No bleeding hearts for bleeding feet of Indian farmers
Those protesting farmers just gave us a lesson in how to be good citizens. Patronise them at your peril.
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When it comes down to it, perhaps the most enduring image by which we will remember the long march by 35,000 farmers is this: Feet.
On the day that the farmers finally reached Mumbai, the culmination of a 180-km journey that began in Nashik town on March 6, social media was awash with pictures of feet. Mud-caked, cracked, bleeding, bandaged; people walking barefoot, people walking in chappals held together by string and even one woman walking with just a single chappal.
The Telegraph chose as its front-page photograph a close-up of a bleeding foot. The headline? “Blister that should make India choke on its coffee.”
The barefoot farmer had struck a chord.
Founder of IndiaSpend (disclosure, I write for the website), FactChecker and Boom, journalist Govindraj Ethiraj began a footwear collection drive for protestors, a campaign that ended a few hours later once the morcha was called off and farmers started the long journey back home. In that short time, over 300 pairs of chappals were collected and distributed, many amongst old farmers who had walked without any footwear.
Right-wing circles, meanwhile, were spinning conspiracy theories. The most startling perhaps came from Poonam Mahajan, the BJP MP who won her ticket on the back of the privilege of being her father’s daughter, who told a TV channel that the march was propelled by "urban Maoists".
For sympathisers of the farmer’s cause - and their considerable number was an unexpected pleasure - it was evidence of arrogance. But for Mahajan’s ideological supporters, it was misinterpretation (the reply was to a specific question on the sea of red flags, they said) at best and, at worst, misguided exploitation by Left parties.
It is just as arrogant to assert that a particular march should not be political. The subtext of this is, well, yes, poor farmers should have a better life, but they should not be politically organised or protest under a political banner.
Excuse me, why not?
Why should not farmers have the right to choose which ideological front will organise tens of thousands to march in protest, in this case the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha which is affiliated to the CPI(M)? After all, agency and individual choice are not the privileged actions of only those who live in cities.
It is the right of every citizen in this country to protest lawfully.
Image: PTI photo
My own life as a protester has been somewhat short-lived. The only time I took to the streets was to join thousands of others protesting against Jyoti Singh’s brutal gang-rape and subsequent death in December 2012. Braving tear gas and water cannon and just the intimidating sight of the Indian state represented by baton-wielding riot-gear police, we walked and chanted and sang on Rajpath all the way to Rashtrapati Bhavan, and when we were evicted from there, settled down at Jantar Mantar.
Late on the first night, Salman Khurshid, then a minister with the UPA government, popped up on television to lament the protest and I was astounded by the arrogance of a government saying that we had no right to be there.
No right even to be angry?
A protest is not just a strong-arm tactic to get government to bow to demands. A protest is also an expression of angst and dissatisfaction.
In the winter of 2012, women were angry that it was so easy to brutalise us. We didn’t even have a list of demands apart from the generic "No more rape" demand, but we certainly had a right to be on the streets, registering our fury in a mighty protest that eventually forced the government to set up a commission and change the law.
The farmers’ story is more than the sum of their blistered, bleeding feet.
It is a story we seldom hear, partly because we are obsessed with our own city-centric lives of malls and urban commuting and partly because media almost never tells us these stories. Most media, and certainly most television media, seldom step out of cities - unless there is an election around the corner.
There are exceptions - PARI - People’s Archive of Rural India is a "living archive of the world’s most complex countryside" and Khabar Lahariya is a women-run weekly newspaper.
But for the protest march, would you have heard about Kamli Babu who walked from Dahanu to Nashik and then Mumbai? For six months of the year, she cultivates a three-acre patch of forest land that she does not own, for the rest of the year she works as a labourer, receiving food, not cash, as wages. She is 85-years-old.
The protest march gave a voice to Shankar Waghere of Nalegaon village in Dindori taluka of Nashik. The production cost for an acre of rice is Rs 12,000, he told PARI. In a good year he can expect 15 quintals of rice an acre; the current price is Rs 1,000 a quintal. How is this small farmer expected to feed his family? “When I got to know of the march, I decided I will participate, come what may,” he said.
Would you have seen Rukmabai Bendkule, the 60-year-old farm labourer, dancing, red flag in hand?
What did the farmers want? What was their story? How were they going to get us to hear it? And why is it important to hear the story of our fellow citizens?
That is the crux of the protest. The stories are the messages we need to absorb. That it should take a bleeding blister to burst our complacent cocoon is the tragedy of our modern democracy.
The long march successfully demonstrated that the poorest, most marginalised and dispossessed citizens of this country do not lack either dignity or political will. You are welcome to sympathise with their bleeding feet, feel a twinge or two. But you cannot patronise them.
They are assertive, independent, strong agents of their own lives. And they just gave you a lesson in how to be a good citizen.