The train pulls into Jehanabad station in the dusky late afternoon haze. Bony porters, boxes and suitcases on their heads, thread their way through the crowd on the platform and hawkers peddle their wares from one carriage window to the next.
Mr Mishra and the young Bengali gentleman, Mr Chatterjee, quickly leave the compartment and make for a tea stall in the middle of the platform.
‘You and Mr Mishra don’t see exactly eye to eye on everything, do you,’ remarks Helen.
‘Well, everyone must decide where they stand, isn’t it?’ the older woman replies. ‘I have arrived at my views after a lifetime of experience. It isn’t as though I was a born activist, you know. On the contrary.’ She breaks off as the two Chatterjee boys start squabbling over a bag of peanuts.
‘Stop it now! Stop it!’ scolds their mother, struggling to separate the two protagonists. The older boy makes a fresh lunge at the bag in his younger brother’s hand and it falls to the floor, scattering peanuts in all directions.
‘Oh, see what you’ve done!’ says the distraught mother, as the younger boy bursts into tears. ‘So sorry, so sorry.’ she apologises to the other two women. ‘such naughty children!’
‘It’s all right, don’t worry. Helen assures her, quickly collecting the peanuts from the floor and wrapping them up in newspaper offered by Gangadevi.
‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ says Mrs Chatterjee.
‘That’s OK. They’re only kids, after all. There’d be something wrong if brothers didn’t squabble from time to time, wouldn’t there?’
‘Yes, and not only brothers, but sisters too,’ says Gangadevi. She pauses and gives a wry smile, ‘Even when they are supposed to be on the same side…’
‘How do you mean?’ asks Helen.
‘Well, just because people are poor and join hands in the same organisation does not mean they will always agree. There are so many issues that can divide them - one caste or one religion will not work alongside another, one group wants to use force against landlords but another is strictly non-violent. There might be different political loyalties, and almost always personality clashes. So many issues can cripple or break up an organisation if the members lose sight of why they came together in the first place.’
But doesn’t that just underline the need for strong leadership?’ Helen suggests.
‘Strong leadership there must be,’ Gangadevi replies slowly, ‘but not autocratic leadership. But even more important… far more important ... is that the people understand the need for unity instead of being diverted by petty quarrels among themselves.’
‘That goes for any organisation - but how do you achieve it’?’
‘It is hard, of course. The only way is through a gradual process of awareness building. That is where people like me can play a small but useful role. We can organise training camps, workshops and discussion sessions for the people.’
‘But does it make much difference, all this training and discussion.
Well, it is a slow process of course, rather like this train...’ She laughs and, as if to prove her wrong, the train’s whistle gives a long blast. Mr Mishra, slightly out of breath, rushes through the door and flops into his seat. Mr Chatterjee, clutching a fresh supply of sweets and biscuits, follows close behind as the train jolts into motion. It gathers speed while passing through the outskirts of the town and soon is chugging through green paddyfields stretching into the distance on both sides of the track.
‘Tickets please,’ says the black-uniformed ticket collector as he enters the compartment.
‘Could you tell us the expected arrival time in Patna?’ asks Mr Mishra.
‘About 9.30 p.m.,’ the man replies, and then adds as an afterthought, ‘but not later than 10 p.m.’
‘Still three more hours to go ... groans Helen.
‘Yes, such a slow train.’ sighs Mr Mishra, ‘but we will arrive in Patna some time. It is only a question of when…’
For the harijans (so-called ‘outcastes’) of Sherpur, a small town of 20,000 people on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the decision to organise themselves was sudden and dramatic. It happened during the harvest in April 1975.
Following a minor wage dispute, a group of local landowners lynched two harijans men and on the following day burnt to the ground 253 harijan houses with all their contents. At first the victims were dazed and bewildered. They simply could not believe that their century-old masters could ever be so callous and brutal. But their bewilderment soon gave way to cold anger and a fierce determination to resist any further oppression.
They came together and formed their own organisation, which became known as the Sherpur Harijan Samity. It was a people’s organisation in every sense - a group of 750 landless families, all harijans, with no formal membership or bureaucracy. Decisions were made by mass meetings. Within such a democratically organised group of social equals, what conflicts could possibly arise? The answer was: plenty.
