Rajagopal, leader of Ekta Parishad, the movement for landless people in India, was recently the keynote speaker at the European Greens’ Ideas Lab event in Brussels. We asked him about the current situation in India and how we can respond to the current challenges of globalisation, especially for younger generations. Interview by Benjamin Joyeux.
Could you tell us a bit about the current situation in India, and the work of your organisation Ekta Parishad?
I’m leading a social movement called Ekta Parishad – a movement addressing the issue of marginalised communities (indigenous people, dalits, nomads, and so on). Many of the issues we work on are related to land, forest, and water, because in India a majority (about 65%) of people’s livelihoods depend on these three elements. So it’s very important for them to have control over these resources and for them to be protected, otherwise people will be forced to move into cities, and cities are not liveable anymore, as there are a lot of problems such as slums, and so on. So the development model in India is creating poverty and problems for people in rural areas and miserable situations in the cities.
Ekta Parishad is constantly reminding the government through a process of dialogue, but also through struggles, that this development model is not acceptable. People elect a government in order to provide justice to the ordinary people, not justice to the powerful lobbies and industrial companies. The new right-wing government headed by Narendra Modi is very committed to this industrialisation process. Modi is very good at public relations and spends a lot of time meeting with national leaders, negotiating bilateral agreements, and inviting them to invest in India. It means that investments will depend on companies that are asking in exchange for land, water, cheap labour, and permission to pollute the environment of this country. So we are slowly compromising our resources and environment. Most of the rivers are dirty, the environment is completely polluted, and people are losing their lands and resources. There are so many conflicts in various parts of India. So the development policy of Narendra Modi and his ministries can lead to deprivation, marginalisation, which leads to more conflicts and violence. It’s not a positive trend at all, not only for economy but also for democracy. Right now, in India, some people are being shot and killed for their land.
This development model is not an Indian phenomenon, but can be seen worldwide: when I see struggles such as against the airport in Nantes, against the expansion of Heathrow in the UK, or against mining in Cologne, I know that it is a global phenomenon. Globalisation is going to marginalise people, to seize the land and resources for powerful lobbies. This struggle needs to be fought globally. Social movements are trying to mobilise people. But the Indian government is not only inviting larger companies to come and invest in India but also changing laws in order to facilitate this process, and to prevent mobilisation. India is trying, under the leadership of Modi, to achieve a result that will appeal to the World Bank, to achieve a better rating and to access its funds.
Given the threat that globalisation poses for poor people in India and all over the world, Ekta Parishad, like many other social movements in India and abroad, is gearing up to face this challenge. We are trying now to reorganise our strategy. In 2017, we will be walking 300 km in a state called Bihar to raise this issue of landlessness and marginalisation. In 2018, we are going to march from Agra to Delhi (250 km) with 50,000 people to tell the government that this model is not acceptable. And then we are planning to walk from Delhi to Geneva in 2020 in a mass march called ‘Jai Jagat‘, because we want to engage global institutions. This system need to be challenged at every level.
There is so much fear in Europe, because of migrants, outsiders, violence, and terrorism, and so on. And these problems cannot be solved just because we express our fear. We need to go to the root of the problems. Why after so many years of so-called ‘development’, are people still forced to migrate? And why are young people choosing violence? Who are the promoters of violence, who is selling arms? We should together challenge the development model, we should together reach out to the younger generation so that they don’t choose guns but nonviolence to change the situation, and we all need to ask decision-makers to change policies. So, let us come together to act for this ambitious agenda, to express solidarity, rid ourselves of the fear, and try to engage the world in a better way, because younger generations and everybody else wants to live in a better world.
You just spent a weekend with the Greens and activists from all over Europe, who came together to connect their struggles. How did you find this experience?
In India, we think that the Greens are close to us, in many areas, especially as a social movement. They have certain values which are linked to Gandhi; building the agenda of need against greed, the agenda of what kind of development model the world should have, or on global warming, on war, violence, and nonviolence. If the Greens need to find partners, they should not look for political parties but for social movements. Social movements have an influence in society and on political parties. So it was great to come and interact with 400 people coming together from different parts of Europe. Because we understand that the world is going in a different direction; the Greens are losing while right-wing political parties are emerging in different parts of the world, including in India. So, rather than being unhappy about it, we should start working together to rebuild our base, through social movements as well as organisations like the Greens. So from that angle it was very interesting, to come and witness and be part of it.
What was your impression of the young people you met?
I was very happy to see a large number of young faces in the crowd. I also had some very interesting interactions with the Roma, refugees, and Syrians there. We spoke about marginalised communities and this gave me great ideas. They are people who know what suffering and marginalisation really mean. So they know perfectly how to organise a march on Geneva: they know the roads, the peoples, the places, etc.
