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The politics of salt and soil

  • Published at 12:07 am December 11th, 2019
Everyday concerns come first MEHEDI HASAN

The livelihoods of ordinary people should be our primary focus

I am writing this column while standing in front of the national press club, a place where I spend much of my free time, which has become the main, if not only, hub for protests in the capital since the imposition of restrictions on other public venues.

Small activism groups and protesters of different scales gather together here, especially when they cannot secure permissions at other venues or are denied. 

Today is International Human Rights day; almost all of the protests are centring on that concept, and there is barely a place for our small group -- which came together today to defend the rights of a dissident who has been receiving threats from various quarters since he exposed corruption and extortion in his small business community -- to stand.

Standing in the corner and getting continuously shoved around by human rights defenders, I realized that most of the protest speeches are less about human rights related to the realm of ideas like freedom of speech, religion, and expression, but are instead centring around a different issue: The price of onions.

Interestingly, our friend in question, Arman, staged a lone hunger strike at this very venue over the price of onions, which also became a reason for the threats he received. This shows an interesting trend. The dialogue about human rights has now come down to the price of daily commodities. This means that the idea of justice now has a new meaning, and in this meaning, the interests of salt and soil become primary.

The politics of today has come down to two simple elements: Economy and environment. Even though many of us are working from the top to solve the political crisis focusing far too much on democracy and justice, the people seem to care more about the issues that are closely related to their personal wellbeing, and they are not afraid to come down to the streets to prove it.

In terms of massive mobilization, these issues have not been able to get people to act. Due to the gross social stratification that the society has undergone over the past decades, people only seem to mobilize when their tightly-knit in-group is directly affected. Very often, this boils down to the individual or the family. And therefore, concern for salt and soil rise above all else.

Of course, questions and condemnations flow in when gross violation of human rights takes place. But it still does not create massive mobilization at the scale that it should. Even the murder of Abrar Fahad could not exactly solidify a nationwide movement, but was boiled down to an internal issue of a specific institution, when the structural problem is prevalent at most public universities.

There have been rapes, murders, kidnappings, attacks, and intimidations, but no movement solidified. Somehow, maybe, these events are seen as the problem of the individual and not the society. If it did, we would see a strong movement against these events of structural injustice, as this is no secret to anyone.

When do we see massive movements? When the issues hit directly on economic and environmental interests. The latest successful peasant movement, lead by Sahebganj-Bagdafarm Bhumi Uddhar Sangram Committee and other organizations, organized around the economic interest of protecting their land from government acquisition and ensuring the protection of the nature that the Santals hold so dear. Other movements from the working class were mostly lead by labour organizations on demands like higher wages and safer work environments, all strictly economic demands. 

In terms of youth movements, we have seen three large ones in the post-2014 era: The No VAT on education movement, the quota reformation movement, and the road safety movement. The appeals of the No VAT and quota reformation movements were strictly related to economic justice. The No VAT movement asked for their education to remain affordable and the quota reformation movement asked for a greater access to public jobs, ie employment. 

While the VAT issue has been somewhat resolved by the abolition of the tax by the government promptly after the movement (even though discontent is still brewing in the universities on the issue and the lack of justice for those who were attacked), the unemployment crisis that was the origin of the quota reform movement has not been resolved, even after the government partially repealed the quota system. 

Due to that, and other reasons, including the organization that spun out of the movement, the Parishad, being able to secure the top seat at DUCSU, whatever the method, the movement is still ongoing and the organization still enjoys a sizable popularity.

On the other hand, the road safety movement raised the perennial question of justice, and they did not mean justice for the victims of the road accidents that inspired the original mobilization, but justice overall. Incredible placards included, “The repair of the state is underway.” However, this justice movement did not continue, even after a number of deaths on the streets since the movement. 

This proves that, even though we need justice on all fronts, we must refocus our struggle for justice to the specific focus of economic and environmental justice if we want to gain traction among the people. Truly, the most palpable sense of discontent among the common people is the unjust market and environmental pollution.

Power-sponsored syndicates that manipulate market prices, bands of extortionists who snatch away the profit of the small businessman, middlemen who hurt both the consumer and producer, the price of electricity, and other issues that directly affect the livelihood of the common people should now be our primary focus. 

Now is the time for the politics of salt and soil. 

Anupam Debashis Roy is an editor at Muktiforum. He can be reached at [email protected]