Their first decision was to sever all relations with their old masters: they would refuse to work on local landowners’ fields or in their homes. Even the traditional midwives among the harijans women refused to attend births in the landowners’ families. The landowners, who were about equal to the harijans in numbers, retaliated by stopping the harijans from collecting fodder and cow dung (used as fuel) from village wastelands and even denying them access to their temporary shacks via the village road.
But this external oppression served only to strengthen solidarity within the harijan group. The Samity launched a series of campaigns for action on their most urgent problems: reconstruction of houses, compensation for possessions lost in the blaze, education for their children, agricultural land and bank loans to provide alternative employment opportunities. The people were becoming more self-confident and ‘struggle minded’. It was a remarkable transformation for people who had been oppressed for centuries and had almost lost all sense of self-respect.
Bit by bit, with assistance from the government and foreign aid agencies, many of their short-term demands were met. The government allocated some agricultural land to the group, which they decided to cultivate cooperatively. Several bank and foreign agencies provided capital for self-employment ventures - petty trading, a brick kiln and small-scale contracting teams. A co-operative blanket-making business was formed, giving seasonal employment to 125 weavers.
But the group’s ‘struggle-mindedness’ could not be sustained indefinitely at a high pitch. As the people achieved some of their short-term objectives, the organisation’s momentum slowed down and it began to disintegrate into different factions.
One highly divisive issue was employment. About 30 per cent of the families received bank loans, but many who did so dropped out of the organisation and concentrated entirely on improving their own economic status. The organisation, for its part, found itself in the conflicting role of loan-servicing on behalf of the bank so that money from repayments could be made available to more loan-seekers. In addition, since only a minority of families received bank loans, many felt resentful about being left out and this became a hone of contention within the organisation.
Leadership has been another divisive issue. The only form of leadership previously known to the harijans was that of six traditional elders chaudaries). The Samity, however, appointed a group of young men - a volunteer ‘task force’ - to run its everyday activities. They were unpaid but the organisation met their expenses such as travel costs. A leadership struggle developed between the traditional elders on the one hand and the youth volunteers on the other. The elders, fearful of provoking a backlash from their former masters, urged caution. ‘Don’t try to snatch a hair from the lion’s moustache,’ they warned.
Bitter arguments followed, sapping the Samity of its unity and momentum. There has also been enormous acrimony over financial matters. Many people feel that their contributions to the ‘struggle fund’ give them the right to sit back and let the fulltime volunteers do all the organisation’s work. The Samity is seen as a sort of Lord Hanuman, a god who will deliver the people from all their enemies.
The youth volunteers feel resentful about what they see as the ingratitude of the people towards them. Everybody seems to criticise them but without being prepared to help in a constructive way. As the mass meetings have become increasingly acrimonious, the volunteers have tried to avoid them and make decisions on behalf of the organisation in an autocratic way.
What is clear is that a ‘leadership of equals’ does not provide the people with a sufficient sense of security. In a rigidly hierarchical society the lack of a recognised leader - a hero, a martyr or a saint - leaves a people’s organisation rudderless. The people may not want an autocrat but they do want a leader who can command respect and hold together the various factions in the organisation.
The group’s failure to develop a sense of common political purpose is probably its greatest weakness. The Samity managed to preserve its unity during the general elections of 1977 but the elections of 1980 threw it into disarray. Leading figures within the Samity were won over by the different political parties and could be seen riding around on the parties’ jeeps during rallies. This was a blow to group unity from which the Samity has not yet recovered.
The Samity has also been unable to establish working links with other organisations of poor people both within and outside the local community. It is now in a state of flux and its future direction is uncertain. In retrospect, it is clear that the organisation’s initial momentum was largely a group reflex reaction to external oppression. The threat of oppression is still real, but it has receded into the background. Ironically, the Samity’s gradual weakening is due less to external pressures than to internal conflicts. The ‘enemy within’ can be as destructive as the ‘enemy without’.
Professor BN Juyal teaches Rural Sociology at the Gandhian Institute of Studies in Varanasi.