An Interview- Alliance Sud

Development? Climate change? Equal rights? Human rights? Civil society everywhere is demanding to have a say. Rajagopal P.V. and Jill Carr-Harris aim to channel and network this movement worldwide. An interview.
Alliance Sud: You have challenged India’s powerful through marches by the Ekta Parishad landless movement. Now you plan to take your cause global by staging an international march. You call the campaign «Jai Jagat 2020». What does that stand for?

Rajagopal P.V.: Jai Jagat translates to Victory of the world. It is very close to Gandhi’s concept of Sarvodaya («Universal Uplift» or «Progress of All»). If there is a victory, then it should be that of humanity as a whole, not that of one nation over another. Our campaign began on 2 October 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. We have scheduled the conclusion and culmination exactly one year later in Geneva, the second most important seat of the United Nations.

What happens in the meantime?

Originally we had planned to go on foot from India to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Pakistan is now closed to us owing to the tensions with India. We will therefore be criss-crossing India on foot for the first four months. In early February 2020 we then fly to Abu Dhabi, from where we hope to travel by ferry to Iran.

But you won’t be hundreds of thousands…

No, unlike earlier marches, this one will begin with just about 200 people for logistical reasons, as it is no simple matter finding lodgings for the marchers in winter. We have no problem sleeping outdoors in the warm seasons, so there can be many more of us. The core group will comprise 50 people. In each country we are to be joined by at least 150 people for part of the way.

Jill Carr-Harris: We are already expecting 5000 people for the final stage to Geneva – it will be the culmination of the Jai Jagat march from various starting points, setting out in late summer 2020 from Sweden, the United Kingdom and North Africa. And we are hoping of course that many Swiss citizens and people from the Geneva region will join in and march with us to the United Nations.

Where will your route take you?

Rajagopal P.V.: From Iran to Azerbaijan and from there via Armenia to Georgia. We will cross the Black Sea by boat to Bulgaria, our first point of arrival in Europe. We will continue through Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia to Split on the Mediterranean, then cross by boat to Ancona in Italy. We hope to meet with Pope Francis in Assisi. Finally, we will reach Switzerland first in Brig, from where we will follow the Rhône Valley to Geneva. For this we are planning 22 days. We will cross the Alps by bus, however. After all, Jai Jagat is not meant to be a sporting event but a peace march (laughs).

What political content will you be taking with you on the march?

Jill Carr-Harris: All along the way we will be holding events and dialogue to address topics of concern to people locally. In India and Pakistan their violence-ridden mutual relationship, in Iran the nuclear question as well as tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Caucasus is a focal point of the new cold war between Russia and NATO, the Balkans, a flashpoint for ethnic and religious conflicts.

What are the problems you face in preparing for the march?

As certain as we are of civil society support, dealing with the authorities is sometimes just as difficult. Take Italy, for example, a country with a long tradition of hospitality toward refugees. It has become the opposite under the government dominated by Matteo Salvini. Italy will be a very crucial stage lasting roughly 16 days at the height of summer 2020. We are hoping that, being the holiday season, it will be easier to secure a meeting with the Pope.

Social movements are coming under ever greater pressure from rulers around the world. In India as well?

Rajagopal P.V.: The shrinking action leeway for civil society is a major topic for volunteer organizations. Broadly speaking, the concept of human rights is not held in very high regard in the global South, and is also being discredited by the Indian Government as an instrument of the West. NGOs with connections to international organizations do admittedly enjoy a degree of protection, but by the same token they are attacked as «foreign agents» whose influence must be curbed in the interest of national development.

That would raise the fundamental question of the kind of development that people want…

Indeed, «development» can seem very violent in nature. And this leads us to Gandhi’s approach. He fought for self-determination. Gandhi was not interested in a powerful Indian nation state that builds dams, he was more interested in building a federation of independent and sovereign village communities. For development should never endanger people’s natural livelihoods – as do the large commodity trading companies that give their backing to the State, fund political parties to win elections, and thereby gain influence at the highest level of the State. This is how things work today, however, and it explains the staunch opposition to any other concept of development that does not blindly follow the dictates of industrial advancement. But naturally, Gandhi’s ideas are now more topical than ever – not least of all in Africa and Latin America.

What are the social consequences of land grabbing by agribusiness or commodity trading companies and the concomitant expulsion of the resident population?

We also call this process the Brazilianization of India. And just as in Brazil, ever greater numbers of Indians are having to move into the poor districts of big cities. And anyone who militates for drinking water and power supplies in rural areas that actually work is branded anti-Indian.

What does your alternative model look like?

Jill Carr-Harris: We take the view that being a nuclear power is not in India’s DNA, instead it is a country where Buddha and Gandhi taught non-violence and peace; these are tools that can bring the most powerful to their knees, as the independence struggle against British colonial rule showed us. And these are precisely the tools that the world needs today. In formulating the concept of Jai Jagat, we asked: what can India give to the world? According to Gandhi’s teachings, it is the concept of a world without borders and without losers, in which everyone should prosper.

