Narayan Gaikwad was preparing to dispatch more than 500kg of tomatoes to the market yard when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown of 21 days on 24 March 2020. It eventually stretched to 68 days, curbing the economic activities and movement of 1.3 billion people.
A week into the lockdown, Gaikwad dared to step out in his village of Jambhali in Maharashtra state. To be extra careful, he wrapped a handkerchief over his three-layer cotton mask. He had anticipated what he saw in the village: a hunger crisis, frustration, no cash to buy rations and everyday essentials, and a total collapse of the rural economy because a season’s work and income had been arrested.
He made up small packets of tomatoes and distributed them to 250 families. In the next few weeks, Gaikwad helped another 200 families with over 1 000kg of rice, wheat and vegetables. It was the marginal farmers and ordinary people like him who compensated for the myopic policies of the right-wing government.
On the second day of lockdown, the government had announced the distribution of free food grains for 800 million impoverished citizens as part of a relief package. But according to its own records, 64.4 million eligible people didn’t receive grains in April and 144.5 million went without it in May. Ironically, India had procured 73.85 million tons of food grains by 2 April 2020.
“Many people would have died of hunger had common people not helped each other,” says Gaikwad, who lost three months’ earnings owing to the lockdown.
It wasn’t the first time Gaikwad had helped people. Decades before, while still in her 40s, Akkatai Mohite was caught in an impossible situation when she lost her husband and children. For months, corrupt officials had denied her a ration card, an official document issued by the state government that helps individuals purchase grains at a subsidised price from its ration shops.
“I attempted suicide, but a fellow villager saved my life,” she says. A few days later, a massive protest happened to take place in her hometown of Kurundvad in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. “I saw comrade Narayan Gaikwad addressing the protesters there,” says Mohite.
Inspiring everyday heroes
Hopeful, she asked Gaikwad for help and he readily agreed. After successfully getting the card, she began joining him in protests. “It’s difficult to keep the protesters motivated for days,” she says.
Mohite, a singer and composer, began voicing the concerns of the marginalised through her songs. Hailing from a family of musicians, none of the women in her family was allowed to sing. “I began singing these krantikari [revolutionary] songs in the protest, and thousands of people cheered me,” she says proudly.
Today, at the age of 77, Mohite still actively participates in protests and continues inspiring people. She has helped 500 homeless people in Kurundvad acquire houses under a government scheme. “Only because of Gaikwad I could sing, inspire people and do this,” she says.
In the past four decades, Gaikwad has helped more than 1 500 people get their ration cards free and also trained at least 60 activists. One of the latter is Arun Manjare, 53, a power-loom worker who has made it his mission to make government hospitals accessible for impoverished people.
Navigating through the complex public healthcare system in India is a nightmare that often deprives people of timely treatment. “Often, poor people are shooed away or asked to visit after a week because of the lack of machinery or doctors in the government hospitals,” says Manjare.
Gaikwad would take him to public hospitals to talk to the patients. Soon, Manjare began protesting outside the hospitals. “In case the hospital authorities deny a treatment, I ask them to hand over a written letter,” he says.
Where he found the hospitals lacked equipment, he began approaching senior officials to address the issue. Through right-to-information applications, he would get to the truth. In the process, Manjare has helped hundreds of impoverished people in their battle against illnesses, from gaining them access to treatment to saving them money on operations and post-op care. “If we get any complaints, we rush quickly, skipping our daily work,” he says.
Gaikwad has also helped multiple women in their battle against oppression from their own family members. One of them is Kalpana Jagdale, whose abusive husband, an alcoholic and gambler, married another woman within a few years of their marriage. “I wasn’t even allowed to step out of the house,” she says.
Gaikwad trained Jagdale by taking her to protests and introducing her to government officials. “He made me a social worker,” says Jagdale, 54, at her house in Shirol.
Today, she makes government pension schemes accessible by completing paperwork pro bono, getting things started and following up with the officials.
