Peaceful protests succeed. Violent ones are put down with even greater violence. That was proven once again by the positive results we saw as the marginal tribal farmers from Nashik and Thane division trudged towards Mumbai in March 2018. Not only did they succeed in forcing the government to unconditionally accede to all their demands, they even managed to win the hearts—and support—of city dwellers who are normally indifferent to their problems. The sight of over 30,000 farmers walking in tattered footwear, in the blazing sun and mindful of not creating trouble for the localities through which they passed, was sufficient to gain popular support. Even more appreciated was the farmers’ constant refrain that their protest did not concern politics or ideology and was entirely concerned with making the government give them their long-pending, rightful dues.
Many people were reminded of Gandhi’s Dandi March. The difference is that Gandhiji had designed the Dandi episode carefully to be a photo-op for foreign journalists who could then help him delegitimise colonial rule in India. That he succeeded in his objective is borne out by the fact that today people only remember the march for being ‘non-violent’ and ‘an example of a successful Gandhian struggle’.
Public memory in India forgets that in an atmosphere of violence and revolutionary fervour such as existed in the 1920s—because of the acts of people like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad—even Gandhi doubted his own ability to persuade a crowd of marchers to remain peaceful. As a result, he confined his march to a select group of 70-odd close confidants over whom he had full control.
Once the Dandi march was over, Gandhi withdrew entirely from the hurly-burly of the civil disobedience movement that followed, in order to ensure that he remained insulated from the numerous episodes of violence that occurred across India. In later years, both official historians of India and the Congress party did their bit to immortalise the Dandi march and keep it alive in public memory. They have been so successful that people have forgotten that such victories were quite common in India’s past.
Both sets of protestors, the Mahatma in 1930 and the tribal farmers in 2018, were dipping into an age-old repertoire of peaceful protest from the cultural past of western India. In its simplest, most homely form, this consisted of the Anshan, the fast that Gandhi so dramatised. The more commonplace Anshan—the one that went unobserved by historians and unnoticed by the public—involved a wife and mother who refused to eat food until her family listened to her concerns. Scaled up, such protests had a variety of forms. But they all required a strong element of righteousness at their core, shared by both the protestor and the one protested against.
Protests that could not drum up a sense of righteousness evoked indifference and were quickly forgotten. Almost no one, for example, recalls the ‘Save the Cow’ march that occurred in Mumbai in January 1983, when thousands of Vinoba Bhave-inspired Gandhian go-rakshaks protested against the abattoirs of Deonar. The twenty-three-day-long farmers’ march from Jalgaon to Mumbai that started in December 1980 also failed to evoke any popular support, as it was identified with Sharad Pawar’s bid to become chief minister once more.
One of the early known instances of protest was recorded by William Henry Tone, an English East India Company official who served in the Maratha country towards the end of the eighteenth century. He tells us that the Maratha cavalry was one of the most irregularly paid of all the corps in the army. In those days, they were only paid a daily ration of flour; the cash salary came as and when the silladar, that is, the commander who had hired these troops, got his dues. The silladar in turn had to pay out a sizeable bribe to the state official (usually a brahmin) responsible for the roll call.
When pay arrears went beyond a culturally acceptable level, the troops resorted to peaceful protest. This was done, Tone reports, through “the time honoured technique of dharna”. Dharna essentially consisted of putting the erring official in confinement until such time as he paid up everyone’s dues. During the period that the official was confined, he was not allowed to eat, drink or pray; indeed he was not allowed to move from one place and quite often had to sit bare-headed in the sun till the demands had been met. Tone informs us that if a minister was so confined, then the prince made it a point of honour not to eat or drink either.
No one would use violence to disrupt this kind of dharna, as it was in a common cause. The protestors could not be accused of mutiny as they merely demanded their rightful due.
Dharnas could also come with threats of violence. One involved heaping a pile of wood before the debtor’s house and threatening to set fire to it. This entire procedure was often accompanied by dreadful curses uttered by the old female relatives of the aggrieved party. Such methods were so general, says Tone, that the Maratha chiefs could be said to be in a state of dharna nearly half the time.
Mahatma Gandhi leading the Dandi March in 1930
In neighbouring Gujarat, merchants called mahajans would routinely hire brahmins to sit in a fast-unto-death in front of the house of a recalcitrant feudal lord to force him to pay his dues and be more civil to the merchants. In one such episode from the year 1669, as narrated in contemporary English factory records, the mahajans of Surat forced the governor himself to back down. What had happened was that a Hindu merchant in the city committed suicide when a qazi tried to force him to convert on the plea that the merchant had shared a watermelon with the qazi some five years before. The same qazi also forced the nephew of another merchant, Tulsidas Parekh, to convert to Islam.
In protest, around 8,000 merchants decided to leave Surat. They appealed to the English for shelter at Bombay. Gerald Aungier, president of the Surat factory and governor of the company settlement at Bombay, refused, fearing that any help to the striking merchants might draw the government’s ire. Instead, he advised them to go to Ahmedabad and petition their own sovereign for justice. At the news that the merchants were leaving, the qazi who had created all the trouble reportedly threw a fit. He threatened to pull down temples and circumcise leading members of their community. When the merchants ignored him, he appealed to the governor of Surat to intercede. The governor expressed helplessness and said that the merchants were subjects of the (Mughal) emperor and they could settle wherever they chose. The merchants then proceeded to Bharuch, leaving their wives and children behind. Even those who stayed behind reportedly shut up shop in protest. The governor of Ahmedabad invited the merchants to settle in his city but they refused. They later returned to Surat only when its governor assured them that such incidents would not recur.
Indian literature, from at least the Shantiparva onwards, constantly advises the king not to harass his subjects; otherwise they would vote with their feet. So the priest tells the king in a story from the Brihat-katha (stories written in the early centuries of the Christian era), “O king…If you do not listen to our humble entreaties, you will have to see the subjects, who have been governed by good kings, migrate from your land”. Foreign observers who visited India constantly noted this feature of Indian life with some wonderment. Babar observed, “In Hindustan, hamlets and villages, towns indeed, are depopulated and set up in a moment!” This is something the English East India Company had to factor in when dealing with Indian weavers before they came to rule the country. Drive too hard a bargain, and the population would simply leave and set up shop elsewhere.
The farmers who marched to Mumbai to force CM Fadnavis to accede to all their demands simply followed in the footsteps of such forebears.
(The writer is professor of history at Panjab University, Chandigarh)