'Ideologies against the BJP should unify as an anti-communal force'

Vijoo Krishnan, the man behind the stirring Maharashtra farmers’ march, spells out political necessities to Sonia Sarkar 

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 25.03.18

There is no forgetting the image of the resolute foot. Calloused. Caked with earth and awash with blood. The skin torn in one place, flesh exposed - raw and red, screaming. It was one among 50,000, probably many more, pairs that covered 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai for rights - the rights of the farmers of Maharashtra.

The march that culminated a fortnight ago ended with the BJP-led government in Maharashtra acceding to the key demands of farmers. The man behind this massive long march, however, remains steadfast in his refusal to take any credit for it. "I was just present in solidarity with them. Leaders such as Ashok Dhawale, J.P. Gavit, Kishan Gujar and Ajit Nawale made this happen," says 44-year-old Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the largest Left-affiliated farmers' organisation with 1.6 crore members across India.

It has been difficult to catch Vijoo who is based in Delhi but has been on the move continuously. "The biggest thing is, it was the march of the farmers for their survival," he says, as he leans back in the white plastic chair in his office in central Delhi. His words are forceful, without being aggressive. The pleasant smile never quite leaves his face.

You would not be blamed for thinking this mass protest was really easy to pull off, except that it was not. This long march didn't become historic overnight. It was the result of a concerted effort of the AIKS for many months to organise farmers against the neo-liberal economic policies of the state and the Centre. "Our leaders have been preparing people to walk in this heat for months. Collecting grain, firewood and essentials for making this a success," says Vijoo, who is also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

He tells us how one of the comrades put out on social media a 40-second video of the rally, which caught the imagination of urban Indians. "Many social media enthusiasts, even those not belonging to our party, shared the video. Some even asked us for images which they shared on Twitter and Facebook - this forced mainstream media to cover it."

Vijoo's engagement with farmers' woes is no one-off. For the last one decade, he has been proactive in raising agrarian issues related to minimum support price for crops, waiver of loans, land rights and land acquisition. And since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, he has been more busy than usual.

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise to bring 'acchhe din' or good times for farmers during the 2014 general elections campaign has fallen flat. He had promised cheaper loans, pension and insurance for farmers, fair and remunerative prices for crops as stated by the National Commission on Farmers but nothing happened. Instead, there has been a drastic cut in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Yojna, public investment in agriculture has been reduced, and cattle farmers have been lynched in the name of cow protection," he says.

Speaking of lynching, didn't the AIKS recently organise a two-day meeting under the umbrella of Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, a conglomerate of 300 grassroots organisations, to address the issue? He nods. "Attacks by cow vigilantes are not just attacks on minorities and Dalits but also attacks on agriculture and the economy of the farmers."

Has the AIKS been able to garner support of the farmers of Bengal who moved away from the Left parties following the Singur and Nandigram land acquisition controversies? "Attacks on cadres by the Trinamool Congress workers have led to a considerable fall in our membership," says Vijoo.

The AIKS apparently had one crore members across Bengal until 2011 but the numbers dropped to 60 lakh in 2013. "It has gone up to 80 lakh now," he points out. According to him, the farmers of Bengal are in distress under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. His Bengal-based colleague, Amal Haldar, also told The Telegraph that reeling under huge debt since 2011, 208 potato and paddy farmers across the state have committed suicide.

Vijoo continues, "Plus, the minimum support price announced by the central government is Rs 1,550 per quintal for paddy. In Bengal, the farmers get around Rs 800-1,200 per quintal because there is no government procurement. The traders procure it, so they eat up the money."

In one corner of Vijoo's spartan office room is a red martyr's column - meant to commemorate comrades who have died. It is a mobile structure and scribbled on it is the red salute - " Amar Shaheedon ko Lal Salam". It brings to mind the recent bloodbath between the Left and RSS workers in Kerala. According to one estimate, 85 CPI(M) workers and 65 RSS workers have been killed between 2007 and 2017. "RSS has opened shakhas even in Kannur, where the Left has the strongest base. But they have not been able to gain prominence," says Vijoo, who originally belongs to Karivellur village in Kerala's Kannur district.

He talks about the RSS' violence in Tripura, how its workers have been torching CPI(M) offices there. "They started by demolishing Lenin's statue, then they demolished statues of B.R. Ambedkar and the Dravidian icon Periyar - their intolerance makes them want all those ideologies opposing theirs to perish."

But he doesn't believe the Left is going to perish anytime soon? The success of the recent farmers' rally in Maharashtra - wherein the state government agreed to waive their loans, stop forceful acquisition of farm lands and compensate farmers hit by natural calamity - is proof for Vijoo that it isn't. "These struggles ensure that an atmosphere is created for the defeat of communal forces. We may have had electoral reverses but nobody can write off the Left just yet."

But given the recent electoral performance of the Left, it doesn't look like it can defeat "communal forces" by itself. Then again, the top CPI(M) leadership has refused to establish an alliance with BJP's biggest opposition, Congress. Since the Left withdrew support for the Congress-led UPA-I government in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two haven't seen eye to eye. "We have to channelise all energies to defeat the BJP in all seats, whether we are directly in the contest or not. We need not have an alliance or understanding with the Congress," he says. Then adds, "Yet our position against the BJP as the main enemy may indirectly benefit the Congress."

Vijoo stresses that the Congress should be clear about its strategy, especially on the recent violence by the Sangh and affiliated forces. A fact-finding report - titled "Divide and Rule in the Name of Cow", brought out by Bhumi Adhikar Andolan this month - criticises the Congress for not taking a stand on lynching.

What does he make of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his temple run? Does he think Congress is adopting a soft-Hindutva approach? "That also is there," Vijoo says. "This is a hypocritical position - they have to give it up."

And the Left's own niggling issues - how does he see the Prakash Karat vs Sitaram Yechury fight resolve itself? "It is media hype," he says. "Ours is a democratic party. For us, there could be different opinions but we go by what the party congress decides."

At this point, a buzzing wasp enters the scene making Vijoo nostalgic. He recalls how a wasp stung him during his JNU days. Those days he was campaigning for the Delhi University Students' Union elections. "I couldn't recognise myself in the mirror for many days," laughs the former JNU students' union president, thus taking the sting out of an otherwise intense discussion.

We get chatting about his student days, JNU then, JNU now. The conversation turns to the current crop of student leaders from the institution - Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid. Vijoo says that individual leaders get a lot of attention these days. "In our times, it was always the organisation that got precedence." Could it be that this seminal philosophy defines his characteristic reticence, the reluctance he expressed earlier on at being credited with the success of the farmers' rally? Perhaps.

We are still on JNU. And he says after a minute's thought, "There should be better linkages between the similar ideologies that have cropped up." If you ask him, even beyond the campus, the band of young leaders - Jignesh Mevani, Chandrashekhar Azad and Akhil Gogoi - should come together. He says, "They should be part of the issue-based unity against the communal BJP. They should organise into a new, unified force."

As I get up to leave, I spot a poster with the visual of a blood-soaked trident and the nib of a fountain pen. The message scrawled on it reads: "Choose which side you are on". That's for us, not him. His choices couldn't be clearer.