious denial of reality. We are pretending to be asleep so that we may avoid facing what is all around us. In fact, you need to have this denial in working order in order to function in a society that is slowly and purposely destroying the earth on which it lives. We are asleep to the reality of the earth (where we see only ‘resources’ for our use) and also to the disparities that we have created within it and within our own country. Being asleep allows us to keep up a kind of appearance of sanity in a society which is essentially insane in its goals and daily practices.

(For this we are fascinated of course when someone has to “come clean” about their lies publically—Lance Armstrong for example, and we have a kind of cult of the entertainment provided by the confession from Dr. Phil to Oprah. But this is really just playacting, isn’t it? To really come clean would mean…well something we don’t want to imagine. But I would like to suggest that it was in that ‘open space’ of honesty or what he called ‘the truth,’ that Gandhi lived and it gave him a great power to act. I have come more and more to believe that the only way forward for us in West, is some kind of ‘waking up,’ some way to move beyond our denial of reality. That could involve the release of enormous positive energy. It takes a lot of energy to pretend to be asleep, after all.)

Slowly, over time I got to know some of the people on the ground in Ekta Parishad and heard their stories. There is Narmada of Chilghat village in MP, now close to sixty, whose almost single-handed defiance of the Forest Department (over many arrests and burnt houses) has won the right of possession to some 500 hectares of land which now supports 21 villages of tribal people in their livelihood.  There is communal farming of two crops and a single irrigation pump donated by someone in Switzerland irrigating the fields. Or Shobha Behn, a village activist near Katni who is supported by a communal organization of women activists as they manage their families and work in the field doing their volunteer work. Shobha recently became well-known because she faced down a squad of local police with lathis who had been called in to clear a village of tribal people off land desired by a wealthy local landowner. Or Shikari Baiga, the twenty year old leader of a tribal village in Chhattisgarh who has worked hard to lift up his village socially and economically and is now on the national council of Ekta Parishad. There are many more stories of course.  What is common to all of them is a story of dedicated self-sacrifice and devotion that is remarkable.

There are more than 200,000 individual members of Ekta Parishad and many, many local organizations who are partners. Recently Ekta Parishad has reached out across the global South to other organizations involved in the struggle for people’s rights to land—to MST in Brazil, The Kenya Land Alliance and comparable groups in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Nepal and Bangladesh. Several conferences have been held in India bringing together representatives from these organizations. Ekta Parishad’s method of nonviolent mobilization was seen by many of these people as a model. It should be noted that it works so well in India because there still exists there the ‘democratic space,’ as Rajagopal calls it, in which to act nonviolently and have an impact on others. That space is shrinking constantly however, both because of the incursion of the political parties (with their methods of diversion into the politics of division and corruption) and that of the armed guerillas (and the subsequent militarization of the state security apparatus). To use that democratic space for grassroots direct action has been the unique contribution of Ekta Parishad.

Gandhi himself created that democratic space originally by reaching out to the masses of India to stand against the forces of hierarchical politics fostered by the colonial powers and those within the Congress Party itself. He created a politics of small individual acts of commitment—wearing khadi, breaking caste rules, spinning, hygiene—walking together, and service of each other—which he believed could transform the course of history by standing up to violence, hatred and ignorance. “Transform your own heart first” was his fundamental motto and that was because he believed that there was no shortcut to a just society or the good life together. “There is no system so perfect that no one will need to do good,” he said. Nonviolence, I have come to realize, really involves the commitment to this slow, difficult and daily path of self-sacrifice. It is a clinging to what you believe is the truth but it’s the kind that gives others time and space to also come to the truth.  

On my most recent trip to India, last fall with my wife, the preparations for the great march, Jansatyagraha, were in full swing. For the entire year of 2012, Rajagopal had committed to a jeep yatra that would cross through almost every state of India. The yatra began at the Rajghat in Delhi where some soil from Gandhi’s grave was gathered. We took this on a train ride to Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India. With three sleeper cars full  of activists, we happily passed the seventy hour trip on the Himsagar Express! At almost every stop right down through Kerala, it seemed that Rajagopal was met by a delegation of local activists. The purpose of the year-long yatra was twofold—to reach out to other groups who were engaged in land rights activism, especially in the Dalit communities (Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar’s pictures decorated the jeeps) and also to visit local struggles against development such as the Russian built nuclear plant in Koodankulum or the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada. Many people participated in the yatra in turn, joining Rajaji and his followers for a day or two. The yatris slept wherever they were offered space in community centres, peoples’ homes, or even empty office buildings. We joined for a time in Tamil Nadu and then went off to other tasks of preparation.

