Sunday, March 11, turned out to be a major acid test for the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra. A giant procession of farmers was at his doorstep in Mumbai – threatening an indefinite hunger strike and the gherao of Vidhan Sabha – until their demands were met. Protests and hunger strike in the state capital have been a routine matter but the difference this time was the unprecedented media coverage garnered by the march and popular support it received on the ground.
In the local Marathi media, channels such as TV 9 Marathi, Zee TV Marathi and ABP Majha dedicated top headlines to the march on Saturday and Sunday. Most Marathi and English dailies published front-page photos of the farmers marching in on India’s financial capital. The news even eclipsed firebrand leader Narayan Rane’s Rajya Sabha nomination from the BJP’s Maharashtra quota.
A video woke up mainstream media and common people
Four days before the lesser known CPI(M) body Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha stormed Mumbai, nobody took cognisance of the long march by farmers that started from Nashik. None of the mainstream channels or the Marathi press covered the proposed 180-km march when it began. But a March 7 TV9 Marathi report by Abhijeet Sonawane, which showed a sea of men walking in a serpentine queue in Karasa Ghat on the Nashik-Mumbai highway, caught everyone’s attention.
The six-day walk towards Mumbai began to get some attention halfway through its arduous journey.
The video went viral on social media, forcing the mainstream media to take note. The footage of 35,000 farmers storming the capital gradually accumulated newsworthiness – although the coveted “breaking news” label was yet to be bestowed on it. At this point in time, many were not aware of what the farmers were demanding. BJP sympathisers on social media dismissed the protest as a political gimmick by the Communist Party to revive its dwindling fortune after the Tripura election debacle.
Photos that showcased the human angle
Pictures are worth a thousand words. It took exceptional coverage by a young, dynamic journalist, Alka Dhupkar, to bring home the humanitarian aspect of the protests.
While Alka was covering the developments for Mumbai Mirror as a reporter, it was the photos she took while covering the march that made all the difference. More than her stories, her pictures went viral. Two of her Facebook posts showing injured or barefoot adivasi farmers received 3,000 likes and were shared 4,000 times. The photos drove home the fact of the farmers being small landowners or landless labourers from poor tribal areas. Suddenly, it did not matter who was organising the march.
Various Sikh, Muslim and Dalit organisations along with volunteers from different walks of life came forward to support the farmers as the march stormed towards Mumbai. The sympathy wave forced the entire political spectrum (excluding the BJP) to not just come out in support but also join the rally in a show of solidarity.
JJ Medical College’s Rewat Kaninde, who provided free aid to the farmers, wrote on Facebook: “I was treating the farmers’ blood-soaked feet so it didn’t matter which flags they were holding.”
Although the media viewed the march from the prism of its political affiliation, assigning headlines such as ‘Left farmers’ march’ or the ‘Red sea of farmers’ or “Red storm”, common people viewed them as mere farmers out to demand their right.
Dr Rewat Kaninde gives first-aid to farmers. Credit: Rewat Kaninde/Facebook
As the march snowballed into a major crisis for his government, chief minister Fadnavis quickly formed a six-member committee, led by water resources minister Girish Mahajan, and held hectic parleys with farmer representatives. He gave a written assurance that most demands (especially the concerns of tribals related to forest land) would be met and sought a six-month timeframe to implement the same. The farmers may have suspended their agitation for now, after assurance from the CM, but recent history proves that it’s rare for Fadnavis to walk the talk.
After the Bhima Koregaon violence against Dalits in January this year, the CM had assured that the culprits would not be spared. But on March 1, he recommended a Padma Shri for Manohar Bhide, a key accused in the case. In August last year, after his assurance to the Maratha morcha that reservation for Marathas would be implemented and that land and Rs 5 crore would be granted to build hostels for students from the Maratha community in every district, nothing has been done on that front.
Nevertheless, if the Fadnavis government betrays the tribal farmers, be assured they would be ready for a march again.
Farmers’ photo credit: Alka Dhupkar/Facebook