Jump to Main Content
Decrease font size Reset font size Increase font size
Home | Site Map   Search:
Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Personal Reflections on Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement

by Ravi Badri

As part of my graduate program in Adult Education and Community Development at the University of Toronto I travelled to India to spend 6 months with a Gandhian non-violent people’s movement. My situation as a person of Indian origin with a western education allows me to traverse different contexts. At the same time, my middle class upbringing and the context of my engagement with the movement limits my ability to become an insider of the movement and the communities I have had the privilege to observe. Hence my reflections are to be seen as my construction of a reality based on my background rather than definite statements that explain a movement. This understanding is bound to deepen and change as I spend more time with the movement.

Ekta Parishad is a people’s movement that works on Gandhian principles of truth and non-violence with marginalized sections of the Indian population on the issues of rights over livelihood resources like land, water and forest, strengthening local self-governance, and advocating for pro-poor equitable policies. The movement is currently in the process of organizing a historic non-violent action called Jansatyagraha in which 100,000 people will walk again from Gwalior to New Delhi, a distance of about 350 kilometers over a one month period starting from October 2nd 2012.

Photo Courtesy of Ravi BadriThe latest non-violent action Jansatyagraha is in response to the State letting down the movement by not effectively implementing the actions that were promised to the people during a previous action called Janadesh. Janadesh which was organized in 2007 had 25,000 participate in the padyatra (peace march) from Gwalior to New Delhi. In order to increase the pressure on the government in 2012, the movement is planning to mobilize 100,000 satyagrahis[1]. The objective of these non-violent actions is to draw the attention of the State, society and international audience to the plight of landless adivasis[2] and dalits[3], and advocate for ‘An Unfinished Land Reform Agenda’ and the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA2006).

To organize a people’ movement of such a scale, a four level leadership structure has been developed. At the top of this leadership structure are the camp leaders or shivir nayaks who are responsible for mobilizing 5000 people. They will do this by supporting, training and managing 10 second level leaders called group leaders or dal nayaks. The dal nayaks will be responsible for training, supporting and managing 10 third level leaders called section leaders or jatta nayaks. The jatta nayaks will take the responsibility of training, supporting and managing 5 fourth level leaders called village leaders or dasta nayaks. The dasta nayaks will take the responsibility of mobilizing and managing 10 satyagrahis from their villages.

Ekta Parishad is organized as a federation of organizations and individuals governed by a national council at the national level. Similarly it is structured at the provincial and sub-provincial level (namely, the state and district) and their respective councils. The leader of the movement is Shri P.V. Rajgopal. He is a long-term Gandhian activist, trainer and leader. Many of the organizations that are part of the federations are started by Rajaji or his protégés. These organizations translate the vision and mission of the movement into actionable projects that can be funded by donor organizations. These organizations themselves work in villages under the Ekta Parishad banner and people in the villages only recognize Ekta Parishad and not the organizations that carries out the project.

This is a significant point to understand. Such an arrangement creates a relationship of mutual dependence between the movement and the organizations. There is a common identity and a common set of values permeating across organizations and yet the organizing and management of the movement is decentralized. This also creates the space for the emergence of a number of leaders.

Photo Courtesy of Ravi BadriThe first key lesson for students of social movements is the grounding of the movement in people's material lives and problems. The movement is not organized and carried out by a rational understanding of the need for a movement. The bases for organizing and mobilizing is the strong relationship of trust built over several years by Ekta Parishad workers carrying out community education, and community leadership development activities and delivering services that directly impact on people’s lives. Some of the services they deliver would include: educating the communities about bureaucratic processes for different government services, helping out the community in accessing these services, advocating on their behalf with government official.

Community education would also include making the connection between the poverty the communities experience and the systemic inequality due to poor implementation of government welfare schemes and lack of control over livelihood resources. Their activities in the villages would include forming village level community based organizations, identification of issues, planning and carrying out non-violent social actions for the resolution of people’s issues and organizing communities for development related initiatives. I am differentiating between the services workers deliver and the activities they carry out to point out the trust they earn by working sometimes for the community's welfare. People realize that the worker's translate their words into action and begin to trust them.