As I received daily reports from the yatra to post on the website, my wife and I spent some time travelling to schools supported by Ekta Parishad. (She is a teacher.) We went to a school for Adivasi girls in Sheopur that is run by Ekta Parishad and together spent some weeks teaching English and drawing while learning to make chapattis with the girls. I also learned there--first-hand--just how complex is the question of education for tribal people, for it inevitably carries with it the values of colonial and modern culture and seems to disparage those of tribal culture. And yet at the same time, it is clear that without basic skills of language and mathematics, tribals will continue to be exploited by the dominant economic system. Many of the girls we spoke to saw their time in the ashram school as a welcome break from the labour of village life and dreamed of learning to teach or be a doctor—though they all said that they wanted to return to their villages to do it. They taught us both something about the ambiguous power of ‘education’ for good and for ill. And I recalled one of Rajaji’s favorite quips, namely that he believed all schools should be closed for five years so people could learn to use their hearts again—along with their heads. We visited another school in the tribal village of Bhimbetka where Ekta Parishad has scrounged together funds for a teacher and built a bamboo structure of which the villagers are very proud. The children were also proud of their uniforms and the idea of going to a school in their own village but I could not help from wondering what good the government curriculum would do them there.

We visited that village with a group of young peace activists from Afghanistan who had come to India to learn about the work of Ekta Parishad. They were teenagers from villages around Kabul who had received some peace teaching and training. They were very brave and remarkable young people. It was a very fitting way to end our time there. We saw the work and the practice of Gandhian activism through the eyes of young people who had known only violence and all been touched by it very personally. The diversity of India was a bit of a shock to them, the sounds and the colours and the noise (we took them on a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk to visit the Jama Al-Masjid mosque and have supper at Karims) and they could barely believe that Muslims and Hindus could live together side by side so peacefully. I tried to imagine what a stretch it must be for them.

Unfortunately, our final seven months in India ended with me becoming quite ill. After a long recovery there and returning to Canada to convalesce, I realized that I was going to miss the big padyatra in October. It was something I followed only on the web and in messages from friends.

Jairam Ramesh, the Congress Minister for Rural Development came to meet the assembled 60,000 people in Gwalior two days before the march began. The government had been negotiating with Ekta for over three months about ten demands and a basic agreement had been reached on most of them. For example, it was to be enshrined in law that every Indian had a “right to shelter” protected by the constitution (which meant a tenth of an acre of land for homestead). The government also agreed to develop within six months a National Land Reform Policy—something that has been demanded since the time of Gandhi. Laws (like the Forest Rights Act) regarding the land of Adivasis were to be strengthened and a land pool was to be created at a national level. However, the agreement was not signed and the march began. The Yatris marched for some nine days to Agra and finally the minister came back and signed the agreement. And so the march ended in a celebration.

Ekta Parishad is ‘going back to the villages’ now, as I have heard from friends there, and focusing for the time ahead on the constructive programs that are urgently needed there. It is a very Gandhian move that—leaving the centre and returning to the periphery, working in the small daily ways that make a difference. And it is a sign of the vitality of a grassroots movement.

I have spoken of the concept of satyagraha—clinging to the truth or soul-force. It is, if you like, the inner mechanism, the engine of ahimsa, nonviolence. I would like to end by mentioning two other concepts of Gandhi that are at the core of his radical social vision. The first is sarvodaya—the well-being of all. Gandhi himself coined the term to translate the economic/political vision he had read in the work of John Ruskin. The term has become a bit of a cliché I am afraid for something that is idealistic but in essence it means that the way forward for each of us can only come together with all of the others. There is no gain that can be purchased at the expense of others, by exploitation—no gain without a powerful rebound of negative karma, that is. In that sense, sarvodaya is a radical critique of our everyday way of doing things, of our economic and social life. It is not, as Rajagopal likes to say, “well-being for some, or even well-being for the majority” but rather well-being for all that is the goal of real democracy. Gandhi coined another term to underline this—antyodaya, ‘the well-being of the least one’. Gandhi you see, was also a very practical person, he knew that if we really opened our eyes to ‘the least ones around us’ and stopped to consider their well-being, it would radically change our view of the world, and slowly also change us. I think he hoped that he could change Nehru that way when he wrote his famous ‘Talisman’.

I want to end by letting my friends talk for themselves. This is a four minute video made by a friend in India. He is a self-trained filmmaker and this will give you a flavor of the movement and of Rajagopal himself. It is mostly in Hindi with English subtitles.


Ekta Parishad.com and Jansatyagraha.org  are good websites for info.
Films and video, youtube and vimeo under ‘Ekta Parishad’
ScribD   under ‘Paul Schwartzentruber’ includes an extensive ‘Interview with Rajagopal PV’.

1Ashis Nandy, “Final Encounter: The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi,” in Bonfire of Creeds: The Essential Ashis Nandy, 63: “Effortlessly transcending the dichotomy of orthodoxy and iconoclasm, he forged a mode of self-expression which by its apparently non-threatening simplicity reconciled the common essence of the old and the new. However, in spite of his synthesizing skills, the content of the social changes he suggested and the political activism he demanded from the Indian people, were highly subversive of the main strain of Indian, particularly, Hindu culture.”