How Sharad Joshi dexterously combined economic wisdom, mythology, and a sense of sacred and dharmic responsibility to advance the cause of women’s issues in rural Maharashtra.
Note: Sharad Joshi, the founder of Shetkari Sanghatana (farmers’ organisation), passed away earlier this month. Read more about how he advanced the cause of economic freedom for farmers here.
In 1986, Sharad Joshi invited me to come and participate in their newly formed women’s front—Shetkari Mahila Aghadi — and evolve a programme of action aimed specifically at empowering women of farm households who had till then been mobilized by Shetkari Sangathana mainly on economic issues affecting the farm sector.
Since the Sangathana is committed to non-violent agitational methods, and their meetings and rallies are exceptionally disciplined without any policing, women have always felt very safe and comfortable in this movement. Therefore, all their agitations have included massive participation of women, many of who bring a do-or-die spirit in the agitations. For many years they participated only on general issues affecting the farm sector as a whole, without raising gender specific issues, till Joshi decided to set up a separate wing for women in 1986 with a very innovative agenda for rural women.
My contribution was to convince Joshi and his colleagues that, just as, for the farm sector as a whole, their emphasis was on farmers getting their due price for their labour, with economic freedom being the core issue rather than a demand for subsidies or crumbs from the government, the same strategy should be replicated for women of farm families. The organization sought to ensure that women too did not have to live a life of hapless dependence with all economic resources concentrated in the hands of the men of the family.
I was able to convince Joshi that for strengthening women’s rights in the family, they need not wait till the government agreed to change this or that law. It was far more important that the Sangathana be able to persuade its followers to willingly give women of their family their due share in family property, no matter how modest.
I emphasized on building a social consensus on women’s right to hold land rights in the backdrop of very unhappy experience of challenging the denial of land rights of women farmers of Chhotanagpur region. The two women on whose behalf we filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 1981 were both eliminated by their male kin and the mighty Apex Court could not even protect their lives leave alone strengthen their economic rights.
That convinced me of the need to prioritize preparing a favourable eco system and moral legitimacy in favour of women’s rights instead of merely getting sultani farmaans from the court or parliament. The product of this collaboration between Shetkari Mahila Aghadi and Manushi was a unique campaign called Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram.
Sharad Joshi announced that any village which performed the following three acts for women’s empowerment would be honoured as a Jyotiba Gram named after Jyotiba Phule, one of the most revered late nineteenth century social reformers of Maharashtra:
- Ensure by consensus the victory of an all women panel in panchayat elections.
- Close the village liquor shop by mobilizing the whole village in order to curb drunkenness and wife beating.
- Voluntarily transfer a piece of land from husband to wife by a hundred or more families in the village. Such a village would be honoured as a Lakshmi Mukti Gaon (a village which had liberated its hitherto enslaved Lakshmis) through a public function at which Sharad Joshi would personally distribute certificates of honour to each such family.
A small remote village named Vitner in Jalgaon district made history by performing all the three tasks within a month and received the Jyotiba Phule award from the then prime minister of India. I was asked by Joshi to go and review the actual impact of the programme on women’s lives in Vitner. I stayed in the village several days and reported in a large meeting of the Sangathana how the dramatic changes in gender relations on account of Lakshmi Mukti program had transformed the entire political atmosphere of Vitner and suffused it with positive energy under cutting divisions across party lines.
This enthused Joshi to launch a movement for the implementation of Lakshmi Mukti in all the districts where the Sangathana had a stronghold. The only incentive offered was that Sharad Joshi himself would go and bestow certificates of honour to each such village. Given the respect and affection enjoyed by Joshi among Maharashtrian farmers at the time, this in itself gave the movement great legitimacy and the aura of a sacred mission.
The nomenclature and symbolism of this unique campaign is itself fascinating. The Indian goddess of wealth is named Lakshmi. However, a wife is also traditionally referred to as griha Lakshmi, that is, Lakshmi of the household. Likewise the birth of a daughter or arrival of a daughter-in-law is also meant to be celebrated as the coming of Lakshmi in the family, even though many communities have come to see females as a burden rather than a blessing.
Thus, the message of the Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram was that by enslaving their household Lakshmis, the farmers had incurred the curse of poverty. Therefore, in order to free themselves from economic bondage, they had to liberate their own Lakshmis and earn her blessings.
I accompanied Joshi to countless villages, which fulfilled the Lakshmi Mukti mission. My own campaign speeches were seemed far more mundane in comparison to Joshi’s because he dexterously combined economic wisdom, mythology, and a sense of sacred and dharmic responsibility to get his point across.
