Fraternity, he wrote, is the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality.
आदमी की दर्दभरी गहरी पुकार सुन
जो दौड़ पड़ता है आदमी है वह भी,
जैसे तुम भी आदमी, वैसे मैं भी आदमी।
Listening to the intense anguished cry of a human being
One who rushes is a human too
You are a human being and I too am a human being.
This is Muktibodh. Humanness, according to the poet, is the ability to respond to the call of another human being. There has been an unending debate about Muktibodh’s quest for an authentic self. But most of all, Muktibodh is a poet of yearning for a human touch and for solidarities. A poet whose verse addresses a sahchar mitra – a co-travelling friend. Constant movement, to be able to be everywhere, to be a letter to be dropped in the torn pocket of a stranger: all this is Muktibodh, a ceaseless pilgrim.
A couple of years ago, Javed Khan, my young friend from Ambikapur informed me that he and his friends had decided to take a truckload of clothing and other relief material to Kerala when it was ravaged by floods. His bulk purchase aroused curiosity. When he told people the purpose of his mission, they advised him not to waste energy on “those people.” Those people: Christians and Muslims.
When help was pouring in from all corners of the world for the people of Kerala, some people and organisations were busy dissuading people from extending their hand to those who were not “one of us”.
Javed Khan was dismayed by this open display of hate and heartlessness by his people. People who wanted Muslims and Christians to die because they were a cursed people.
This incident came to my mind when I learnt that the farmers protesting against the new farm laws on Sunday asked students of Jamia Millia Islamia to leave their protest site. AsThe New Indian Express reported: “Farmers protesting against the Centre’s new agri laws refused to allow a group of Jamia Millia Islamia students to join their agitation at the UP Gate (Ghaziabad)-Ghazipur (Delhi) border…. The group of six students, including girls, had arrived there to render support to the farmers by singing and playing ‘dafli’ (tambourine)….”
The farmers are reported to have said that they would not allow nation breakers to corrupt their movement.
Another incident stands in sharp contrast. On December 10, Human Rights Day, some farmers protesting on the Tikri border had held up posters of the young student activists, academics and human rights workers who have been jailed by this regime and demanded their release. This demonstration of solidarity towards those wedded to the idea of liberty for all, especially the dispossessed and the weak, warmed our hearts. But there were others who pounced on this gesture.
What were posters of Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita , Natasha Narwal or Mahesh Rawat, Anand Teltumbde, Stan Swamy doing in a farmers’ protest? Are they farmers? If not, why should farmers speak for them? This implies that the people who were demanding release the release of these non-farmers were themselves not farmers. Which, in turn, suggested that the entire protest itself was not genuine at all.
Ironically, this show of solidarity by people suffering the atrocities of the state was received with caution even by those who are friends and family members of the jailed activists.They said that while it was very heartening for them, they feared that this bold assertion of solidarity would be misrepresented: it would divert attention from the main demands of the farmers’ movement. It would be better for the farmers not to make it one of their main demands.
Many farmer groups quickly distanced themselves from this act of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan). Such acts would sully the agitation, they felt.
Academic Nandini Sunder has brilliantly demolished the argument that the farmers should not have spoken for the activists even if they were not tillers of the soil themselves. She explained that human rights workers like Mahesh Raut or Stan Swamy were greatly involved with the lives of the farmers. Raut, one of the youngest of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, is a graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and was a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. He was also helping the farmers of Surjagadh fight against corporate mining firms that are taking over their sacred spaces.
How often is it that 300 gram sabhas pass a resolution in favour of someone who has no connection to villages or farmers?
Raut was making the Adivasis aware of their rights under the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. He was fighting to get recognition for the Adivasis as peasants. Similarly, “Stan Swamy, the oldest person arrested at 83, has spent a lifetime helping farmers. His first experience with farmers’ issues was as far back as the 1970s when, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he and his fellow Jesuits at the Indian Social Institute Training Centre in Bangalore, took up the task of helping small tenants realise the ‘land to the tiller’ programme announced by the government.”
Sudha Bharadwaj trained herself as a lawyer to fight the cases of the poorest of the poor living in the hinterlands of Chhatisgarh who were being robbed of their land and other means by the big corporates with the connivance of the state.
As Nandini Sunder rightly argues, all of them had spent time and energy helping Adivasis and the poor retain their land rights and live dignified lives. So it is completely legitimate that the farmers who are fighting for their rights speak up for them too.
But going further, even if they had not done anything specifically for the farmers, was it not a duty of the farmers to raise their voice to demand liberty for the activsts? If the combination of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register made only Muslims vulnerable, should Hindus not stand up for them? Why should Muslims fail to respond to a call by an organisation of Dalits?
The inability to connect with those who are not “one of us” is a problem we must not ignore. Can we identify with those who do not share our material interests? For those who do not belong to our caste, our religion, our language, our ethnicity? The very basis of the National Register of Citizens in Assam was justified by describing it as a legitimate response to an ethnic anxiety that was different from communal hatred. But ultimately, it created separate human categories that were incompatible.
The inability to feel for others is result of a deficiency. To always view people who approach us with suspicion is also a severe inadequacy.
It is not for nothing that oppressed people who struggle for liberation seek solidarity. BR Ambedkar felt that without fraternity, it would be impossible to achieve equality or liberty. He valued franternity even more. “Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” Ambedkar explained. “Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha.”
In Ambedkar’s philosophy, liberty and equality had a place, but he added that unlimited liberty destroyed equality, and absolute equality left no room for liberty.
In his philosophy, the law had a place only as a safeguard against the breaches of liberty and equality, but he did not believe that law could be a guarantee for breaches of liberty or equality. He accorded the highest place to the fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality.
How to cultivate democracy in a highly divided society like India? Looking for intellectual resources, Ambedkar went to Buddha. The idea of Maitreyi as propounded by Buddha is very useful. To be able to connect with the pain and sorrows of fellow citizens,to see them as one of our own is a quality without which people cannot become a nation.
So, we should not oppose or resist a law, a politics just because, after destroying others, it will ultimately come for us. Merely the fear that we will be alone and there will be no one to speak for us should not drive us to stand up for others. Even if we are sure that a particular regime, a specific move by the state would never harm our interest and it is only an “other” who will be impacted and never us, even then it would be our duty to oppose them, fight against them.
So, the sight of a white activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, a straight person participating in a pride parade, Salman Taseer taking bullets for a persecuted Christian woman in Pakistan, CF Andrews or Herman Kallenbach walking shoulder to shoulder with Mohdas Gandhi is the most magnificent vision one could ever encounter.
The farmers’ movement has reignited this debate. We must not shy away from it.