15 Dec 2014

Building up powerful organisations : Ekta Parishad

Building up powerful organisations : Ekta Parishad

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An article from Milan Rai for Peace News

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As the question-and-answer period came to an end, a hand went up at the back of the room at Friends House, the Quaker centre in London. 

Indian community organiser Rajagopal had been explaining how, over several decades, Ekta Parishad (‘Unity Forum’) had built an organisation of the rural poor with 300,000 members, and how 50,000 of them had marched together for land rights for a week, in 2012’s Jan Satyagraha (‘India’s March for Justice’). The march was an extraordinary feat of organization, built on units of about 50 people bound together into blocks of 1,000 who camped together at night, sleeping on the main road. The 50 camps stretched out over 10km of road. Each small group of 50 was led by a young Ekta Parishad activist, who took part in the larger camp meetings (each camp then sent a representative to the nightly whole-march meeting).

A Latin American activist resident in Britain picked up on the mention of these young ‘leaders’: ‘Often we say [in activist movements in Britain] we’re leaderless.’ How could there be decision-making with 1,000 leaders on the march? Did it not create problems to raise expectations among these young activists that they would have a say in making decisions because they were called ‘leaders’?

Rajagopal laughed, saying that at meetings in Germany he isn’t allowed to use the word ‘leader’: ‘they stop me’.

I’m not clear how labelling a grassroots or intermediate-level organizer a ‘leader’ would give them an expectation that they should be able to have a large say in determining the policies and actions of the organisation as a whole. In most organisations of any size, people understand that they operate as part of a larger whole, with more influence in their local sphere, and less influence on the body as a whole.

It seemed to me that one of the things that was happening in that clash over ‘leadership’ was a difference between two different ways of being politically-engaged: between what is now in the West called ‘activism’ and what is often called ‘organizing’.

In The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements, US sociologist Dan Clawson noted some of the differences between social movement ‘activism’ and trade union ‘organizing’. 

In the US, Clawson observed, new social movements tend not to have many local chapters where people meet face-to-face; they tend to be made up of people who are involved because of their ideals, ‘not primarily because the issue has direct and immediate material consequences for their daily lives’. 

Clawson noted that quite a few US social movements have at their core organizations made up of ‘young, underpaid, highly effective and deeply committed staff, who may spend a significant part of their time trying to raise financial support, which often comes primarily from a relative handful of wealthy donors’.

The actions taken by such groups are generally symbolic, aimed at drawing media attention and changing public attitudes rather actually shutting something down.

In contrast, Clawson goes on, traditional labour unions are based on workplace chapters with elected officers and regular meetings. Members of the chapters meet face-to-face every day: the union aims to recruit all or nearly all the workers in a given workplace, ‘people who often are sharply divided in religion, culture, and views on a wide range of issues’. People are involved because they share immediate material interests.

The organization is financially self-sustaining, with all members paying substantial dues, and all members in a given category pay the same dues. There is no wealthy donor or outside foundation enabling the union to function.

Clawson points out that the collective action taken by a union branch is generally about having a direct impact on economic activity, stopping something happening in a workplace, rather than symbolic action focused on the public or the media. He points out further that in order for a traditional strike to succeed it must achieve the support of something close to 90 per cent of the membership, in contrast to social movement action, which is considered successful if a tiny fraction of the population involves itself in protest.

In India, Ekta Parishad mixes social movement activism and community organization, grassroots mutual support and international funding, long mass marches and village-level movement-building. Critical to Ekta’s success is its strong organizational structure, exemplified by the organization of the 50,000-strong Jan Satyagraha march in 2012. This walk was designed to last a month, covering 200 miles from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to India’s capital, Delhi. In the event, Jan Satyagraha came to an end after just one week, when the Indian government met the marchers’ demands, and publicly signed an agreement with Ekta Parishad to draft a new national land reform policy and pressure state governments to defend or advance the land rights of adivasis (tribal peoples), dalits (‘untouchables’) and other socially-deprived people.

While the march was cut short, Ekta Parishad had the logistical and human organizational capacity for a month-long walk. It had proved this with its month-long march of 25,000 in October 2007 that it called Janadesh (the ‘People’s Verdict’). 

For Jan Satyagraha, the foundations of the demonstration lay in village-level organising that not only mobilized landless and small farmers to participate in the walk, but also laid an economic basis for their participation by forming community grain banks to support family members who did not participate to the march. Ekta-connected families were also encouraged to save over an extended time in order to serve ‘either members that participate to the foot-march, or members that stay at the village’.

There is a lot one might say at this point about the class politics of being political engaged, and the power of resiliency and self-support at the grassroots.

On another level, the trust and organizational reach needed to build such a massive national protest march was developed by grassroots work over several decades. It started with a community leadership development programme that Rajagopal described at the Friends House meeting. The four stages of this youth-oriented programme were confidence-building; power analysis; seeing the responsibility of the state; and understanding the local limits to change. 

In the first stage, the trainers would attack the belief of poor young people that ‘only people with laptops and mobile phones are great’, and that people who cannot read or write, and who work with their hands, are stupid. Rajagopal said that it took three to four days to get participants believe that the work they did, and the knowledge they possessed, was also important. Someone might say: ‘I know only how to milk a cow’. They would be astonished to the point of laughter to discover that the educated trainer in front of them did not know how to carry out basic agricultural functions on which the survival of the community and the nation depended: how to milk a cow, how to plough land. They would gradually come to see that producing food is the greatest job of all. ‘On the third day, you should see the light on their faces,’ Rajagopal beamed.

In the second phase of the training, the programme would seek to undermine fatalism – including of ‘karma’, the Hindu belief that one’s destiny is the predetermined and unalterable result of previous choices. The objective is to help participants come to see poverty as a human invention, not a divine law, and that it can be lessened or abolished. 

The third stage of the programme focused on the law of the land, and the rights that poor people are entitled to, but do not enjoy. State institutions have been created to benefit all citizens, but they in fact serve the rich. If poor people stand up for their rights, the laws and institutions can be made to work for them also.

The final component of the training was about political realism: what the consequences would be of different kinds of action based on the new understanding and skills of the young trainees. When these new community leaders returned to their villages, what oppressive forces would they face, and how would they deal with them? Rajagopal told us that one reason for this element of the training was to reduce the possibility of complaints from people, when they returned home, about the trouble they got into.

Ekta Parishad was born when many young organisers did get into trouble: there was a moral responsibility on Rajagopal and other trainers to support them (with lawyers, or hospital costs), but the demands outstripped their capacity to supply that support. They instead, ‘out of necessity’, began encouraging different village groups to support each other, in a network that developed into Ekta Parishad, now a network of 5,000 villages.

An organization like this, rooted in thousands of villages, tens of thousands of families, cannot function without a stable, reliable structure supporting it and holding it together. Just as a march of 50,000 poor people cannot function without a stable, reliable structure supporting it and holding it together. To build and maintain these kinds of structures, you need individuals who hold responsibility and who are accountable to others, whether they are called union representatives, organisers, coordinators, facilitators or leaders.

It’s not just a matter of scale, it’s also about rootedness, the difference between more footloose, hit-and-run activists, and community and workplace organizers who stick with their base, perhaps moving at a slower pace. Both kinds of engagement may involve huge sacrifices, both kinds of people may stay in the struggle for the long haul, but there are differences that deserve to be untangled and named.

Milan Rai is a co-editor of Peace News.

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