Slow train to Patna
On a cold, damp day four years ago 80,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square in central London to protest against the nuclear arms race. Many carried the banners of small peace groups from towns and villages throughout the UK. And one new group was actually born that day.
When I arrived at Hyde Park the sky was leaden and it looked like rain. Threading my way through a bunch of newspaper sellers, I was surprised to see a friend from a village in Oxfordshire handing out leaflets.
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
it’s a new idea. We want to use the media to promote peace - buying advertising space on billboards and in newspapers, running cinema ads and so on.
‘Sounds interesting. But who’s going to pay for all these ads?
‘The peace movement itself. The leaflet explains it all. How about taking some to hand out?’
This was the start of the Peace Advertising Campaign - and of my own involvement in it. We are only one of hundreds of small, community-based peace groups that have sprung up in the UK during the past four or five years. Like others, we often ask ourselves what we have really achieved and how we could be more effective. We agonise about how to recruit more people for our cause and we worry about our precarious finances. These are, I suppose, typical of the problems that haunt many community organisations - whether they are peace groups in Britain, Amnesty groups in Australia, women’s organisations in Canada or peasant movements in Brazil.
This issue of New Internationalist takes a fresh look at community action, focussing especially on the North Indian State of Bihar. We look at how community organisations get started and how they make decisions, what kind of leadership they have and how they cope with internal conflicts, how they make ends meet and how they maintain the morale of their members when the going is tough.
We also take a glance at community organisations in five Western countries. You might not imagine that a peasant movement in rural Bihar has much in common with, say, a tenants association in inner-city London. Their environments are very different and so are many of the issues.
But they both face one basic problem: powerlessness. The decision to get organised is a response to feelings of helplessness and lack of control over one’s life. Getting together with other people builds self-confidence and gives people a say in their fate.
The rationale of community action is very simple: people who have neither wealth nor political power have to use their combined skills, creativity or sheer numbers to have any influence. This is as true in Bihar as it is in Birmingham or Brisbane.
Bihar is hardly a household word. Even the most avid reader of the Nerr’ Internationalist might have trouble finding it on a world map. With a population of 70 million, it is lndia’s second most populous State - and one of its poorest. I was there earlier this year, travelling by tram, bus, motor rickshaw and jeep.
It isn’t just the poverty you notice in Bihar. What really strikes you is the organised violence, the systematic use of terror and intimidation against the poor and disadvantaged. Time and again village people told me stories of rape, house burnings, looting and killing by the police and thugs hired by landlords.
There is of course nothing new about oppression - in Bihar or anywhere else for that matter. But what is interesting about Bihar is that those on the receiving end of the oppression are getting organised to demand their rights. Bihar is a microcosm of one approach to community action.
And this approach is yielding results -- as I saw in a village near Bodh Gaya in South Bihar. For the past five years landless labourers and marginal farmers in over 100 villages in the Bodh Gaya area have been locked in a land struggle with the Mahant, the Head of the local Hindu monastery, who controls at least 10,000 acres of land.
It was mid-morning when I arrived in the village after hiring a rickshaw and tramping a couple of miles along a dirt track. Dhannu Ram, Chairman of the local organisation of landless labourers and small farmers, or Samity*, took me straight to a complex of buildings that looked like some kind of archeological ruin.
‘Look,’ he said proudly, ‘the Mahant will never use this place again - not if we can help it anyway.’
He explained that this had been one of many sub-centres through which the Mahant administered his land. One of his agents used to live there and grain from his fields was kept in the storerooms. Now it’s just a maze of roofless, crumbling mud and brick walls. Children play in the dust. Looking at it now, you would never guess that only four years ago it was an edifice symbolising the power of a feudal landlord.
How, I wanted to know, had the people broken the Mahant’s grip on their lives’? He was, according to what I had read in the press, not just a landlord but a powerful religious leader and a well-connected supporter of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress Party as well.
