UPDATED 18 March, 2020: March temporarily halted because of Coronavirus.
The 14,000-kilometre Delhi to Geneva journey, which began in October 2019 on the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, was expected to reach halfway point between Armenia and Georgia later this month. (UPDATE: However, as the result of Coronavirus counter-measures, the march temporarily halted on 17 March. According to the organizers, the walkers undertake their own preventive measures, but continue to advocate via social media and other means until the march can be resumed.)
Dubbed the ‘Jai Jagat 2020’ people’s walk, it is a key component of the non-violent strategy for freedom elaborated by the late Indian pacifist last century culminating in his country’s independence from the British in 1947.
Today’s 21st century version led by P.V. Rajagopal, head of the Ekta Parishad (Forum of Unity in Hindi), represents the “peasants without land” movement. For them, Geneva not only looms as the world capital of peace, but also the birthplace of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Their objective is the complete eradication of poverty by 2030 as a first step for a “survival plan” for humanity.
While the core body of marchers consists of barely more than 50 people, including Rajagopal and Jill Carr-Harris, a former UN Development Programme (UNDP) representative, the organizers expect to attract thousands by the time they reach Europe. For the moment, one third of the trekkers comprise a cross-section of peasant leaders, among them several Adivasi participants, who represent the original but most marginalized inhabitants of India. A second third consists of young Indians, mainly urban university graduates, and finally, a mix of internationals representing different professions and concerned interests. Over half are women, a crucial component of the Jai Jagat movement.
Geneva: a city for ‘solution-finding’ events
As the marchers converge on Geneva throughout the summer – and depending on coronavirus implications – they are expected to be joined by sympathizers from Africa, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden and other countries. Then, as part of a week-long series of “solution-finding” events involving local and world actors ranging from discussion groups and concerts to meditation, yoga and cultural encounters, they will launch a “global forum for humanity.” This is designed to mobilize leading movers and shakers dedicated in one way or another to peaceful, sustainable development.
Not the entire nearly year-long journey will be overland. While the main body, including Rajagopal, have already travelled to various parts of northern India, the Emirates and Iran to promote the Gandhian approach as a means of conflict resolution, both Afghanistan and Pakistan were skirted because of conflict and insecurity. Only a small group, of Nepalese Ekta Parishad members, visited these zones to spread the word. The final leg to Europe will consist of sailing by ship across the Black Sea to Romania.
As part of an observer team to the region consisting of myself, a writer, and photographer Benjamin Joyeux, we joined the march in Bhopal prior to its departure from India. A city of two million souls, this was where the industrial disaster occurred on 3 December 1984 killing almost 25,000 people overnight from an explosion at the American-operated Union Carbide factory. Bhopal is also capital of Madhya Pradesh state, a magnificent historical and cultural centre rich in temples and mosques. There is also a huge lake, which, in many ways, is reminiscent of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. It is here that Ekta Parishad runs its main operations.
On the outskirts of Bhopal, we met up with the main group of walkers. They all do between 20 and 25 kilometres a day, often in Dante-like purgatorial conditions under a piercingly hot sun, passing through towns and villages but also along India’s main highways ravaged by putrid pollution, choking plastic garbage and debilitating traffic jams.
A well-received people’s march
What is striking, however, is the manner with which Rajagopal and his followers are received by local people. Hundreds of villagers line the roads or main centres, in front of temples, schools, crossroads…With smiles, they meet the walkers with garlands of flowers or offerings of hot tea. This is clearly not a communications operation, but rather the result of over 30 years of working with local communities, many of them forgotten or ignored by the state.
Such encounters enable the Jai Jagat teams to speak, often together with local politicians and community leaders, and regardless which political party they represent. Jai Jagat’s objective is to cultivate dialogue with all groups enabling them to listen to local views and concerns. The walkers also use these meetings as a chance to take breaks. Such gatherings, however, enable the organizers to collect firsthand testimony from the field, all of which will be presented at the Geneva summit.
According to Canadian Jill Carr-Harris, it is important to convey such local realities to the international community. ”Only with such dialogue and discussion with local populations can we incorporate their ideas into a broader perspective,” she explains. “It really is fascinating. We have made numerous such Gandhian initiatives with Ekta Parishad, always at the local level. The big difference is that we link these local realities with global challenges.”
Demanding commitments through people power
Ekta Parishad first emerged several decades ago. It quickly attained national and eventually global notoriety through its well-organized, non-violent demonstrations in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi as a means of defending and promulgating the rights of those excluded by development. In 2007, for example, some 25,000 people representing the Janadesh, marched between Gwalior and Delhi.
This enabled Ekta Parishad to obtain various commitments by the Indian government in support of ordinary peasants and the Adivasi. When the government reneged on its promises, Rajagopal organized in 2012 a march of over 100,000 peasants accompanied by dozens of international figures, known as the Jan Satyagraha. This time the results achieved proved more tangible. They incorporated legal guarantees ensuring access to basic resources by those in need as well as the creation of an agrarian reform committee.
In 2014, however, Narendra Modi’s BJP, the right-wing national Hindu party, took power. Its priority was clearly no longer the most disadvantaged, but rather foreign investments in support of Modi’s “shining India” approach, notably a leading economic power capable of competing globally.
When Ekta Parishad reminded the new government of its previous commitments, Modi responded that his government’s new economic and financial policies were not just the result of its own decisions, but rather international pressures imposed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and other institutions.
Citing such constraints, the BJP leadership maintains that it is unable to guarantee the rights of India’s most vulnerable populations. As a result, Ekta Parishad plans to address its concerns directly to the international community. This includes taking into account the UN’s own 17 SDGs adopted by the General Assembly in New York in September 2015 as part of its Agenda 2030, a universally ambitious programme which asserts that no one be “left behind”.
Changing oneself to change the world
This is the main reason for the year-long march with the UN’s European Headquarters in Geneva as its end goal. It seeks to promote on a worldwide basis the effectiveness of non-violence as a key instrument for peace and conflict resolution. It is also hopes to achieve a more pertinent dialogue between the UN’s member states and civil society. In this manner, it is seeking to help achieve the 2030 SDGs with four of these as key pillars, notably the eradication of poverty, struggle against climate change, elimination of social divisions and eradication of hate and violence.
By converging on Geneva, it also intends to advocate for change by highlighting key aspects in need of attention; in other words, what it is seeking is a march that defies imagination. Not only should frontiers be encouraged to crumble, both mentally and physically, it argues, but this will allow one to conceive a completely different style of life, hence Jai Jagat as in “victory of the world, and of everyone”.
This slogan is also epitomized by one of Ekat Parishad’s leading programmes, Rurban, which brings together young urban graduates with village youth, two significant groups who often rarely meet, by encouraging them to live together and to share their experiences, including their visions for the future. According to group leader Mohsin, “youth consist of the majority of the world population. They have an essential role to play if one is to bring about real global change.”
Both Mohsin and others have already mobilized thousands of young people, primarily through social media, a principal component of the Delhi to Geneva march. In this manner, says Sanya, a young Instagramer and local radio personality, “we can inspire people by reminding them of Mahatma’s own approach – ‘You yourself need to be the change, if you wish to change the world.”
Daniel Wermus is a Geneva-based Swiss journalist and writer. Photographs are by Benjamin Joyeux.
For further information, please see: https://www.jaijagat2020.org