Last week more than 50,000 landless poor people from all over India set off on a long walk to demand their rights to land and resources. Their journey will take them over 200 miles from the carved stone pillars demarcating the exit of Mela Exhibition Grounds in Gwalior, all the way down the national highway to India's national parliament in Delhi.
I was there to witness them start out on the first 20 kilometres of their journey, which they hope will bring pressure on India's national government to play fair and honour promises made five years ago on land reform to benefit India's poorest. As we walked alongside the lines of 'Jan Satyagrahi' as the marchers are known in Hindi, hopping and skipping so as not to fall behind, we spoke to old ladies who strode defiantly, keeping in line and keeping up the swift pace, determination set into wrinkly faces.
Energetic teenagers from Deoghar in Jharkhand danced and sang jubilantly, carrying the marchers on either side along with them. Yasin Khan from Muraina, Madhya Pradesh steadily pedalled one of a troop of rickshaws equipped with loudspeakers, his four-year-old daughter sitting quietly and solemnly in back amidst all the commotion. "There was no-one at home to take care of her", he explains, "so I brought her along".
Ekta Parishad, a Christian Aid partner, and the other organisers fear the risk too great for some, with daily temperatures soaring to the late thirties and a shortfall of food rations meaning the marchers face the possibility of only one meal a day. They have been urging the elderly and women with small children to consider returning home rather than carry on the full month. Eleven people died during their previous 'Janadesh 2007' campaign which followed the same route.
Yet the lines are peppered with tiny old women, and I have no doubt that 80-year-old Motin Bai from Billari village, Chattisgarh, whom I met in the starting grounds two days before, remains somewhere amongst them.
This is not the first time Motin Bai has walked the entire distance from Gwalior to Delhi in protest. In fact, she tells me, it's her third. She has been following Ekta Parishad for over two decades and in spite of her achy legs and frail frame she's not afraid to do it again: 'I just want my land", she insists.
Those five small words are what unite the tens of thousands undertaking this feat, expected to swell to 100,000 over the month of October. Over the past year I have followed and reported on Ekta Parishad's Jan Satyagraha 2012 campaign, joining them on their mobilisation 'yatra' (journey) late last year to hear first-hand some of the hundreds of land struggles they documented along the way. One of Etka Parishad's strengths has been mobilising people from all corners of the country, from all faiths and all philosophies and ideologies under one common cause; greater control over land and resources for India's poor; predominantly but not exclusively dalits and adivasis.
Another of their strengths is patience. This march is a culmination of four years of hard effort and builds on previous campaigns and over 20 years of network-building. "What I've learnt is that there are no short-cuts," Rajagopal explains.
In the first 20km on Wednesday, I gained a better understanding of their greatest strength of all: the power of non-violent action. The week before Etka Parishad's President had reflected how, during their 2007 Janadesh campaign, when 25,000 walked the same route to Delhi, policemen who were fierce during the day and prevented marchers from proceeding came back in civilian clothes at night to distribute blankets and clothes to the people sleeping by the roadsides.
I saw the marchers inspiring the same effect this time around. Gwalior's traffic police who paced along the side-lines addressed the marchers with kindness and respect, gently urging them on to keep pace, and helping them maintain their lines. One policeman said how impressed he was by the discipline of these groups, some of whom have never travelled so far from home before. Many are suffering oppressive tactics and increasing force from local state forces to leave the land they live on, risking losing everything valuable to them.
A young man working at a small restaurant some way back from the roadside stood holding a hosepipe to which thirsty marchers sprinted from the endless parade of feet and flags, splashed their faces with water, took a few hungry gulps and rushed back to their group so as not to lose them. Similarly, further on I met a small sweet store owner whose five staff had been deployed to fill water buckets and pass water to the needy in plastic containers. "It's the least I can do", he said. "It's my way of showing solidarity".
"You may suffer in order to change the heart of the person in front", explains Rajagopal who follows Gandhian philosophy. Last week I bore witness to the humanity inspired by suffering along India's national highway, when only 15km in, many marchers young and old were already feeling the heat and the strains of their endeavour. One can only hope that those with the power to grant the marchers' reasonable demands will be similarly moved just as the policemen, the ordinary people of Gwalior and I were on that day.Suggest a correction