Do Gandhian principles work during this time
"It's in our hands!"
What is Ekta Parishad about?
Ramesh Sharma: As a movement, we want to achieve changes in the lives of marginalized people. For us, success does not primarily mean new laws or guidelines in the sense of the excluded. Even if they are important on a structural level. Most important to us is that there are visible positive changes in the lives of the people who need help. The second big aspect is what we call the process of knowledge. We try to make it clear to people that they are the citizens of this country, that they have rights, dignity and the collective power to make meaningful changes in their lives.
How did you get into the Ekta Parishad movement yourself?
Ramesh Sharma: My journey to Ekta Parishad started in 1998. I was thrilled with how Ekta Parishad solves problems non-violently and inspires large numbers of people across India. What inspired me most was the grassroots spirit of the movement.
How do I recognize this basic closeness to the movement?
Ramesh Sharma: Most of our leaders come from the villages. As part of the village organization, they had the opportunity to lead some of our actions, they were involved in larger negotiations for the movement. So they gradually grew and are now like national leaders in Ekta Parishad.
But how do you convince people who are obviously struggling with their daily survival to devote their time to working for Ekta Parishad?
Ramesh Sharma: For thousands of people who are already struggling with everyday survival, it is of help when they have a large organization like Ekta Parishad at their side in their long struggle for equal resources and opportunities. They are not only fighting for their survival, they are fighting for their identity, for dignity and equality. The movement grows and grows. This is the best proof that expectations are growing at the grassroots level.
What can Europeans learn from their commitment to democracy?
Ramesh Sharma: One cannot hope for democracy without practicing it in daily life. We encourage people to understand both sides of democracy. One side are those who were elected and now rule, the other side are the citizens, who also need to be involved. We call it 'politics with the people'. For us, however, democracy is more than just casting a vote every four or five years; it is an ongoing process.
How does democracy work within the movement? When I first heard that you have a family-based membership, I thought that the man would automatically become the village director. How do you get women involved in the movement?
Ramesh Sharma: There are two leading positions in every village: president and secretary. One of these two positions is reserved for a woman. Women could therefore occupy both positions, but men only one. It's not just about creating a formal space for them, we want to encourage them to lead the organization.
The principle applies to the entire organizational structure of Ekta Parishad. With Ekta Mahila Manch (Ekta Women Wing) we have a group that explicitly supports women.
In India we are also fighting to have women recognized as farmers. Because women spend most of their time and energy on agriculture, but they are still not recognized as farmers. We are committed to ensuring that women receive land rights.
Your organization relates to Gandhi. What does his legacy mean for the movement today?
Ramesh Sharma: Gandhi was a young lawyer born into a privileged family who trained in the UK. When he was thrown off the train in South Africa, he realized for the first time in his life that human dignity is everyone's business. He traveled from South Africa to India, where he decided to interfere in the political system and help millions of Indians who were fighting for freedom. Mahatma Gandhi was a firm believer in self-reflection.
How do you apply that to your organization?
Ramesh Sharma: As a Gandhian organization, we sometimes make mistakes. But if we are open enough to learn from our mistakes and improve them, this is the lesson that we apply today from Mahatma Gandhi. For us, self-reflection is a step-by-step process of personal and social improvement. As a great grassroots movement, we firmly believe in it.
I have told you many Ekta Parishad success stories. Believe me, there are more failures. However, each failure gave us new food for thought to correct our own strategy and behavior. So I think this is what we need to learn.
Would you give me an example of failure?
Ramesh Sharma: Oh yes of course. One example is the story of a region called Raigarh in Chhattisgarh. This region is particularly known for its wealth of natural resources. In addition, many indigenous people live there. There is a long ongoing battle against the big corporations that took over the country in the 1990s. After long arguments, campaigns and demonstrations, one day we lost hope of achieving our goal through political pressure. We decided to file lawsuits against the companies. Unfortunately, we lost in court, and the legal defeat demoralized the entire struggle.
We couldn't appeal the court decision. That was the end of the story. We have not had any notable success in Raigarh to date. But we still stand by the people in their long struggle.
Thank you for this openness. Let's move on to something hopeful: the Jai Jagat campaign for justice and peace. A year-long march from New Delhi to Geneva.
Ramesh Sharma: Ekta Parishad's entire journey over the past 40 years is a story of hope. Globally, the next ten years will be of crucial importance for climate injustice, inequality and poverty. Now it is in our hands whether we want to save the environment, people and humanity or not!
Whether we want to exhaust all of our resources or whether we save some energy for the future. Have we even thought about the rights of young people born in 2025 or 2030? If we are not aware of intergenerational justice, we will go down in history as one of the most selfish generations ever.
So it is our responsibility for the next decade to talk about these things that give hope to future generations.
During the more than 10,000 kilometers long hike through different countries, we will do our best to create hope for a better future among millions of people.
We also speak to various institutions at local, national and international levels that could play an important role in making people's dreams come true.
The threats posed by climate change make many young people fearful of the future. That is justified, and yet fear does not seem a good motivator for change in the long term.
Ramesh Sharma: No way.
What can you give you?
Ramesh Sharma: In today's world, optimism is a must, not a choice. We are unable to choose whether to be optimistic or pessimistic.
I call this march of Jai Jagat a path of hope that carries demands from the bottom up, from the people to the institutions. However, as long as I am not willing to change myself, it is difficult to convince others to do so. We all have to learn anew to behave and live in a peaceful and understanding manner. We have a long history behind us: 50 years ago we were so simple and now we are so complicated.
Ramesh Sharma: I think it's up to us to go back to simplicity. Then we will be happier, more optimistic and more meaningful in our lives and will also leave future generations the right to a future.
Thank you for talking to us.
The interview was conducted by Christoph Bongard
Marches for Justice and Peace
Ekta Parishad is an Indian grassroots movement that campaigns for the rights of the rural population according to the principles of non-violence of Mohanda Gandhi. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in their marches for land reforms - impressively documented in the film “Millions can walk”.
On October 2, the movement started a year-long march for justice and peace, the Jai Jagat 2020 (German: Victory for All), from New Delhi to Geneva to the headquarters of the United Nations. Several European star marches, from Germany and others. from Travemünde (start: July 5th, 2020), Berlin (July 12th, 2020) and Cologne (August 2nd, 2020), also lead to Geneva. The Geneva Peace Week will conclude there (September 26th to October 2nd, 2020).
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