The farmers’ march to Mumbai last week was not just unique in the manner in which it pressured the Maharashtra government to accept all the demands of the farmers within hours of the march reaching the financial capital. It was also conspicuous by the sympathy it generated in the urban middle class, which largely views such protests as disruptive.
In this case, Mumbaikars were out on the streets, reaching out to the farmers with food, footwear and medical care. From a woman who runs a travel agency to a software developer, thousands of Mumbaikars reached Azad Maidan to help out the farmers at the end of their six-day march.
Here is a look at some of the factors behind the response of the average Mumbaikar to the men and women who walked 180 km to demand their rights.
The marchers: One key factor was the number. Farmers from Tamil Nadu protested in Delhi for months in support of loan waiver but created a little flutter. But the sight of nearly 40,000 farmers marching to the metropolis is impossible to ignore. Also, most farmers who took part in the march were landless and at the bottom of the pyramid. They sought transfer of lands they till in their names and spoke to the media of the uncertainty their children and future generations face. A large section of these people was over the age of 50, old men and women walking hundreds of kilometres in a bid to a better future for their children. This went a long way in evoking sympathy among the urban middle class, who saw in this sea of people not just agitating farmers but also a mass of underprivileged families making a bid for a better life.
The march: The decision to march to Mumbai was significant in a lot of ways. The farmers’ agitation in Sikar, Rajasthan, also backed by the CPM wing, All India Kisan Sabha, had managed to get the state government to agree to most of their demands and had witnessed huge participation. But since the agitation did not move to a major city, it received less media coverage and urban folk remained largely unaware of the developments. That changed in the Mumbai march. Here, the protesters did not wait for media to reach them. Rather, they walked to the newsrooms. The nearer they came to Mumbai, the media attention soared. And as large photographs of the unending procession of farmers made it to the newspaper pages, the city-dweller was bound to take note. What followed were photographs of bleeding soles and the Mumbaikar stepped out to their aid. Azad Maidan, where the farmers assembled, turned into a rallying point, the way Ramlila Maidan in Delhi had become during the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. Also, with the farmers’ assembled in an open space and off the roads, there was little to fret about traffic woes. The urban dwellers’ sympathy for the protesters only soared. And soon social outfits as well as individuals were at Azad Maidan, helping out in whatever way they could. With the urban sympathy in favour of the farmers, the Devendra Fadnavis government was further cornered.
The political: There has been much debate on the use of the CPM flags and caps in the agitation. But the fact remains that without a political framework in place, mobilisation on such a large scale would have been very difficult. Here, too, one can compare it with the agitation by the Tamil Nadu farmers, which had little political backing. This apart, the CPM was also able to tap into its urban support base, which ensured that the march did the rounds on Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. With social media tuned to the march, the march kept trending. This too forced the media to take note and the march stayed alive through the news cycle.
The not political: NCP, AAP, MNS and even BJP’s disgruntled ally Shiv Sena extended support to the farmers’ march, but the march never turned into an exercise in propaganda, and remained at the level of a farmers’ agitation. Leaders like CPM central committee members Ashok Dhawale and Vijoo Krishnan played a key role in mobilising the march, but did not try to become the face of the agitation, and left the centrestage to the farmers. Likewise, no senior CPM leader took part in the march. Party general secretary Sitaram Yechury met the protesters only at Azad Maidan. An overtly political protest would have kept the urban dwellers away and would have also become a government versus opposition duel. By keeping the politics restrained, the organisers of the march drew urban dwellers to what they perceived as a people’s movement and not merely propaganda.
The finishing touch: The decision to march at night to avoid inconveniencing students taking the board exams went a long way in connecting the urban dweller with the farmer protest. Parents’ nerves were soothed and public sympathy for the protesters further soared. With farmers reaching Azad Maidan before the city woke up, the organisers ensured that nothing pit the city dweller against the protesters. It started as a face-off between the state and the farmer. And remained so. With the urban dweller rallying behind the farmer.