Theatre of the undead
This year, as hundreds of impoverished farmers from Vidarbha committed suicide, rustic protests in Maharashtra hit the conscience of the metros with breathtaking innovations.
Bella Jaisinghani reports
The cotton belt of Vidarbha observed a white Christmas for the sheer number of shrouds that were required this season. Ten farmers killed themselves the Saturday before Christmas. On an average, five per day continue to follow the dead on the only path that delivers them from the debt trap.
Voluntary organisations working with cotton growers estimate 1,300 suicides have taken place since July 2005. They say four lakh small farmers, owning anywhere from one to five acres of land, are in a financial situation that makes them likely candidates. A website dedicated to the cause is running a novel protest by posting a detailed update of suicides every day. The name of the deceased farmer and the circumstances of his death are announced, with a picture of the corpse when available. NGOs have been known to hold rallies where they place the body of the deceased farmer before a huge blown-up picture of a politician in power, which is then garlanded by the peasant's widow.
The wave of protests that is sweeping Vidarbha is unprecedented. It is dark, celebratory and outrageous. Never has a natural uprising in India unfolded as a performing art. Terrified at the prospects of their cause, once of national importance, receiving the great Indian shrug, farmers are doing desperate things to sustain the attention of media and politicians.
Inspired by the message of Gandhigiri in the year's most influential film Lage Raho Munnabhai, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan, a vocal opponent of the government's policies in Vidarbha, devised a series of protests under the banner 'Kisanbhai Lage Raho'. "On October 12, hundreds of debt-ridden families approached the manager of the State Bank of India with a unique proposal. The men garlanded him with fresh flowers while a woman from the group washed his feet, begging him to disburse the loans that had been promised to them," says Kishor Tiwari, founder of the Andolan.
The villagers were so heavily under debt that they were being forced to commit suicide. But until they found the courage to take the extreme step, they knew they could only survive if they continued to borrow. The irony of their request was not lost on anybody, least of all the bank manager, who expressed sympathy but was unable to help because the branch had run out of funds.
Lago Raho Munnabhai is not the only film that has inspired Vidarbha. On December 12, about 300 farmers led by an NGO called Prahar, named after the Nana Patekar film, made a point. They adapted a scene from Sholay where the inebriated Veeru climbs atop a water tank and threatens to jump unless Basanti agrees to marry him. The group replicated the feat at various places in Amravati, cleverly timing their agitation to coincide with the birthday celebrations of agriculture minister and Vidarbha's patron saint, Sharad Pawar. But the agitation went horribly wrong in Chandur Bazar where 35-year-old Dnyaneshwar Salao actually jumped. He had to be shifted to Nagpur to be treated for head injuries and broken limbs. The NCP leaders, whom the farmers wanted to meet, were in New Delhi, waiting for Sharad Pawar to cut his birthday cake. The Sholay-style protestors agreed to climb down from the water tank when Vilasrao Deshmukh personally assured them that their demands would be addressed. "Anything that goes up must come down," a police official said unemotionally.
Pawar's birthday was celebrated with unusual fanfare in Dorli village, which has volunteered to sell itself lock, stock and barrel to multinationals. All of Dorli festooned their homes, wrote slogans on cattle wishing the minister a happy birthday and asked if he would use his influence to facilitate this deal.
Observers caution that such dramatic moments may be orchestrated by vested interests ― political characters who would like to use impoverished farmers as performers in a drama meant to corner power. A highly placed police official in Nagpur says, "It is true that the farmers of Vidarbha are in distress, but it is also true that people like Prahar founder Bachu Kadu, who is an MLA, have political leanings."
The risks inherent in a revolution are not likely to stymie the widows of Vidarbha, though. They are preparing to meet Vilasrao Deshmukh with a new year offering of green bangles that symbolise marital happiness and fertility.
Vidarbha is not alone in masquerading dirge as a carnival protest and converting despair into a show. In May this year, sugarcane farmer Laxman Ghugre from Satara stood out among other agitators when he chose to protest by ringing a cow bell at a rally in Mumbai's Azad Maidan. Earlier, members of the Karnataka State Farmers' Association threw vegetables in the streets of Kolar to highlight their demand for higher procurement prices. They littered the road with tomatoes, cauliflower, brinjal and other vegetables, stopping only to deliver a memorandum to the authorities. Not so long ago, milkmen in Uttar Pradesh, disillusioned with the government, reached the banks of the Ganga with huge vats of milk and emptied them into the river. TNN