Joshi would introduce the Lakshmi Mukti campaign by saying that so far the Sangathana had worked tirelessly to get various exploiters off the farmers’ backs and ensure that farmers got fair and remunerative prices for their products. Now it was time for the Sangathana to ensure that men associated with the movement also were just to the women of the household.
Joshi linked the whole endeavour to an earlier Karzmukti Andolan (movement for freedom from debts), whereby he had built a case through careful economic calculations that the farm community needed to be liberated from the stress of indebtedness to government banks by writing off of their loans, since the government robbed the farm sector of Rs 72,000 crore every year by artificially depressing prices of farm produce through numerous authoritarian, statist controls. He would then give them a similar lesson in household economics to explain the debt they owed their wives.
Joshi told me some of these ideas took shape in his mind after reading certain articles in Manushi, notably a report of a Punjab village study published in Manushi, Issue No. 11 (see ‘Family Life—The Unequal Deal’), as well as my study of the Hindu Code Bill (‘Codified Hindu Law: Myth and Reality’, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. XXIX, No. 33, 13 August 1994). I have rarely seen academic studies put to better creative use in a campaign speech.
This campaign was the real turning point in my understanding of the powerful emotional hold of certain traditional symbols on the psyches of men of all ages and communities in India. During the campaign tours, while I would use images and examples from contemporary life, Sharad Joshi’s speeches revolved around the Sita story, which seems to have played a crucial role in striking a deep emotional chord among the Sangathana followers. I quote from Joshi’s very evocative speech, which first began by establishing a link between the daily privations, drudgery and acts of loyalty of the wives of ordinary, poor farmers and the privations suffered by the Ramayana’s Sita:
During our struggle for remunerative prices I taught you to calculate the cost of production of farm produce and asked you to get into the habit of noting down each and every item of work and the cost involved. I would now suggest another exercise: on an off day, just sit down in a quiet corner of your house and start noting down on a long sheet of paper the various tasks your Lakshmi performs from as early as five in the morning to late at night: feeding the cattle, followed by all the chores required for the upkeep of the house and its surroundings, cooking, fetching water and the care of children. All these by themselves represent a full day’s work. But she goes on non-stop. After completing the housework, she goes to the fields and, at the end of a back-breaking day of work, on her way back home, she tries to scrounge around and collect anything that can be used as firewood for the evening meal. She comes home to cook, look after little children, feed the animals and tend to the needs of other family members, including the old and the sick.
From the time she wakes up to feed the cattle to the time she lies down to sleep, she probably put in no less than 15 hours of work. How do you put in rupee terms the love, care and affection that she puts into all these tasks? How do you put a money value on the services of a person who saves the honour of the family by going and stealthily borrowing milk and sugar from the neighbours so she can provide tea for your guests who come at an unexpected hour at a time when the house does not have those provisions? Let us put the value of all these acts of loyalty and love at zero. But shouldn’t she get at least as much money as a person working for the Employment Guarantee Scheme gets for simply moving earth from one place to another?
Let us figure this out on the basis of a minimum wage of Rs 12 per day. She works 365 days a year. Let us say she has been married to you for 20 years. Given that she has worked 365 days a year for 20 years, the amount comes to more than Rs 1,60,000. She has never tried to demand this amount you owe her, not sent a notice, or a jeepload of people to come, seize and take away your household utensils as the banks do when you owe them much smaller amounts. On the contrary, to save you from other creditors, remember how often she even took off the little bit of jewellery she was wearing?
If we calculate along with the interest on the minimum amount you owe her, it comes to a minimum of Rs 4 lakhs. What have you given her in return? Two sarees for a whole year and that too forgotten if there is a drought. No guarantee of even adequate food. If there is not enough food in the house, the husband’s share is not reduced. And a mother will hardly snatch food away from her own children’s mouths. She makes do with whatever is left over, a half or a quarter chapati, and fills the rest of her stomach by drinking water. This has been her fate so far.
Having thus established the credentials of their wives as no less self-effacing that Sita Mata herself, Joshi went on to show the farmers that they are emulating a very negative role model and being as ungrateful and uncaring as was Ram:
That this situation is not new is certain. But how and when did it start? Ram is considered a purushottam. But think of how he treated Sita Mata who joyfully embraced exile in a forest for 14 years to be with him. As soon as Ram was appointed king, he decided to cast her off. It is not necessary for us to get into a debate on whether it was right or not for Ram to give up Sita. But was it not necessary for him to at least take the trouble of explaining to Sita why, as a king, he was compelled to abandon her? He could have assured her that she need not lack anything after his parting company with her, that she could continue living respectably in Ayodhya. Better still, Ram should have told his subjects that if she is not good enough for you as queen, I will go along with her.
