Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rahul Gandhi’s Belchi moment

Pankaj Sharma

26 October 2015, New Delhi 

The Gandhi scion’s principled stand against injustice will propel the Congress forward.

The spontaneity and firmness with which Rahul Gandhi addressed the recent attack on a Dalit household by members of the upper caste community in Sunped village, Haryana, reminded me of Indira Gandhi’s visit to a small and inaccessible village called Belchi in August 1977. Prior to Indira Gandhi’s visit, a group of upper caste people had killed 11 landless Dalits. For the then Prime Minister Moraji Desai, prohibition of cow slaughter and consumption of alcohol took precedence over the horrific incident in Belchi. Although the gruesome incident in Belchi had made national headlines, Desai had not even bothered to condemn it. On October 31, we will commemorate Indira Gandhi’s 31st death anniversary.

Coming back to the events of 1977, Indira Gandhi had immediately rushed to Belchi on hearing the news. She had just lost her Parliamentary seat from Rae Bareli in the general elections held six months ago. For the uninitiated, the Congress was decimated in the general elections of 1977. The Desai-led Janata Party government was ruthlessly hostile to her. It was raining heavily when Indira Gandhi reached the area. Since the roads to Belchi were flooded, she had to leave the car for a tractor and then walked for several kilometers before reaching a river. It was difficult to cross the river on foot and realising that Indira Gandhi was not ready to wait until the follwing morning; the villagers brought an elephant. She reached Belchi riding on ‘Moti’—the name of the temple elephant.

It was late when Indira Gandhi reached Belchi. The survivors of the massacre had been taking refuge in an abandoned house. She found herself surrounded by old people with wrinkled faces, inconsolable young widows, children with sadness in their eyes, and men with fear writtem on their faces. Belchi changed the history of the Congress party. On her journey back, she went to Patna and visited Jayprakash Narayan. A few weeks prior to the visit, Indira Gandhi was a person filled with loneliness. 

She was highly irritated at the continuous surveillance and faced the heat of the Shah Commission, which was appointed by the then Government of India to inquire into all the excesses committed during the Indian Emergency. James Cameron, a correspondent of British daily The Guardian had called her, “the loneliest and most apprehensive woman in the world”. That “She is resigned and does not want to talk about anything. She is like a defeated boxer waiting for a miracle. But there will be no miracle for her,” he said. However, Indira Gandhi soon proved everyone wrong including Cameron.

When Rahul Gandhi addressed Sunped village in Haryana early last week after visiting the Dalit family, which had lost two children in an attack, I was reminded of his grandmother’s visit to Belchi.  Rahul firmly told the media that he will “come again and again and again” to such places. He attacked those who called it a photo opportunity. “It is not insulting to me. It is insulting to these people. People are dying and they call it photo-op,” he said. “This is an attitude shared by the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister of the state, and the entire BJP and RSS. The attitude is if somebody is weak, he can be crushed. What you have seen is the result of this attitude.” The conviction with which Rahul Gandhi has been fighting injustices committed against the poor, tribal folk and Dalits has a Belchi-like potential for the Congress party’s revival today.

Rahul Gandhi’s fight against the injustices committed against the poor and marginalised isn’t a recent development. We must recall that in 2008, Rahul had gone to the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha and stood with the tribals in their fight against displacement. He had then pursued the Congress-led UPA government at Centre to listen to the voice of the tribals, who were suffering  due to a bauxite mine owned by Vedanta. When the Centre rejected Vedanta’s bid for environmental clearance two years later, Rahul Gandhi went back to celebrate. The project, he argued, would have destroyed the environment, culture, and the basic rights of the tribal population. Rahul fought for them and won.

It was with a similar conviction that Rahul Gandhi had declared his resistance to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s land acquisition bill. The Congress did not allow the Modi-government to push for amendments to the land bill. In a major climbdown following sustained opposition pressure, Modi agreed to drop most of its contentious amendments to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, bringing back crucial clauses related to consent and social impact assessment. It was a huge setback for the government that had to withdraw virtually every change it had made to the UPA-sponsored land bill.

When it comes to sticking to basic principles, Rahul has never shown any hesitation in taking a firm stand. He trashed the Ordinance by his government, which would have shielded politicians with criminal records. He has been pushing for the Lokpal Bill all along. He makes all the right noises against problems within the system. He has done it during the UPA government’s tenure, and he is doing it now. He has even raised his voice against flaws within the Congress party and relentlessly tried to correct them. To fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party and forces like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Congress will have to emerge as a cadre-based organisation rather than continuing as a federation of small fiefdoms of regional “rulers”.

Rahul Gandhi’s consistency of purpose is bound to create trust in his policies among the people. He has to overhaul his party. I am sure, Rahul knows the way. He will take the path and show us the way at the beginning of the New Year.

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