As thousands of farmers descended on Mumbai last Sunday with blistered feet and tired bodies having trudged some 180 km from Nashik, an unusual scene unfolded – Mumbaikars poured out of homes by the dozens, offering them drinking water, food and little comforts to beat the heat, as well as medicines to nurse their wounds.
There was little show of anger or resentment at the disruption the long march might have caused in the crowded metropolis; instead, the farmers’ brigade was nurtured by the city and given shout-outs by people from across the country.
So, what could have been the reason the protesters evoked such an overwhelming response and were not treated with disdain, as often happens with such agitations?
Many believe it was the grit, determination, dignity and restraint with which the farmers conducted themselves that won hearts and moved the country’s millions. They appeared to have taken a cue from the Gandhian style of protest that is marked by non-violence, peaceful marches, sit-outs and hunger strikes.
“I would say that, in many ways, this Mumbai protest has shown how these agitations should be carried out. The discipline of the marching crowds, despite having such strength, was extraordinary,” said Yogendra Yadav, president of Swaraj India.
“Gandhi used to say that you can change the heart of even your enemies by practising satyagraha and these tribals and farmers have proved just that. The fact that a Leftist outfit used a Gandhian method to achieve a goal in itself says a lot about the power of the tool.”
The farmers decided to call off their agitation after Maharashtra’s Devendra Fadnavis government promised to meet most demands made by the tribals under the Forest Rights Act in six months as well as waive loans taken by farmers till June 2017.
“There is a certain moral force attached to a protest that is so big, yet completely non-violent and organised, and makes it point very powerfully. It then becomes difficult for anybody to ignore it,” said social commentator Santosh Desai.
He said that the smallest of demonstrations in a city like Mumbai could lead to anger and resentment among the people because they tended to disrupt life, but it was the understanding shown by the protesters that made the difference.
Reports suggested that once the farmers reached Mumbai, they stopped at Sion in the suburbs, planning to march to Azad Maidan a day later. But on an appeal from the state government, they marched all night so they would reach the grounds without inconveniencing students taking the SSC examinations the next day.
“It might look like a small gesture but it says a lot of about these simple tribals and farmers who walked so many days to get their voices heard. In my view, the Gandhian method of protest is the only deep tool available to put forth demands that are otherwise ignored,” said social activist Medha Patkar.
Jiva Pandu Gavit, the seven-time MLA from the tribal constituency of Kalvan in Nashik district who was the driving force behind the march, too said discipline and determination were the key factors that made the agitation a success.
“The tribal men and women were firm on the ways and means (of protest) we had chosen. They refused transport offered to them by the police and the government. They also displayed the discipline of CPI-M cadres in the best possible way. I feel that was the key factor that made the agitation a major success,” Gavit said.
Besides, the marchers also set an example on how a huge turnout of around 50,000 could remain focused on their goals, achieve them, and win over people, he added.
A sympathy wave of sorts was created when the hardships the protesters suffered during the long march went viral over social media. “But that is not all. For the first time, the agitation brought to the fore the problems faced by tribal farmers. This is a very important political achievement,” said senior journalist Sunil Tambe, who has been studying farmers’ issues for a long time.
Social commentator Desai said the peacefulness of the protest was not the only reason why the government conceded the marchers’ demands. Care was taken to ensure the protest resonated through the country and earned widespread support.
“I am sure the government understands that distress in the farm sector is a major issue in many states and any heavy-handedness could make the situation explosive. But the fact that the protest was quiet and had public endorsement ensured that those in power did not have any excuse to react in any other way,” he said.
Sarmistha Pattnaik, who teaches sociology at IIT Bombay, said Gandhian methods of protest would never lose relevance.
“We have seen their efficacy in the case of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Chipko movement and many others. They turn out so remarkable as they help the actors to create broader protests and social movements,” she opined.
In the view of D Venkatswara Rao, director of Gandhian Studies Centre at Y N College in Narsapur, Andhra Pradesh, the values that satyagraha stand for brings credibility to the table as contrasted with the hooliganism that has become synonymous with protests in India. “Gandhian values mostly work, ethically and strategically, as we saw in this Mumbai farmers’ protest.”