As the spectre of riots loomed over post-Partition India, nine-year-old Rajendra Prasad had dashed across his village to catch a glimpse of Mahatma Gandhi, who had come to soothe tensions in his neighbourbood.
Seventy-one-years later, as a crisis stalks India’s farms and fields, Prasad, now 80, is on the road again. Stick in hand, as he slowly walked up a flyover next to a luxury hotel in the national capital, Prasad cut a solitary figure.
“Sansad Bhavan aur kitni dur hai?” asked Prasad, visibly out of breath. But the moment a group of young, boisterous marchers shouted “Garv se kaho…”, he chimed in, “hum ek hain”.
On the road for over 48 hours straight, Prasad, a Dalit from rural Patna, was among the oldest participants at the Kisan Mukti March.
A resident of Barbigha village, around 25 km from Patna, Prasad left home at 9 am on Wednesday with a group of villagers. He travelled to Danapur, two hours away, and boarded a train to Delhi.
After reaching the city around 1 pm on Thursday, Prasad halted for the day at Ramlila Maidan, where farmers from across the country had gathered. He had idli for dinner. “Khane peene ka koi dikkat nahi hai. Bag bhar ke litti le ke aaye hain, biscuit bhi hai,” he said.
Back home, he tills 10 bighas of land, assisted by two sons —both unemployed. But what made him take such an arduous journey at this age? “There’s drought, no water at all. I have applied for diesel and borewell multiple times, but have not received a penny of the promised Rs 10,000 in the account. Before coming, I took a loan of Rs 37,000 from a mahajan to install a borewell. The government is interested in putting up a show, nothing concrete ever gets gone.”
A member of the Bharatiya Mulnivasi Sangh, a forum for Dalits, Prasad explained how over the years, divisions in the family led to gradual shrinking of land available for tilling. “Brothers got separated, now the next generation is splitting further. Kheti se kahan ho payenge rozgar?”
As a multitude of farmers poured out of Ramlila Maidan, Prasad got separated from his fellow villagers. He took out a piece of crumpled paper, with a few numbers scribbled on it, to re-establish contact. But they were out of reach.
Stopping at a roadside tea stall, he tried to chat with Mahesh, another marcher. But Mahesh was from Karnataka, so the duo made do with smiles and gestures. Mahesh, a relatively young farmer owning 13 acres land, hugged Prasad and clicked his picture.
Somewhat relaxed after tea and a biscuit, the only thing he had since morning, Prasad reminisced about his childhood. “I am not new to marches and this won’t be the last. Once, Gandhiji had come to visit a neighbouring village of Muslims, torn by riots. I had sprinted to see him. Master ne bohot pitai ki thi. Par humko toh dekhna tha. After going home, I am leaving for Surat again on December 23.”
Around noon, after reaching Jantar Mantar, he made a round of the area, looking for familiar faces. Unable to find any, he prepared to leave, not bothered to stay for the speeches. “Ab kya kaam? Humein sarkar ko dikhani thi humaari taakat. Wo hum kar chuke, ki nahi?”