Gaikwad stays in contact with these activists and helps them where necessary. “He’s our go-to comrade and mentor,” says Banabai Kamble, 60, an unlettered agricultural labourer. She has unionised the village domestic workers and helps impoverished people to get access to pensions, food and sanitation.
Collectively, these activists fight for social justice and have helped thousands of people in the villages of Kolhapur district. “You have nothing to lose and a world to gain when you fight for a cause,” says Gaikwad. “We are all non-violent in our approach,” he emphasises.
In December 2019, Narendra Modi’s extremist Hindu-nationalist government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that discriminates against Muslims. In the following months, India saw massive protests, several of which were met with brutal police violence. Gaikwad started canvassing the villages of Shirol block and talking to people about the law.
“In our village, Hindus, Muslims and people from every religion live in harmony. How can the government pass this law?” he asks. “From where will thousands of people bring the documents to prove their citizenship?”
He began travelling the fields to make people aware of the draconian law. Those on the far right would threaten him, but Gaikwad didn’t give in to the pressure and continued his drive. He would hold multiple rounds of discussions to counter the prejudice. “It’s not one religion’s fight. It’s a fight to save and preserve the values enshrined in our Constitution,” he says.
Another issue close to his heart is agriculture, especially small-scale farming for household food needs. For decades, he has studied and observed how advanced economies and world financial institutions have been pressuring developing countries to procure grains from developed countries, putting their own food security at risk.
“The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade gave Indian farmers a false promise of free markets. I was in Delhi with thousands of other farmers protesting,” Gaikwad says of the 1947 agreement to which India was a signatory.
India also signed the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture in 1995 that attempted to reduce state support for and protection of agricultural sectors, and last year passed three controversial farm laws that give corporate players much more power over farmers. Gaikwad understands there is “international pressure” behind the passing of these laws, but says it “will make the corporates richer and take the land away from poor farmers”.
Gaikwad has been a part of more than 15 protests since September 2020, when the laws were passed. He even travelled to Mumbai to take part in a three-day sit-in in January, despite the risk of rising Covid-19 cases and with a major fracture that was caused by a coconut palm frond falling on his hand.
Gaikwad believes farmers and agricultural labourers are at the bottom of Indian society, even though they “are lifting the burden of this society”.
“A single maize cob produces 2 000 seeds. Why are then farmers still dying of suicide? There’s something that has gone completely wrong,” he says, referring to the more than 300 000 farmers who died by suicide in India from 1995 to 2014. “Repeal the three farm laws and pay us as per the cost of production,” he says.
Early in August 2019, Gaikwad was forced to change his routine when floods ravaged 52 villages in Kolhapur’s Shirol district. It was the worst flooding he had seen in his lifetime. “I worked 16 hours every day,” he says.
Gaikwad would set out at 9am on his bicycle and visit affected families. Roaming around with sacks of clothes, soap and vegetables, he reached over 500 families in the first 20 days. “I asked families about the losses they suffered and how many days of work they lost.”
He observed that government officials didn’t survey the remote villages for damage and compensation. “I managed to get hundreds of photos of the flood-affected villagers.” A month later, he organised a protest of about 5 000 people in Shirol demanding immediate employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as well as adequate compensation for their losses. “Many farmers haven’t got the compensation yet. Corona has made it worse as the officials have delayed it,” he says.
Gaikwad also helped about 10 labourers to rebuild their collapsed houses by raising over 200 000 rupees. “I even collected the construction materials and sometimes donated the cement sacks I could afford.”
During these meetings, he distributed government forms to the affected villagers, ensuring that they can apply for help. “I made people aware of the pension schemes and got it initiated for over 500 people.” Gaikwad also helped marginalised farmers to free their land from the clutches of moneylenders.
He has come a long way from where he started. “I got to live and be a human. A protest is the training and bedrock of any revolution.”
He has a simple message. “It doesn’t take much to be a revolutionary. You must deeply feel the injustice and have a firm resolve to fight.”