There are bonded labourers in the PM's constituency

The Sunday January 17, 1982 - By Swami Agnivesh

Swami Agnivesh, the Janata party MLA from Haryana has probably done more than any one else to bring the issue of the country's bonded labour to the nation’s attention. The hefty, muscular Swami still wears his saffron robes, does his yoga regularly in the morning, and in most ways is a very impressive person, CLAUDE ALVARES met him recently in Hyderabad and talked to him about his work:

How is it that, contrary to the usual religious tradition, a swami like you took to politics, while still remaining a swami? I belonged to the youth wing of the Adi Samaj in those days, and we worked in areas like Rohtak among the peasants there. That was in 1968. We were involved then in social and spiritual work. This involvement led us to a deeper understanding of the causes of exploitation we saw. It was this awareness that brought a person like me to active politics.

How is it that you're a member of the Janata party? Considering your exposures of bonded labour and your political position. It doesn't seem the most appropriate for your ideas. There is no other alternative at the moment, if there were, I wouldn't be in the Janata party. It's the best there is.

But surely joining political parties is not going to be of help. Nearly every party today has practically disowned the cadre approach and their alienation from the real problems of people is something they themselves wouldn’t deny.

Everything boils down to politics and I think it is hypocritical to hold that politics should be left alone just because it is dirty. One can still have the proper perspective even if the reality on the ground is otherwise. We need a new type of politics, no doubt, but that can only come by hard work and greater involvement with the downtrodden. For myself, I hope there will one day be a new party consisting of activists from all over the county.

But how far is such involvement with the downtrodden going to be permitted? Even landless labourers demanding better wages are now a days being slaughtered as "Naxalites".

How long can you keep doing this is a relative question. I've traveled extensively over the third world in the past six years, and from what I've seen, it is still only in the country that one still finds the "space" to do radical social action. I have nothing much to say about this question otherwise.

Our politics has become so dependent on individuals, that no one can say what will happen when these individuals go. I don't lend to blame the social structure very much for the repression. The structure is not so oppressive as to take away all your rights to change things. But I do admit that powerful individuals will decide at certain times to what extent the structure will become oppressive. Organising the poor is the biggest politics for me, It is the only challenge to the vested interests. Anyone who is involved in it must be prepared to face oppression from wherever it comes. Surely you're not going to get accolades for such work especially if you're working with the rural poor.

What has been the most disturbing factor for you in your work on bonded labour? The fact that there are bonded labourers in Medak the PM's own constituency! This is unimaginable. They have denied this of course, but both the Gandhi Peace Foundation and National Labour Institute have this information in the studies on bonded labour. Besides I am ready to show the Medak bonded labourers to any one who wants to have a look.

Tell me something: I have a major dilemma. Inspite of all that you say, the situation in the rural areas is very disheartening, the condition of the peasants is pathetic and grim. As you said it earlier, conditions have worsened to such an extent that you wonder why the entire country has not turned Naxalite. How do you get people in the cities to perceive this problem? How do you get them to respond, if only in their own interest? The problem is that our upper and middle classes are now fast being infected with the five star culture. Now I'm one of those who feel that all five star hotels should be pulled down some day or another - yet they remain a predominant ideal. I think we need to take more and more militant action against such vulgar displays of ill-gotten wealth, those women going around with their dogs dressed in pullovers. Three years ago we led a crowd of 700 slum dwellers into the Ashoka Hotel.

Was it with Rajinder Purl? No, this was a different demonstration. We entered the restaurant in the hotel, most of us were poorly dressed. We asked to be served tea. They made us sit for more than two hours. Then the police arrested us under section 448 (criminal trespass). The case is still going on. All that we did was demand tea, and we were willing to pay for it of course, but because we came in torn clothes and we were also supposedly smelling foul, we were taken in. All this happened on Gandhiji's birthday, during the Janata regime and in a government owned hotel! The case is due for judgement this month in Delhi.

That's very significant. But how far are you really willing to go? What if a man goes to the government for work, is not given any, and is going to starve. In my conception of human rights, and going by what is in our constitution, I would feel that the man has a right to open a FCI godown (to give an example) and take the grains and eat them.

I think I would agree with you under certain circumstances. It is important for example that one makes it a disciplined movement that is, we should first inform the government that we want work, otherwise they'll put us down as petty thieves. We have never been really militant about food-for-work programmes. And we should, if no reaction is forthcoming, take direct action, but here too we should inform the government that we will pay when able, when there is work. The same holds good for train travel. They give us II class tickets and there is no place in the compartment, and the first class coaches go empty. We should insist on using those seats.

I'd like to return to the dilemma I posed earlier - how do you get support from the privileged groups for what you're going? The police, for example: In a real sense, they are as much oppressed by the system as the poor are. Often they seem to be honest, decent men, but they are equally susceptible to the brutality of their superiors who force them to do unimaginable things and they soon get used to this as a matter of course.We have to wean away a large section of the police force to our side, especially, from the lower ranks. These fellows are exploited sometimes 24 hours a day and they are made to do any and all kinds of work. Besides, in some mute sense they also realize that their bullets can get exhausted and yet the anger of the people would remain. There have been numerous instances where police have refused to fire on their own people. We need to get one or two crucial people in every segment to desert, that would shake up everything and demoralize the oppressive machinery. I do not know how easy that is going to be. Not only in India, but in Europe as well, governments have ceased to be responsive to peaceful protest. A march by 30,000 farmers in Germany will not get the government to act, but a blockade with tractors and other equipment of the roads by even 300 farmers gets lightning results. Violent, disruptive action seems inevitable everywhere. Take our own rasta rokos in Bombay.

Why call this violent? Militant social action need not be called violent. Rasta rokos are justified - the government will not listen otherwise. But we must make these tools more effective. If it is a people's movement, then everything is justified. If, however, there are persons who do all this in the name of the people, then it is not justified. Even fasting in such circumstances is not justified.