The tea boy pours three cups of the I steaming, milky liquid, pockets a few coins and hurries off to the next compartment.
‘It is not too sweet for your taste?’ Mr Mishra enquires.
‘No, it’s fine,’ says Helen, draining the clay cup and, with practised nonchalance, tossing it out the window. The train gives a jolt and resumes its interrupted progress. Smoke swirls through the window and Gangadevi pulls the edge of her yellow sari over her mouth and nose for a few moments. The air clears as the train gathers speed and she lets the sari fall onto her lap. Conversation languishes as the train clicks and clatters along. Helen finally decides to break the silence.
‘So what exactly is your role with these organisations you’ve been talking about?’ she asks, turning to Gangadevi.
‘Fairly small,’ the older woman replies. ‘I talk with the people about their problems and try to motivate them to join hands, to start their own organisations. And later I help with training and guidance when they have problems. But I’m just a motivator and guide, not a decision-maker. The people make all the decisions.’
‘Hmmm...‘ says Helen, frowning slightly, ‘I’m sorry to seem a sceptic, but I find it hard to believe that ordinary members of these people’s organisations can really make their own decisions like that. Indian society seems very hierarchical to me. People don’t seem used to making decisions democratically and don’t expect it.’
Mr Mishra wraggles his head in agreement.
‘That is absolutely correct,’ he exclaims. ‘Village people are like children in many ways. Most of them have no education and are very backward. How can they organise themselves democratically when they cannot even read and write? There is already too much democracy in the villages. Everyone can vote in the national elections, the State elections, the village elections... but they do not even know who they are voting for or why!’
‘Yes, the poor have a vote,’ says Gangadevi quietly, ‘but they do not yet have a voice, at least not in most places. You are right - the politicians manipulate the poor, buying their votes with cheap liquor and empty promises. But nobody really listens to the poor unless they have their own organisations to hack their demands.’
‘So how do these people’s organisations actually make decisions?’ asks Helen, still dubious.
‘In small organisations the decisions are made at general meetings and the office bearers carry them out. In large organisations the members elect a committee and they make most of the decisions. But if the people don’t like the decisions they throw the leaders out at a general meeting. The guiding principles are simple -- to share responsibility as widely as possible and to keep the leaders accountable to the members.’
‘But surely,’ Mr Mishra objects, ‘you must agree that too much democracy is positively dangerous? If the people are not yet ready for it, they can easily be swayed by hot-heads and extremists ...‘ He stops as the carriage rocks slightly and there is a squeal of brakes as the train grinds to a halt.
‘What’s the matter now?’ Helen asks, looking outside. There is no sign of a railway station or even a village.
‘There is nothing the matter,’ says Mr Mishra. ‘We have just had to pull into a siding to let the southbound train pass through. You see, this is a single track line, and we’re running nearly an hour behind schedule.’
‘So how long will we have to wait here’?’
‘Ten, fifteen minutes perhaps,’ he replies. ‘I am afraid there are four or five more stops like this before we reach Patna. But what to do?’
Time: late at night.
Place: a courtyard bordered by mud huts in a village near Gaya. A group of people, mostly harijans, is gathered around a single kerosene lamp, its flame turned down law. Most of the men are carrying axes or long wooden staves. The mood is tense.
‘I say we should eliminate him tonight,’ says a small, bare-chested man squatting in the middle of the circle. ‘We’ve been too soft-hearted in the past. Let’s get rid of him now. That’ll put an end to our troubles.’
‘No it won’t, brother, it’ll only be the start,’ says Pradeep, a tallish man with a broad, square face. ‘His son will call out the Bhumi Sena* and the police. We aren’t yet strong enough to deal with them. There has to be a better way of teaching him a lesson.’
‘Why not take his buffalo?’ suggests a tall gaunt woman carrying a baby. ‘He’s taken enough of our cattle before today.’
‘And what would we do with them?’ an old man objects. ‘We couldn’t sell them at any market around here. The police would be onto us straight away.’
‘He himself would pay good money to get his buffalo back,’ the tall woman replies. ‘We could set a price and he would pay up.’
A murmur of approval ripples round the circle.
‘But suppose he doesn’t,’ says Pradeep. ‘Suppose he says to hell with the buffalo and calls our the police and the Bhumi Sena thugs - what then?’
The group is silent for a few moments while they ponder Pradeep’s words. They respect Pradeep. A small farmer aged in his late twenties, he is also the local organiser of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samity, a peasant organisation which most of the landless and small farmers in this area have joined in the past few years.
‘This son of his,’ says Jalik, a young man wearing a blue T-shirt, ‘surely he is worth more to his father than a couple of buffalo?’ A chorus of voices agrees. ‘Right, well, why don’t we do this…
Jalik starts to explain his plan and suddenly everyone wants to have a say. An excited and often heated discussion follows, dragging on into the early hours of the morning. Finally, when the details of the plan are clear, Pradeep sums up what has been agreed and the various tasks are distributed among the members of the group.
Pradeep hurries back towards his village, anxious to reach home before dawn. He is pleased with the results of the all-night meeting, especially with the role played by the young activist Jalik. It was an important meeting, called to decide how to deal with a local moneylender and landlord. Atyachari Singh. The trouble started when Singh sent six men including his 18-year-old son to harvest a paddyfield belonging to a member of the Samity who was in debt to him. Unfortunately for the intruders, the Samity had posted armed guards who caught the men red-handed. Instead of beating them up, however, the Samity imposed a fine of 100 rupees (US$10) on each man. The people had no right, of course, to take the law into their own hands like this, but they knew from bitter experience not to expect justice from the police and the courts.
Five of the men paid the fine, but Atyachari Singh angrily refused to pay on behalf of his son. ‘I’ll get the Bhumi Sena to deal with you scum,’ he threatened, furious at the impertinence of people who were, in his eyes, nothing but a bunch of ignorant harijans and little better than animals.
Late next evening the Samity put its plan into action. One group of men slipped into Atyachari Singh’s stables and made off with two prize buffalo, while another crept right into the moneylender’s house and kidnapped his son. It was done very efficiently and without the slightest incident. The ransom note demanded Singh’s presence at a meeting of the ‘People’s Court’ on the same day.
Pradeep attended the People’s Court but stayed in the background. The local village activists, having organised several similar meetings in the past year, were well able to keep things under control.
For Singh the People’s Court was the most humiliating experience of his life, with the large crowd hurling insults at him and accusing him of tricking and abusing them for years. The Court fined Singh 1720 rupees (US$170). He paid up immediately, even adding one rupee as a donation to the Samity. The people accepted the fine but rejected the one rupee donation, returning it along with the moneylender’s son and buffalo.
This is no isolated incident but a typical example of the way peasant organisations operate in many parts of rural Bihar. In unofficial ‘people’s courts’ and clandestine meetings over flickering fires and kerosene lanterns, harijans and other oppressed groups are discovering their own decision-making power. The landlords are clearly worried.
‘The harijans, said a prominent landlord in Gaya district, ‘were at our beck and call for generations. Only in the last four years the KKC** has brainwashed them. It can now mobilise 10 to 20 thousand harijans in an hour. When they refused to work on our fields and stuck to it for months we finally had to raise the wages. The sun these days rises in the West.’