CAN we turn the light on’?’ asks Helen. ‘It’s getting dark in here,’
‘I am afraid that is not possible.’ says Mr Mishra sadly, pointing to the empty light socket.
‘So it needs a new bulb. Can’t we get one from the guard or buy one at the next station?’
‘That will not be of any use.’ he says. ‘There is no electricity supply on this train anyway. All the other compartments are also dark... Ah, but what to do?’ He shrugs his shoulders.
Conversation lapses again. The two Bengali boys are fast asleep, looking almost angelic as they nestle in the laps of their parents. Mr Mishra’s eyelids droop and his head lolls onto his right shoulder. The greyish light of the full moon fills the compartment as the train rocks and clicks along the track.
After a few minutes Helen breaks the silence.
‘Tell me.’ she says softly, looking over at Gangadevi. ‘don’t you ever get discouraged doing this sort of work? There seem to be so many problems, don’t you ever wonder if it’s all worth it?’
The older woman hesitates for a few seconds.
‘Yes.’ she says slowly, ‘there are many disappointments ... many stops and starts. But I have never seriously thought of giving it all up, no. You see, I took up this work when my husband died. We had no children, and it was a way of getting over
my grief, by doing something useful. But I soon found that my own problems were nothing compared to what the common people go through every day of their lives...
But what about the people in these organisations you’ve been talking about?’ asks Helen. ‘Don’t thex’ get terribly discouraged?’
‘Yes, but it is not as though they have nothing to show for their efforts. Some concrete achievements are certainly there. Higher wages, for example. In several parts of Bihar, the people’s organisations have pressured the landowners for higher
wages. Instead of one kilo of foodgrains for one day’s work in the fields, they are now getting two or even three. Forestry is another example. In some tribal areas the people have organised resistance to the contractors and halted the destruction of their forests - at least for the time being.’
‘Yes, but aren’t there more failures than successes?’ Helen objects. ‘Land reform. for example. Not much has been achieved
there, has it? And police brutalities continue - you read about them in the papers every day.’
‘Right, but more and more poor people are realising that the only way forward is through organisation. So they start a small group, they hold meetings, they collect money, they plan some joint action .. and gradually they build up their strength.’
‘But surely there are lots of drop-outs. I mean, people get bored with coming to meetings.. I certainly do .. And they get tired of working for a cause if they don’t see any immediate results
‘Ah,’ Gangadevi interrupts, ‘but it is not just a question of results that you can measure. When a poor person finds himself or herself no longer alone but part of a group of people who are more or less equals and have a certain amount of collective strength, that in itself is a tremend~us psychological boost, isn’t it? It gives people some self-respect, some self-confidence, and the motivation to keep working together to change their lives:
‘You really are the eternal optimist,’ says Helen, smiling at the older woman. ‘Still. I suppose you have to be, otherwise
She breaks off as the carriage gives the now familiar shudder as the brakes squeal and the train pulls into a siding. ‘Here we go again, another stop .~. I’m beginning to think we’ll never get to Patna!’
‘Yes we will, but we must have patience, Gangadevi says softly, looking at the full moon outside. ‘We’ll get there in the end.’
It was early evening when I reached Pakhoria Ashram near the small town of Tundi. People from the surrounding villages, many carrying kerosene lanterns, were gathering in the courtyard for their monthly meeting. Most of the men, bearded and longhaired, were in their twenties or thirties. Several women were carrying babies and young children were clinging to their mothers’ saris.
When about 100 people had gathered, a man stood up to open the meeting by welcoming everyone present. He was Mukul Sural, or ‘Lala’ as he is known, the local leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Jharkhand Liberation Front).
‘We’re in the grip of a very bad drought this year, as you all know,’ he says in a firm, clear voice. ‘There is no work and we’ll be facing starvation if the government doesn’t start some Food for Work schemes. Last month the Block Development Officer promised to start some Irrigation projects, but nothing has happened yet!’
‘Yes,’ says one woman, ‘In our village there’s no work at all. And we don’t have enough in the grain bank for everyone who needs it.’
