The last five weeks of 2020 were dominated by a re-assertion of social movements in India. Can the country build further on this strength in the new year 2021?
To answer this question we must look first at the overall situation in the country. The foremost concerns of people appear to be economic ones. A very large number of people have experienced a decline in livelihood and income during the last six years, peaking in 2020. A realization of bure din ( worse days) in place of the promised better days is widespread. From demonetization to ill-planned GST to badly implemented prolonged lockouts, livelihoods have taken one hit after another, and in addition the overall thrust of policies has harmed farmers, workers, informal sector and small players, endangered important economic and financial institutions, increased overall economic problems and worries, despite the many announced government schemes of some relief and benefits. There is increasing, but still limited, realization among people regarding the extent to which their economic woes are related to policy failures and distorted economic thinking which is at the root of it.
Secondly minorities particularly Muslims have been feeling more insecure and the secular aspects of constitution have suffered serious harm. Within the majority community, there are some who are saddened by this, but there are others who do not give this adequate importance, and yet others, a significant number, who are happy about the more dominant assertion of majoritarianism in various ways.
Thirdly there are extremely important issues of social reform and environment protection which can contribute much to creating a better society and a safer world, while also bringing immediate relief and happiness to people, which have not yet become big issues of mobilization, except in sporadic spurts.
Last but not the least, there is increasing narrowing of democratic space which must be very disturbing and irritating for people used to more democratic functioning, as people in India have been, despite several constraints imposed by inequalities and other factors.
The assertion of social movements has to keep in view all these significant problems and issues as well as people’s existing perception and consciousness of them. Perhaps the problems felt more closely by people are economic ones, and social movements will perhaps be prioritizing them, but if there is adequate realization of other important issues, then the mobilization on economic demands can also try to contribute to other important issues.
To give just one example, the farmers movement in recent weeks has contributed in the course of its recent mobilization to strengthening inter-faith harmony as well as inter-region harmony, contributing overall to national unity and harmony which is helpful in many ways. This movement has strengthened the demand for more democratic base for social movements and taken forward the participation of rural women in social concerns and movements. The movement , while articulating its demands and concerns, has mentioned not just the economic concerns of farmers but also some wider concerns of food security. As it progresses, the farmers movement will benefit by giving more attention to ecologically protective and sustainable farming, which can also lower their costs and reduce dependence.
This is good. A movement contributes to the betterment of our society in several ways, in addition to its main concerns. What should be avoided is to take up those narrow short-term demands which harm other important concerns of welfare and sustainability.
Another way in which the farmers movement has shown the path forward is in showcasing a movement of many-sided creativity, a movement which is prepared for the long haul, for sustaining a protest in ways which are creative and also, despite all the problems, joyful in their own ways, with space for song and music, dance and humour. The participation of many people in contributing raw food and then cooking many diverse dishes as a community activity, then sharing the food with all in langars, all this is something which brings much joy not only to those who donate, cook, serve and eat, but even to those who view this on TV or video or read about this.
While such a bountiful way of resistance may not be possible for all movements, particularly those involving the poorest sections, we can still learn from this spirit of this movement, and from planning in such a way and with such broad unity that violent eviction by authorities becomes very difficult.
Above all we need to remember that India is passing through one of its most difficult times in the post-independence period and to overcome the tendencies of authoritarianism and crony capitalism which are responsible more than anything else for these difficulties and problems, we certainly need a bigger and highly constructive social movement. The farmers movement has broken the silence and reluctance with its courage and creativity, while also showing the way for more cooperation among farmers and workers and other sections as well.
Despite the increasing restrictions on democratic protests by the government, there is clear need for social movements to play a more assertive and important role in 2021. They have to create and build the strength for this; unseemly hurry will not help. The way forward is for honest, sincere, transparent and non-violent, democratic movements, based on well-reasoned demands clearly related to a better society, creating broad spaces for creative contributions from many sources, building bridges with many other movements, taking care that these demands and articulations do not harm other important concerns. Social movements along these lines can have a very important role in creating a better society and future .
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.