Letters from India No 2

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Marko Ulvila


DELHI -- The theme of the second letter is the broad and forceful social movement lead by Jai Prakash Naryan, known as J.P., that strived for democratic state where class and caste differences would be minimal and communal relations would be harmonious. Began in 1974, the JP Movement played a vital role in the events leading to the emergency and the rise of the Janata Dal government. Having mobilised a whole generation of social activists it has had a lasting impact in the voluntary sector and political organising especially in the northern part of India. The discussion of the movement below is based on a one week visit to the cradle region of the JP Movement, Bihar, where I talked with a dozen of key activists with background in the Movement.

During the past two weeks I also made presentations in Bihar on globalisation and peoples movements, attended a demonstration for communal harmony in Delhi and received the second exchange activist from Finland, Ms. Piia Saari. These items are discussed under the ‘Highlights from the Fortnight'. Ending of the month of Ramadan on the 19 January provides scope for reflection.

Theme: The JP Movement

In discussions with the people from Lokayan reference is made time to time to the JP movement. For many activists in Lokayan and other organisations and networks it has played a determining role in personal development. The energetic spirit of the movement and shared experiences in the prison during the emergency has left a lasting impact to a generation of activists that are today leading numerous voluntary popular movements and organisations. Also many present day politicians attribute the beginning of their carriers to the Movement.

Below is a historical account of the movement from 1974 to present. However, first a brief presentations of its leader Jai Prakash Narayan is made. The passage is mainly based on discussions with Anil Prakash, Arvind Kumar, Ghanshyam, Tri Purari Sharan, Rajendra Ravi and Vijay Pratap.

Jai Prakash Narayan: peaceful revolutionary The leader of the JP movment, Mr. Jai Prakash Narayan, was born in 1902. Higher education he received at the United States. In the freedom struggle he was leading a group of radical socialists inspired by the Russian revolution. In 1934 he established a socialist group within the Congress party to radicalise its positions. There were some disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi whose indigenous categories of social analysis appeared conservative to him and others whose thinking were more influenced by western ideas and urban environment.

After independence and the death of Mahatma Gandhi Congress banned all the diverse forums within the party. Then JP and others formed a separate socialist party that contested the first elections of independent India with a decentralised democratic socialist platform. They received some 10 per cent of the vote but little representation in the parliaments. The party was thinking weather to oppose the Congress or to work along it for nation building, but JP had difficulty in deciding on the direction.

After several years of thinking and introspection JP declared in mid 1950s that he would dedicate his life to the Gandhian Sarvodaya movement lead by Vinoba Bhave. JP played an active role in the bohoodan campaign appealing to land holding families and institutions to donate land for the landless. Nearly million followers were participating in the movements yielding important results in comparison to other land reform efforts. JP also addressed the issues of human rights regarding the activists in Kashmir and North-East and supported actively the struggle of Bangladeshi freedom fighters against the Pakistan regime.

After 1969 Indira Gandhi started to impair the democratic structures of the Congress party by taking more and more decisions by herself. The government declared an external emergency due to the war in Bangladesh in 1971 and this created a concern for the integrity of a democratic system. JP started mobilising public opinion demanding that Indira Gandhi should lift the emergency proclamation. JP got tremendous public support especially from youth and student resulting in a mass movement in Gujarat 1973 (Nav Nirman Andalan) and Bihar (Sampurna Kranti 1974)

Rise of the movement 1974-75 The dawn of the JP movement is traced to the violent oppression of a student protest in Patna, the capital of Bihar, on 18 March 1974. Students from number of universities had become increasingly frustrated about the corruption and mismanagement in the educational system. When it came to known that the Congress Party minister for education had favoured his son, the students decided to stage a protest in Patna by encircling and blocking the Legislative Assembly. The demonstration was met with a heavy police force which eventually attacked the students leaving more than one hundred dead.