How does the expectations of those young people from Europe correspond with what you know of the mobilisation of young people in India? Do they have the same aspirations, or different ones?
It is nearly the same. The marginalised Indian young people are angry, because of marginalisation, poverty, and unemployment. Similarly, marginalised Europeans are also unhappy and angry about their situation. It’s the same among all marginalised people, whether they are Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis, Americans, or from anywhere else. They feel that they need to intervene in this process. Globalisation need to be challenged, because they feel it is worsening their marginalisation. And I think this anger, this frustration, this disappointment need to be put to use. The changes are not going to come from comfortable people sitting in air-conditioned compartments – they will come from people who want to make change happen. This energy of these young people needs to be channelled properly. And it’s a global opportunity, in Africa, in Latin America, in Europe, etc. These groups – who are the real change-makers – should be our target groups around which we will work in the coming years.
We have the impression that the successes of people like Trump, or Marine Le Pen in France, or even Modi in India are also fuelled by anger. Trump is the embodiment of anger. A lot of angry people gathered behind Trump because they felt he would empower them. How do we deal with that?
I think anger can be misused by armed groups. Why should European boys join ISIS, for example? Because this anger can be misused to that extent. This anger, unemployment, frustration, can also be used by right-wing political parties. And this is what happens in America, in India, in France. That is where the Greens and social movements are failing today. We are not able to give them an agenda, an ambition, and it’s also because we have a defeatist mentality. We feel that we have been defeated. But many young people are not asking for money or for anything else, they are asking for an opportunity to change. Obama was able to capture that, with his agenda of hope and change. If Obama can do it, we can also do it. Gandhi did it. He was able to motivate young people. He was strongly against any group that resorted to violence. When people became violent, he said: “My people are not ready for change”. So, with conviction and courage, if we stand up, young people will be attracted to that. That is our responsibility. We need to really work on this agenda. Because these young generations are the future. It is our responsibility to strategically think and act for them.
What are we lacking? Is it a good Trump, a good Modi? Why are we lacking leadership?
This is a problem all over the world. Today there is degradation at the level of leadership. This is why, when I started working with young people recently, I said this is a training programme for a new younger generation of leadership. We have a generation of leaders today who are into money-making, into grabbing resources, into market ideology, etc. We need a new generation that looks at the world differently. What is around us is a mirror image of ourselves. We as a society, as people, are only mature enough to create the society in which we live. This is our own creation and so we can create something different. Can we have an enlightening leadership? Gandhi could have become President or Prime Minister of India. He said that becoming something is not important. What is important is to give an imagination to the world to shape it differently. By supporting the British development model, Gandhi could have become a great friend of England. But he criticised it and said “this is not a way to make the world a better place”.
If Mr. Thinley, the Prime Minister of a small nation like Bhutan, can think of a happiness index, why can’t others think about it? It only shows that in a world where everybody is thinking about growth and profit, suddenly a young person like Tinli is jumping that barrier, and saying “that is not important, what is important is the happiness of society”. It’s where we need to move now. And that responsibility is not going to happen automatically. So we need a process through which this new generation of leadership can be developed, with a different imagination, with the capacity to sacrifice itself and not only to accumulate. Renunciation is a value: Buddha, Mahāvīra, Gandhi became who they are because of renunciation. A different kind of leadership than Trump.
Chester Bowles, an American ambassador to India, wrote in his biography, many years back: “In America, when you travel from dirt to Manhattan, you become a great guy. But in India, when you travel from Manhattan to dirt, you become a great person.” More people have to learn to live that way, based on the philosophy of “sarvodaya”. Gandhi said “sarvodaya is well-being of all”. We have moved from the well-being of a minority to the well-being of a majority. That is what democracy is all about. But that is not the end. We need a leadership that can make this jump, because at the moment we are stuck.
So we need to set up some training programmes?
Absolutely, training programmes and good examples. Young people are not exposed to everything. If you expose them only to the supermarkets and malls, from morning to evening, how can they think differently? I see many young people coming to India, going to villages, and thinking differently as a result. That opportunity should be given to all young people.
It may not be Gandhi, but André Gorz said that self-limitation is core to much of political ecology.
Yes I think that is very important. When India became free, you know what were the slogans? “The resources will be distributed”, “Capital and land will be redistributed”, “The angry people are not going to wait anymore”. There were many progressive slogans after India became free. But after sixty years, you look back and say what happened to the slogans? So it is time for us not to get lost into slogans alone, but to implement them. We don’t carry Gandhi’s ideas into practice. Over time, we have cheated Jesus Christ, we have cheated Buddha, we have cheated Mahatma Gandhi. Because we have this tendency to celebrate them without really doing anything about what they said. We have forgotten their message. So how you do you bring that message down to Earth? That’s the challenge today.