The goal is to move towards what I call a mass-roots organisation (not a grassroots organisation as grass can be plucked at any time). In other words, an organisation that has many roots, where there is local leadership, where activists are motivating and mobilising people and building a united force.
Out of this movement, comes its articulation that must happen at various fronts – inside communities but also internationally. For the Sardar Sarovar dams, we had to take on the World Bank and International Financial Institutions that were funding the project. And this required getting support from international quarters and working with international movements. At a national level, you also must constantly build alliances - sometimes just on the issue, other times on a wider ideological basis – this is critical to grow and reach more people.
We also need to work on different fronts because of our understanding of power and human rights. While engaging on human rights relates to the state and we must use the institutions of law and judiciary to challenge the state, we also believe ultimately in people power, that it is the first pillar of democracy and foundation of our work. We need constantly to show the power of people and our right to make decisions, otherwise you do not bring people along with you and you are no longer a movement.
So we constantly use legal actions and mass actions. And this isn’t just about tactics either, it is also about values and creativity. In India for example, we are fond of Satyagraha (politics of non-violence) both because it is an effective tactic but also because it demonstrates our values and vision. If we are for rights, right to life, then we cannot take away life and we must embody a politics that encourages a participatory, equitable and just decision-making process. We also must be constantly innovative in our tactics, using media, social media, communicating our ideas effectively and allowing different people to speak.
We also believe that it is important to educate and also demonstrate alternatives to oppression. So in the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements, we run schools including real life schools and projects in areas of health, education and water management. People can’t just spend their whole time fighting, fighting, fighting; we also must demonstrate that there are alternatives.
3. In India, popular movements are facing increasing repression from the reactionary Modi Government, who also in September 2017 inaugurated the Narmada dam. How do you remain mobilised when faced with state and corporate repression?
It is an ongoing struggle. Even the courts have insisted on complete rehabilitation and compensation of those affected, yet the government has failed to deliver. The dam may be completed, but there are still 35,000 to 40,000 people – 44 villages and one township - in the submerged area. And it’s not just the inhabitants, it is all the farmers, fisherfolk, shopkeepers, labourers that will also be affected and must be fully compensated. The World Bank withdrew because it said the dam could only be finished with unacceptable means and terrible social and environmental losses. And this has come to be true. Yet we continue to struggle. In July 2017 there were 21 sites in the valley where women held fasts, stood barefoot in the water refusing to leave and stood up against the police to demand promised compensation.
It’s this collective action and spirit that gives hope and keeps people mobilised and motivated. That’s why I am optimistic, because without it as well as courage and determination you cannot carry on.
4. How do we ensure our counter-power is not co-opted or worse replicate oppressive structures of power?
It is important to be clear that peoples’ movements must always be mobilised, and organising people even when there are supportive parties challenging governments or even in power. Parties compromise because they want to win power, so movements must remain out of core power structures and play the role of the real opposition. Social movements must be a non-compromising force.
To remain true to their values, popular movements need to be rooted in their mass base and firm and committed to their goals. Being transparent is key; communicating, regularly evaluating the ways you work. Criticism is important because it is a way to clarify and rethink. It takes time, and many times we fall short, but we must try our best.
5. It’s a year since the major Women’s March in the US and internationally and five years since the horrific Nirbhaya rape case in India. Might we be at a turning point? How do we ensure womens equality is at the heart of our movements?