July 06, 2020
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Red Ants In A Line

That’s what the Kisan Long March would have looked like from a south Mumbai tower. How did they get there? A key organiser winds back.

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Red Ants In A Line
Long Way
Vijoo Krishnan at the Mumbai-bound rally on March 7
Red Ants In A Line

The vineyards of Nashik clothe northwest Maharashtra’s semi-­arid expanse in colours subtly contra­sting with the lush greenery of his native village in Kerala. It has a name with reson­ance—Karivellur hosted a Communist uprising in 1946, three decades bef­ore Vijoo Kri­shnan was born. This part of Malabar is where peasants had formed a pio­neering Karshaka Sangham as far back in 1935. That was a year prior to the founding of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the national-­level farmers’ organisation with which the agrarian economist works these days.

Vijoo, 44, is the joint secretary of the AIKS, which is also the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Keeping alive its anti-feudal spirit, the AIKS scored a rare victory with its ‘Kisan Long March’ this month. Rou­ghly 40,000 men and women of all ages—visibly from the weather-beaten sections of society—walked for six days, 180 km, all the way from Nashik, on one edge of the Deccan plateau, to Mumbai. Wearing the marks of their harsh life with quiet dignity, they won many admirers and sympathisers in their week-long passage, both along the route and in proliferating media images.

With good reason. It etched itself into public memory with a very visual appeal: the march created mome­nts of awe with a red stream of flag-holding farmers moving in silent discipline down rolling hills to the country’s commercial capital by the sea. Callused old feet or broken chappals lent themselves to striking soc­ial media memes. But at the centre of it was a zone of diligence. This wasn’t just spectacle, or a hysteric ans­wer to a call by a leader—or even a spontaneous people’s reaction, says Vijoo, an alumnus of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Unlike recent mass uprisings in urban India, this march warranted painstaking grassroots mobilisation among the most disadvantaged sections. True, the AIKS is a large peasant organisation with members spread across India’s varied geography. Also, after 82 years, it isn’t a novice. Yet, this was a feat of planning— Vijoo and his team were at the centre of the march even as the farmers remained the soul and face of it. And, as Vijoo notes and not many would disagree, “This one truly touched the people’s heart.”

The generalised pro-peasant sentiment it triggered—with no one able to belittle it—comes weathering two uncomfortable points, though. One, the gho­sts of Nandi­gram and Singur still haunt the CPI(M). Two, one swallow does not make the summer: the party still faces an exi­stential crisis after the loss in Tripura reduced it in India’s power matrix to virtually a one-state party, with a lone flag on Kerala.

There were indeed snide remarks by trolls about the march being “red terror”, a handiwork of “urban Naxals”. Critics also didn’t miss a chance to flay the “anti-­peasant” approach of Kerala’s ruling LDF (CM Pinarayi Vijayan, incidentally, is from Vijoo’s  upstate Kannur district). On the other hand, sympathisers see in Vijoo and his team “true comrades”—a rare specimen these days. Some pin even grea­ter hope on the likes of Vijoo, seeing in them chances of a Left revival based on grounded social movements.

It took two months to mob­ilise farmers for the march, reveals Vijoo. The AIKS arranged water, food and other facilities along the route. “We did apprehend that people may object when they see red,” Vijoo tells Outlook. In fact, the colour of the AIKS flag had triggered a debate during the Sabha’s formation, when its founding president Sahajanand Saraswati famously said “red symbolises the blood of the farmers and the working class”.

Trolls lost no chance to call it ‘red terror’, led by ‘urban Naxals’. And core adherents see in such socially grounded acts of protest the only chance of a Left revival.

For the record, the AIKS was a child of the Congress—and had the blessings of Nehru. Formed at the grand old party’s Lucknow session on April 11, 1936, the AIKS was headed by Saraswati of the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha. That very year, it released a Kisan Manifesto dem­anding the abolition of zamindari and cancellation of rural debt. Soon, the AIKS distanced itself from the Congress and took on a pronounced socialist slant, asso­ciating with leaders like E.M.S. Namboodiri­pad, the Telangana Rebellion icon P. Sundarayya, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan. In 1942, when it was legalised, the Communist Party of India took over the AIKS. Eigh­teen years later, when the CPI split, the AIKS became part of the CPI(M).

It was from Sundarayya’s alma mater, St Joseph’s College in Bangalore, that Vijoo graduated in the early 1990s. At JNU later, he was elected the students’ union presid­ent. Earning a PhD on ‘Neoliberal Policies: Impact on Indian Peasantry’, Vijoo joined the political science department at St Joseph’s. He subsequently got an interview call from JNU as a lecturer, but the passion for the farmer had grown on him—and Vijoo joined the AIKS. One of the youngest members of the CPI(M)’s central committee, he is a polyglot: “I can speak in 10 Indian languages.”

For Vijoo and his team, March 6 loomed as the starting point of a highly challenging task. As organisers, they ensured that the farmers, coming from various parts of Maharashtra and mostly comprising tribals, assembled at Nashik by afternoon to begin their walk from Ghat Road. That task spanned seven hours—till 10 in the night. The next day, they walked from 7 am till 8 pm. “For the first two days, the farmers had carried food from home. Later, they cooked on the way,” he says. “So electric was the atmosphere that many among them sang or danced in the rest hours. Usually, I am poor at both, but this time I couldn’t help myself join my comrades.”

As a source of inspiration, Vijoo cites the Communist icon A.K. Gopalan’s hunger march (pattini jatha) from Malabar to Madras 82 years ago. “My maternal grandfather brought AKG to his village and set up a Karshaka Sangham unit,” he says. Cut to 2018, the plight of Mahara­shtra’s farmers remains no different from those who marched in 1936. Yet, like under AKG back then, Nashik-Mumbai was a strikingly peaceful passage. It was only upon its culmination that many not­iced the significance of the date: March 12 was when Gandhi started for Dandi.

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