By this time a crowd had gathered and Dhannu Ram suggested we find a place to sit down and talk with other members of the Samity. We wound our way through rows of low, mud-walled huts with thatched roofs, avoiding a cow here and there, until we reached a clearing where a large stack of rice straw offered some protection from the blazing sun. A few men fetched a couple of rope beds and threw blankets on top to make them less uncomfortable. A group of women and children squatted on a mat spread on the ground.
‘It all started a few years ago, Dhannu Ram explained, ‘when the Vahini** people began working in villages around here. Pramod and Hemant stayed with us. They shared our homes, our food, everything we had. They sat with us and talked about our problems. They brought us together and gave us a sense of unity.’
The other men sitting on the rope bed grunted and waggled their heads - in that peculiarly Indian way - to show their agreement.
‘But at first,’ said Maya, a small energetic woman squatting in front of me, ‘the Mahant’s agents tried to spread bad rumours about the two of them. "They are bad men, they will spoil your women" they would say. And some of our men believed them at first. But we said no, they were good people, teaching us good things. They showed us the way forward,’ she said simply.
And when did you start organising against the Mahant?’
‘That was later,’ said Dhannu Ram, after we started the Samity’. Before that we never thought we could oppose him. And all the other villages roundabout here also started their own organisations. Pramod and Hemant and their friends were working there too. It was having the Samity that gave us the confidence to finally take some action.’
‘So what did you decide to do’?’
Dhannu Ram glanced at the other men and continued:
‘You see, land is the main problem for us. So few of us have any land and the Mahant has so much... (the other men grunted in agreement) … so we decided to demand that the government give us some of his land. And to support our demand we decided to stop all work on his land. So it would have to lie fallow instead.’
‘But surely he could hire labourers from outside the area?’
‘Oh, he did,’ he replied, waggling his head. ‘But we were organised and ready. Whenever they came with their ploughs and bullocks and armed thugs, we would beat drums and people would come running from the villages round about.
‘Yes, but there were not many men around then: said Maya. ‘because most were looking for work outside the village. It was mainly women and children. We just dropped anything we were doing and ran to wherever the sound of drums was coming from.’
But how, I asked, did they actually stop the Mahant’s men from ploughing the land’? By talking to them - like pickets trying to halt work in a factory or a coalmine? Would that kind of persuasion work here. I wondered.
‘There was not much time for persuasion. said Maya, smiling. ‘Yes, we explained why they should not plough the land. And we told them to unyoke their bullocks and leave. But they refused, so our children had to lie down on the ground in front of the ploughs and we unyoked the bullocks ourselves. That’s how we stopped them. Not just here but in all the villages round about,’ she added.
The women grinned at one another. They hardly looked like flying pickets to me. I tried to imagine tiny, frail-looking Maya unyoking a bullock from a plough while the Mahant’s armed thugs tried to stop her. Impossible. And what about the little girl tugging at her sari? Had she lain down on the ground in front of the steel-tipped ploughs?
‘But that was only the start.’ said Dhannu Ram, interrupting my thoughts. ‘The following year we decided to plough and sow the fields for ourselves.
‘And how did the Mahant react?’
‘He didn’t interfere at first. We planted the crops but when they were almost ready to harvest he got armed police and his own thugs to guard the fields. We still went in and harvested, a little, but many of us got beaten up and taken to jail - including many women. The court cases are still going on for many of us. It’s a big drain on our time and it costs money too.
I happened to catch Maya’s eyes as she looked up for a moment and I asked whether she had been imprisoned as well.
Yes,’ she answered, ‘for one month.’
‘What was it like? Was it very hard’?’
‘No. I enjoyed it in fact,’ she replied with a laugh. ‘Compared with our own homes, prison is not so bad. I was fed, I could rest, I could talk with other women.