In other words, a concept that is diametrically opposed to that of competing nation states?

Rajagopal P.V.: Yes, absolutely. And because this old wisdom runs counter to the Western concept of global industrialization, it is being denied any validity today. At the same time the assertion on that globalization can solve all problems is driving people crazy. Gandhi had no interest in the power of money and politics, instead he opted for moral power. When India became independent, rather than celebrate, he worked at reconciling Hindus and Muslims. Power without ethics is pointless, Gandhi was convinced of this. What works in economic terms need not be ethically correct, not by a long way. Economic parameters such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) do not depict corruption, poverty and hardship. But this kind of thinking rules the world and for too long we have simply stood passively by.

How do you explain the fact that Gandhi is celebrated as an Indian national hero although he represents a different philosophy from modern-day India?

Many Indians do not consider Gandhi all that important. And there is a very serious trend towards destroying his legacy. Gandhi’s ideas are too challenging, he talks about ethics, simplicity, honesty – about all the things that many Indians don’t care to hear about, and this makes him a constant source of irritation.

Jill Carr-Harris: Through his philosophy, Gandhi opposed the majority’s claim to power. Yet today this is being re-legitimized by the Hindu majority of Indian Prime Minister Narendhra Modi, also a Hindu nationalist. Gandhi opposed precisely this exclusion of others – and this too is one of the bases on which Jai Jagat intends to counter rampant nationalism and protectionism. It is about participation by all, about democratizing democracy. And of course we hope that the idea with which we march out into the world will also flow back to influence India.

What is the role of non-violence in matters of gender equality or in the climate debate?

What is interesting is that Gandhi’s views in these matters have remained relevant. Whether in modern or post-modern debates, Gandhi steers a middle course with his views. That could unite and bring all these struggles together. Feminists who cannot count on enlightened men will make no headway. We need fathers who raise their daughters to be strong women. Here in the West, the idea of seeing everything as interconnected is something new and unusual. One important aspect of all this is the long-term perspective: Gandhi was not interested in the short term, these struggles call for patience and much time and we must be able to keep our anger at injustice under control and remain constructive. It is no easy matter keeping a bruised ego in check.

You underline the direct link between Jai Jagat and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the SDGs). To what extent is this so?

Rajagopal P.V.: What is Gandhi’s legacy? His work was aimed at empowering the absolutely powerless. For him, development was always about leaving no-one by the wayside. In the UN context, the core idea of the SDGs – leave no one behind – is little short of an epiphany (laughs). We are starting from Gandhi’s grave and marching through all these countries bringing the message of leaving no-one behind, back to the UN office in Geneva. For it is clear that there is no place in a globalized world for the «last» among us. The 2030 Agenda will end up as no more than a lovely wish list, unless civil society creates space for itself and brings its ideas boldly and clearly to bear on this Agenda. If multinational corporations control earth, air and water, if people can no longer take decisions about their own lives, how can poverty ever be seriously tackled? The 2030 Agenda is meant for people and not for governments. The UN must prevail upon governments to listen to people, to civil society. We hope that with Jai Jagat we will be able to influence world opinion along these lines.

Along which lines specifically?

Technological solutions will by no means be enough to build a better world, with them we are simply creating new problems for ourselves. Holistic thinking is called for, we must focus on the linkages between various dimensions of our societies rather than contemplate each topic individually. This philosophy too is part of the SDGs. When we arrive in Geneva in October 2020, we wish to hold talks at the highest levels – with leaders of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Their development, financial and trade policies do after all contrast sharply with the content of the 2030 Agenda. But the UN is silent on the matter, coherence is lacking.

But how do you plan to persuade those benefitting from the current situation to change their behaviour?

Jill Carr-Harris: Once people discover the power of collective action, the deceptive lure of money will diminish. The wealthy are increasingly barricading themselves inside gated communities for fear of the outside world. But their individualism is no longer protecting them, as security can only be found together with others.

What do you make of the fact that your message is also being listened to by ministers and leaders of the economy?

Rajagopal P.V.: Our philosophy is one of resistance and dialogue. The one needs the other. Wars are not ended on the battlefield but when adversaries find their way back to dialogue. I had this experience as early as 1972, when no-one wanted to talk with the landless bandits in Chambal and I mediated between ministers and the outlaws. No-one could believe it when these outlaws laid down in their machine guns in front of a painting of Gandhi. The switch from naked violence to dialogue can engender tremendous momentum. Regrettably, many leading personalities still do not know how to resolve conflict in a civilized manner, instead they hide behind security forces that beat people up. I am personally convinced that if things are to get better in the world, we will need to be capable of dialogue, of overcoming polarization. This is why we are setting out and why we are arriving in Geneva in October 2020 to hold very serious dialogue. Walk walk, talk talk.