After all, that is what she had done when Ram was banished by Kaikeyi, who had told Sita she could continue living in the palace. But Sita had said ‘Jithe Ram, tithe Sita’ (wherever goes Ram, there goes Sita). Even if Ram was not ready to leave his kingship for her, surely there were less cruel ways to deal with the situation. Sita was pregnant at that time. If Ram had provided her a small straw hut till the time of delivery, he would not have lost any of his greatness by doing so.
Joshi then linked Sita’s story to another moving relic which stands as testimony to the injustice done to Sita in the popular imagination:
There is a Sita temple at Raveri village in Maharashtra. The villagers in that area tell you that Sita Mata delivered her two sons on that very spot. She was in such a destitute condition that she went begging for a handful of grain. The people of the village Raveri spurned her and refused to give her any. Sita Mata cursed them in her grief.
Such was the power of the curse that not a grain of wheat would grow in that village for centuries (until the arrival of the hybrid variety) even though the neighbouring villages produced plentiful harvests of wheat.
In other words, the message driven home is that the poverty of Indian farmers will not go away unless they repay their debt to their Lakshmis and free themselves their curses. After all, the husband of a slave cannot be a free man.
He would conclude his speech by saying that the purpose of the Lakshmi Mukti Programme was to see that no modern-day Sita would ever have to suffer the fate of Ram’s Sita because she had nothing to call her own, no house or property of her own. By transferring a portion of land to their wives, they were paying off ‘a long due debt’ to Sita Mata:
Through this gesture, you, my farmer brothers, will be vanquishing that monster of male tyranny which even Prabhu Ram could not vanquish though he slayed a great warrior like Ravan with ease.
In village after village, I saw men reduced to tears listening to the story of Sita. Within a couple of years, hundreds of villages had already been honoured as Lakshmi Mukti villages and hundreds more had volunteered to carry out Lakshmi Mukti. Most of the villages that carried out Lakshmi Mukti celebrated it as though it were a big festival. The entire village would be spruced up and decorated, with men dancing to the beat of drums and women performing aarti and singing songs. Men seemed even more elated than women, and much of the initiative for preparing villages for Lakshmi Mukti was taken by young male cadres of the Sangathana. Some of the men I interviewed described the whole campaign as a mahayagna.
The occasion would attract many people from the neighbouring villages. After each public meeting, men from the surrounding villages would come up and volunteer to effect similar transfers of land in their own village, provided Joshi joined them likewise for the celebration. The Sangathana campaign became such a wave that the organization found it hard to cope with the growing number of villages clamouring for Joshi’s visit.
I attribute the success of this campaign to the following factors:
- The high-level credibility of Sharad Joshi among the farmers of Maharashtra. His track record of self-sacrifice, of being incorruptible, played a vital role in influencing opinion in favour of Lakshmi Mukti.
- Joshi had a long enough track record of demonstrating to the farmers that his ideas and methods of struggle yielded beneficial results for them. Therefore, when he told them Lakshmi Mukti is good for the well-being of their family and for their own self-respect, they trusted his word. Their slogan ‘Bheekh nako hawe ghamache daam’ (we do not want charity, we want the due price for our labour) could easily be used for lending legitimacy to women’s right to land because women in most farm families are the primary workers on the land.
- The Gandhian paradigm within which Joshi operated put great emphasis on self-respect and justice. While many other contemporary movements of farmers were more oriented towards appealing for concessions and subsidies and government supports of farm prices, Joshi’s movement chose economic freedom and justice rather than concessions.
- Once men become self-respecting by giving up grovelling before their own tyrants (in this case various government agencies), they are more easily able to extend the same respect to women. Men who themselves live under authoritarian regimes and controls become less self assured and, therefore, more tyrannical towards women.
- Key men of the Sangathana led by personal example. They not only transferred land to their wives’ names but also encouraged them to take a part in Sangathana work. Their domestic conjugal lives showed visible improvements rather than becoming more stressful. Therefore, people could see for themselves that strengthening the rights of women need not lead to breakdown of the family or greater conflicts between husband and wife. Rather it could lead to happier relations. Men did not feel attacked; rather they felt elevated when being called upon to do justice and being honoured for it.
This campaign led to far-reaching changes in the area, including creating greater space for women in the political and public life of Maharashtra and curbing domestic violence. While the entire might of the parliament enacted laws and agencies of the Indian State have failed to bring effective land rights for women, the enthusiastic response to the message of a respected leader could move thousands of families into changing discriminatory norms towards women.
Unfortunately, the campaign could not be sustained in a consistent manner beyond the first three to four years because Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram was pursued or abandoned depending on the urgency and priority it received in comparison to the other Sangathana campaigns.
Excerpted from Manushi, issue 136, 2006.