The students turned to JP for leadership in struggle against the oppressive state, and he accepted the request. As a first reaction he staged a silent march on 7 April in Patna in mist of a curfew and heavy police presence. A group very disciplined activist of whom many had also participated in famine relief efforts in 1966/67 walked through the town.

In the coming months the movement gained structure and direction. JP pulled together nation-wide people from two groups where he had been involved before: Sarvodaya and socialists movements. He also established a new organisation for young students, Chatra Yuva Sangarsha Vahini.

On June 5 JP gave a call in Patna for Total Revolution in an event attended by some 500.000 people. The key objectives were justice, equity and personal change. To achieve this the systems of capitalism, castism, communalism and other forms of social injustice had to be overcome. All in all, this would require a transformation of the whole society. An immediate objective was to restore democracy and control the authoritarian tendencies of the Indira Gandhi Government.

Emergency, elections and the Janata Party government After a more than a year of active organising and agitation the Government responded to the popular protests by declaring a state of emergency and by arresting more than two hundred thousand movement leaders and activists. Those who ended up in the prison continued clarifying the objectives of the movement and worked on personal development. Others went underground, changed names and organised people secretly.

When imprisoned activists were let free little by little from November 1976 and elections were declared in January 1977, many members of the JP Movement became active in election campaign to oust the Congress government. A forum of diverse forces united under Janata Party and contested successfully the elections. A government lead by Moraji Desai was formed, the emergency lifted and a number of social and economic reforms to benefit the poor majority were launched. However, only after two years the differences in the coalition grew stronger, the government fell and the Congress Party lead by Indira Gandhi wan the early polls. JP died in October 1979.

Struggle movements and voluntary organisations After the emergency those who did not choose to engage in electorate politics started to organise disadvantaged groups to create changes that would sustain under different political regimes. In the Bihar Vahini circles two main approaches were chosen. On the one hand agricultural workers and other land-less dalits would be organised to carry out land reforms, and on the other hand tribal groups would be supported in their struggle to control the natural resources, especially forests. Some of the efforts were organised as popular movements while others took the form of a voluntary organisation. Below three examples from Bihar are presented.

One of the first efforts were done in Bodhgaya area, place famous for the site where Lord Buddha became enlightened under a Bhodi tree more than 2500 years ago. There a Hindu religious trust (Math) was holding 9.000 acres of land that was worked under very unfavourable conditions by some 100.000 landless labourers. A land reform legislation was at place that had set a ceiling of 40 acres per adult male member of a family and a provision of distribution of the excess land. The trust had evaded the law by registering the land holdings under bogus names and by other means. The Bodhgaya Mhumi Mukti Andolan (land liberation movement) organised by Vahini started to work relentlessly with the communities using non-violent means. After 7 years 8.000 acres were eventually distributed to some 20.000 families and for the first time registered in the names of both husband and wife. The successful struggle has inspired many other communities and organisation around Bihar and other parts of India where justified struggles for land are often marked by prolonged violent conflicts and extensive suffering.

Another set of issues has been addressed by Ganga Mukti Andolan (Ganges liberation movement) started by Vahini activists in Bhagalpur district. A key question had been the adverse impacts on fisher folks and farmers of inundated areas caused the Farakka Barrage that blocks the Ganges river near the Bangladesh border. The huge dam was finalised in 1975 affecting tremendously the fish population (75 % decline) and farming conditions in the areas upstream of the barrages (prolonged water logging and alkalisation of soils). The Ganga Mukti Andolan has been organising the people and demanded justice to the adversely affected people. It has also demonstrated that the intended benefits of the dam has been limited but it has created immense suffering to the rural poor.

Meanwhile in a tribal are of Bihar in Santal Pargana local Vahini activists started working with the Adivasis. District administration had given excessive concessions to contractors to log forests that provided livelihood for the local communities. The tribal groups had no way to influence to operations or even to protect their legal rights. Vahini activists started an voluntary organisation Lok Jagriti Kendra (people's awareness centre) to support the struggles of the tribal communities for control over the resources. In couple of years the efforts yielded results and the contractors were driven from the area. The process very similar to the famous Chipko movement has been sustained, an expression being the annual Bir Mela (forest fair) organised at the reclaimed deforested site now growing 15 year old Sal trees. The area is also marked for the lack of violent conflicts common in other tribal areas.

