The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To be quiet is not to be ineffectual. Not if close to 25,000 people remain quiet and determined. The Janadesh march organized under the auspices of the Ekta Parishad originated in Gwalior on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday and ended 26 days later and 350 kilometres further in Delhi. Landless farmers, tribal people and Dalits from 15 states simply walked all the way to tell the government that it was time it formulated the long-promised land reforms policy so that poor landless families may live with dignity. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, responded quickly to this display of powerful non-violence by immediately announcing the formation of the national land reforms council that he will chair. This is presumably the first step towards the formulation of the land reforms policy that the quiet army of the landless is demanding. The government will set up another panel side by side — the committee on state agrarian relations and the unfinished task in land reforms — to help the council in its work. The committee would do the data collection and collation and other fieldwork, and its inputs would help the council come to its decisions about policy and advise the states. The response may have been rewarding to the marchers, but it is the first step in a very long process. One of the organizers of this massive rally has acknowledged that their demands, which include the setting of fast-track courts to dispose of land-related cases, will be considered, but he is clear that all this is in theory so far. The government has given an initial time-frame — one month for the forming of the committee and three months for the policy to take shape. The marchers have already shown a dogged patience and determination that might encourage the government to stick to its time-frame.

With no violence and no political extremism, this assertion of the mass’s voice and power has revived an almost forgotten aspect of Indian politics. The Ekta Parishad reportedly took two years to organize the Janadesh march. The organization has taken up a land rights campaign to help poor people not just acquire land but also manage its resources so as to support their livelihood from it. The walk itself has been an astonishing achievement, a memorable symbol of desperate need accompanied by the constructive energy to get it fulfilled. They will not go back empty-handed, as one of the organizers said.

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