‘The government must start Food for Work projects.’ says one man. ‘After all, it’s our right, isn’t it? Why don’t we organise a demonstration tomorrow outside the BDO’s office? Otherwise nothing will happen!’
Eventually the meeting decides to do this. Five people including Lala are asked to draw up a list of demands and the meeting moves on to discuss the dwindling food stocks in the co-operative grain banks.
This was a typical meeting of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, an organisation of tribal and other oppressed communities. The Jharkhand is a forested, mineral-rich region covering 16 districts in four States, including all of southern Bihar. Some 40 per cent of India’s mineral production comes from this region, and manufacturing industries including steel, fertilisers, chemicals and cement are also thriving.
Yet although the Jharkhand may be developing, at least in an economic sense, the local tribal people are not. The land on which they depend for survival is being systematically plundered by outsiders intent on making quick profits. The people of the Jharkhand are in effect a fourth world colony within a Third World country.
The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was formed in 1972 to unify local resistance to outside exploitation. Under the leadership of Sibu Soren, a Member of Parliament, the influence of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has spread throughout the tribal areas of southern Bihar and the three neighbouring States.
Its main political demand is the creation of a separate State within the Indian nation - long a dream of the Jharkhand people. A century ago they resisted British rule with the slogan: ‘The reign of the Queen will be over and we will have our own State.’
The odds facing them, however, are formidable. Politicians are opposed to the concept of carving out a new State and beyond them there is a powerful alliance of unscrupulous moneylenders, mining companies, timber contractors and corrupt police and government officials. Police and hired thugs frequently carry out brutalities: house burnings, torture, rape and murder. Trumped-up court cases are also common.
Despite all this and the failure of the Morcha to achieve its main demands, the movement continues to have the support of the local people. Many other people’s organisations which began in Bihar during the early 1970s have since withered and died. Many activists have become discouraged by failure; others have been bought off by establishment political parties, and some groups have simply disintegrated through internal disputes. How has the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha managed not only to survive but to grow in strength?
Some of the answers were obvious from the way in which the meeting at Pakhoria Ashram was being conducted. The arguments were often heated but everyone was allowed his or her say, and the final decision was a consensus to which everyone felt committed. So they have a strong sense of ‘ownership’: they feel that the movement belongs to them and they have a responsibility to work for its success.
Another important factor is that the organisation has succeeded in bringing some tangible benefits to the people. And these have been evenly shared rather than concentrated among a privileged elite. Some - such as Food for Work projects and bank loans for dairy production - have resulted from collective pressure on the government bureaucracy. Others are the result of ‘self-development’ efforts such as village grain banks and cash saving schemes. There is also a system of mutual support. If, for example, someone is imprisoned or unable to work because of serious illness or injury, other villagers will help the family with gifts of foodgrains or cash.
But there have been psychological benefits too. As people discover themselves capable of achieving things, a process of personal development takes place. As they overcome their fears of those in authority and become adept in dealing with government officials, forest contractors and bank officials, the people gain self-respect and self-confidence.
The meeting at Pakhoria Ashram finished at 10.30 pm, with the full moon high in the sky. But nobody felt like returning home.
‘Put out the lanterns,’ said Jyoti Murma, one of the women’s leaders, ‘there is plenty of moonlight’.
Jyoti and three other girls put their arms around each other’s waist and started to sing and dance. Four young boys produced a flute and drums, and other young men and women joined the group of dancers in the moonlit courtyard.
Brothers and sisters, we are so many
Beginning from Assam, as far as Bihar
Bengal and Orissa
Brothers and sisters
We are in the same stream
Even though we are in different States
Brothers and sisters, we are alike…
When the singing and dancing finished it was nearly 11.30 pm and the people started making their way home, some to villages several kilometres away. It had been an inspiring evening. Here was a people’s organisation which, despite enormous external pressures, was proving itself tough and resilient. And yet, as I watched the lanterns bobbing off into the darkness, I wondered where it would all lead.
Despite their strength at the grassroots, the Jharkhand people have yet to develop a cohesive political strategy and programme. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is certainly an inspiring example of people’s participation in a grassroots organisation. But is ‘participation’ enough?
Malay Dewanji is Deputy Director of the William Carey Centre in Calcutta.