The second lesson from Ekta Parishad comes from considering the movement’s analysis and framing of issues of its core issues. Even in India, like in Canada, there are structural determinants that are based on virtues based on birth i.e., structural determinants of poverty like race, gender, class and sexual orientation can be comparable to the caste system in India. The commonality in both these structural determinants is that they are determined by the family in which one is born. In Canada, analysis based on structural determinants of poverty that are determined by birth lead to identity based social movements. Even in India, there is a strong dalit identity based activist network carrying out advocacy and political work. But Ekta Parishad does not restrict itself to identity. Instead, the analysis places the responsibility of poverty squarely on the State's shoulder. According to Ekta Parishad's analysis, poverty in a country like India in which majority of the population live in villages and forests, is linked to lack of control over livelihood resources like land, water and forest. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure people's control over their livelihood resources. The issues are framed such that government is held accountable for poverty and for delivering sustainable interventions that are not just to increase welfare and social security related programs but to create an enabling environment that promotes self-reliance among the poor in the villages of India.

This solution will also address urban poverty by addressing it at its root-cause level. Ekta Parishad leaders see urban poverty in India as being primarily due to migration of rural poor into urban areas, and their inability to adapt to a structure and environment that is alien to them. Addressing rural poverty will stem migration of rural poor into urban areas and solve the problem at a fundamental level. They key lesson for social movement students is the framing of issues that makes government accountable for a sustainable solution to poverty that promotes greater self-reliance. There are distinct advantages to a resource based framing of causes of poverty over an identity and culture based framing of causes of poverty.

The third lesson for us to ponder about is the nature of leadership training. Leadership training is based on praxis. Abstract discussion on leadership, conflict resolution, and facilitation skills (which I have seen quite often in several leadership development programs in Canada) are kept to a bare minimum and the focus is often on material problems and developing planning and strategies for addressing them. Leadership at different levels of the organization is developed gradually by mentoring and by assigning responsibility commensurate with capacity. An environment of freedom, trust and respect is maintained and workers are free to determine where they will work, when they will work, how they want to work and are supported in taking on greater responsibility. For the community, rather than carrying out education in a workshop setting, it is carried out through non-violent actions, community education as described above, and community leadership development.

Ekta Parishad provides us with a historic opportunity to observe a large scale Gandhian non-violent action as it is happening and explore several themes connected with social movement theory, adult education, and organizational culture and development. We can specifically explore more about the benefits and pitfalls of adopting a resource-struggle approach for organizing a people’s movement, the connection between social movement learning with other forms of learning and the impact of organizational culture and structure on pedagogy.


[1] Satyagrahi refers to an individual committed to the path of Satyagraha. Here satyagrahi refers to the people who will be marching in the foot-march.

[2] Adivasi literally means first-dwellers is the term used in India to refer to people who are original inhabitants of the land

[3] Dalits are a group of people who have been historically marginalized by the caste system in India, people who Gandhi referred to as harijans.



My internship with Ekta Parishad was made possible by Students for Development (SFD) grant offered by CIDA and administered by Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). The program supports senior level Canadian University students participation in internships for a minimum of three months in developing countries and in emerging economies. Please visit http://www.aucc.ca/programs/intprograms/sfd/sfd_e.php for more information about the program. I would also like to thank Dr. Peter Sawchuk, Associate Professor at University of Toronto and Jill Carr-Harris, my field mentor at Ekta Parishad for their continued support and encouragement during this internship. I would also like to thank the many Ekta Parishad activists for their friendship and for engaging in many enlightening conversations.


Ravi Badri is a graduate student in Adult Education and Community Development at OISE, University of Toronto. He is passionate about the relevance and use of popular education in community development, organizing, and social movements contexts. He is also interested in the areas of cooperatives, and organizational change work within the social service sector.


OISEcms v.1.0 | Site last updated: Friday, February 28, 2014 Disclaimer | Webmaster

© OISE University of Toronto
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5S 1V6 CANADA