Total revolution today This year marks the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the JP Movement and a number of events will be organised to celebrate the achievements and to reflect on the aspirations. Also Lokayan is planning to convene a meeting to discuss the meaning of the JP Movement to Indian democracy.

During the past two and half decades India and the World has changed quite a bit, but most of the problems addressed by the JP movement in the Total Revolution agenda remain unresolved. The oppression of the tribals, dalits and religious minorities persists and the economic policy of India is closer to capitalism than ever before since independence. Therefore it can be predicted that new wave of broad people's movements will emerge, but it is difficult to estimate if it will be in the same line with the JP Movement or if it will take different forms and directions.

One expression of continuity is the National Alliance of People's Movement where the activists that were young during the JP Movement are playing a leading role. The NAPM is strengthening local struggles by bringing together communities, activists and organisations to make a stronger and more lasting impact on the society. It is more decentralised in organisation and less programmatic in objectives than the JP Movement. However, the overall goals and the drive to organise disadvantaged groups are similar.

Highlights from the fortnight


During my visit to Bihar I made presentations in Muzzafadpur and Patna for groups of activists from various voluntary organisations and political parties on cooperation of people's movements of India and Nordic countries. In my presentation I outlined the success story of the two grand movements of the Nordic countries of the current century - the labour movement and the agrarian movement - and their shortcomings in extending global solidarity. Of the current issues I highlighted the new challenges created by glbalisation and the emergence of scope for international action. The discussions concluded that the people in the South are suffering most from the adverse impacts of globalisation. This has created a base for broad movements that are taking a lead also in international organising. It was also highlighted that it is difficult to believe that the European people would readily change their consumeristic lifestyles for solidarity. The Times of India (Patna) reported from the presentation that "People in Finland are seriously against globalisation, corporate power and WTO. There is large scale unemployment in the country in the post-cold war days after the fall of Soviet Union, said Marko Ulvila."


On the 51st anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi a citizens march was organised in Delhi for communal harmony and against attacks on minorities. The demonstration was initiated by a group of eminent citizens lead by Dr. Rajni Kothari, a social scientist known world-wide and a founding member of Lokayan. The march was organised due to the intensification in the attacks on religious minorities, Kabir Panghis, Dalits and Tribals during the past year. The organisers attribute the increase of violence to the ruling ‘Hindutva' brigade that "has been emboldened to launch a systematic attack on the secular and democratic foundations" of India. Several hundred people joined the march.


On the 31 January the second exchange activist from Finland, Ms. Piia Saari, arrived in Delhi. She is trained as a geographer and works at the World Trade Shop of Swallows in Oulu, the oldest alternative/fair trade organisation in Finland. Piia will stay with Lokayan until end of April. Personal presentation will be in the next 'Letter'.



On the 19 January the Islamic month of Ramadan ended in Id-ul-Fitr celebration as the moon was sighted by religious leaders, one day before envisaged by calendar makers and government planners. During Ramadan devoted Muslims fast. For most that means that no food or drinks are taken between the sun rise and sun set. To maintain strength during the day, those who observe fast (roza) wake up before sun rise to eat a full meal. When the sun sets and a call is made for maghreb prayers, it is time for an Iftar meal with special delicacies. In the spirit of Ramadan political leaders organise Iftar parties where government and opposition rivals meet in friendly atmosphere. At night a dinner is eaten as usual. In terms of food, roza does not therefore mean eating less but eating at different times. Those who do not observe roza end up eating more than usual because of the lavish Iftar parties. I fasted for one day when in Bangladesh and found the experience elevating. However, after eating an Iftar meal with delicious snacks and sweets a nausea took over.