The other women murmured in agreement. As I looked at them squatting on the mat, they seemed to take on a different aspect: I started seeing them not just as a group of Indian women, but as representatives of other people, in other places, trying to work together for a common ideal. Looking at Maya. I thought of Mary, a friend who has been living at Greenham Common Peace Camp for the past two years. The experience of joining with other women in confronting Cruise missiles - and of two jail sentences - has transformed her from a shy, diffident person into someone radiating inner strength and determination. Whenever I meet Mary these days my own involvement in various worthy causes seems utterly feeble compared with what she is doing. I began feeling the same way about Maya. How come I was sitting there on a rope bed and she was squatting on a mat in front of me? It seemed easier not to pursue that line of thought any further.
‘What’s happening with the Mahant’s land now’? I asked.
‘It’s still lying fallow. You can see some of it over there, said Baghwat, Secretary of the Samity, pointing to a large expanse of uncultivated land criss-crossed by small mud walls and irrigation channels. It was covered in short grass and a few cows were grazing. A woman with a basket was collecting lumps of cow dung to take home. A peaceful enough scene.
‘And has the government redistributed any land’?’
‘In some other villages. But not here yet.
‘So how do you plan to get it redistributed?’
The men glanced at one another uneasily. Finally Dhannu Ram said slowly:
‘We will keep struggling against the government but the problem is...’ his words trailed away and he wiped his hand over his forehead.
‘The problem,’ Maya interjected, ‘is that the men never organise meetings of the Samity any more. We tell them to hold meetings but they say they are too busy. But they have time to drink liquor and beat their wives when they complain… (the men on the cot shuffled and started muttering)… Women always get the worst treatment. In the land movement women have always taken the lead, but when we finally get some land, whose name will be on the paper? The husband’s of course. Why can’t wives have land in their names too’?
‘Look,’ said Dhannu Ram, glaring at Maya, ‘this is no time to start quarrelling amongst ourselves again. The main problem is land. We’re still bogged down in that. When we’ve settled the land question, other problems can be dealt with.’
Maya fell silent and stared at the ground. Dhannu Ram sighed and gave a tired smile.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s true we don’t hold meetings now. And we don’t go to demonstrations and meetings in other villages any more. If there is no outsider here to unite us, we do not come together. Pramod and his friends used to tell us: "This is your struggle. You should not depend on us." But we still need their help. Since they left a couple of years back, things have not been running well in the Samity.
‘And the Mahant’s agents are very active again,’ Baghat chipped in, ‘bribing our people with liquor and lending them money or rice. They spread false rumours, saying that the government has decided that the Mahant has legal rights to this land. Whether such things are true we do not know. Somebody should be here to tell us these things.’
‘Pramod was here last week,’ said Dhannu Ram. ‘He said he would come back to live with us again soon. And he would bring his wife.’
‘But will his wife want to stay here? And will his father let them?’ an old man asked.
‘Well, we shall see what happens,’ said Dhannu Ram. ‘Things will definitely improve if Pramod comes and stays with us again.’
We talked for another couple of hours in the shade of the stack of rice straw. I left the village feeling anxious and worried. Here was a group of people who had decided to get organised and take decisive action to change their lives. And yet, through a combination of external pressures and internal problems, their organisation had lost its momentum - for the time being anyway.
And this was not an isolated experience. Wherever I met community organisations in Bihar I was struck by their fragility. Granted, they had empowered people to some extent and brought them some tangible benefits. Yet they were still highly vulnerable - not just to external pressures but to internal conflicts and tensions which threatened to rip them apart: leadership problems and personality clashes, ideological and political arguments, caste and religious divisions, economic interests and - perhaps most common of all - the apparent inability of men to accept women as equals within the same organisation.
Community action does have enormous potential for making our world a fairer, more humane and safer place. But it would be naive to assume that people who join community organisations all have the same interests or motives.
This magazine examines some of the factors in initiating and carrying through successful community action. We invite you to come to Bihar too, to step on board the slow train to Patna.
It’s a journey of only 60 miles on the map. But with all the stops and starts on the way it may take us quite a while to arrive at our destination.
This special report appeared in the slow train to patna - a journey, a conversation, community action issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.