Last week I attended the Samajwadi Jan Parishad biennial conference in Raj Ghat, Benares. I have been loosely connected to SJP for the last few years since we have been fighting the British Indian mining company Vedanta in London, where they are registered and supported by British institutions and banks. I had come to India on an emergency trip when the Supreme Court announced that gram sabhas in the Dongria villages would take the final decision on the proposed Niyamgiri mine. It was clear that this would be wide open to abuse and manipulation by the state and there was a call out to come and help monitor the process. I came from Odisha with my comrade Tilly to attend the meeting.
At the inaugural session I was asked to speak about our London group Foil Vedanta. I spoke about how Foil Vedanta formed from a group of grassroots activists who were fighting a variety of struggles against industry and neo-liberal policies. They are committed and unfunded activists from Trinidad, Iceland, India, Kenya, Israel and the UK who now live in or around London. As well as fighting their own struggles they come together as Foil Vedanta, feeling solidarity with those affected by this vicious mining company in India, Africa and elsewhere. We are an unfunded people’s group fighting from our passion and sense of injustice. We do not work with NGOs and are adamant about that. They do not truly represent the people and their work only goes as far as their funding does. As a result their presence at the annual Vedanta AGM demonstration in London has dwindled to almost nothing in recent years.
We are in direct contact with communities affected by Vedanta across India, and now in Africa too, and respond immediately when violations occur or rallies happen, targeting the company and its supporters in London. We aim to make the struggles of those affected in India and Africa visible, not ourselves. We try to give direct and meaningful international solidarity in this way.
We also aim to link up isolated communities fighting Vedanta and similar struggles across India and worldwide- to share stories, tactics and resources and support each other. The grassroots to grassroots connection between localised struggles is so important and powerful.
I also stressed that we are not a single issue campaign, we also support like-minded struggles such as: Koodankulam, Lower Suktel dam, POSCO, the Tamil issue, Phulbari coal mine in Bangladesh, aluminium industry in Iceland, anti-smelter movement in Trinidad, and Alcoa struggle in Greenland. We also do cutting edge research on Vedanta and its supporters in London, and take part in academic debates on these issues. We are currently trying to get Vedanta de-listed from London Stock Exchange.
It is always hard to be white in Indian activist circles. People immediately think you are with an NGO, or are a well paid journalist or academic. They don’t believe that people are full time unpaid activists in UK too. The news rarely covers our struggles, preferring a quote from Amnesty over direct actions of passionate activists.
After my speech people said they never knew people were fighting this way in the West. I answered that yes they are, but nothing like your Indian movements. Both myself, and my comrade Tilly who came to the conference have forged connections with Indian social movements because we find a level of commitment, integrity and ideological understanding which is rare in the West. I think this is partly because the injustice of ‘development’ and neoliberalism is directly felt by so many people here. It is a gut reaction to your personal experience. For many of us in the west our understanding is more intellectual and distant, so fewer of us break out of the false ‘comfort’ of the western materialist bubble and feel our rage at the inequitable nature of capitalism, and the horror stories of neo-colonialism.
Everyone we spoke to – from West Bengal, to Bihar, to Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Kerala – had incredible stories to share. Oriya farmers who had blockaded the Hirakud dam over diversion of water for industry, Bihari women smashing government liquor shops being pushed in their villages, struggles for fishing rights at Tawa reservoir, Madhya Pradesh, by those displaced by it 40 years ago, and of course our good friends in Odisha fighting hard at Niyamgiri and Sahara thermal power plant. The side story to all these great battles was one of financial hardship, police repression, imprisonment, family pressure, and family members being targeted by police and state. The reality of what it means to commit to working for the rights of oppressed people in India, gives me an ever deeper sense of respect for all those who sacrifice so much for this work.
As well as the grassroots stories, the political resolution and vision papers written by SJP’s respected thinkers were so compelling and so astute in their analysis. I felt myself to be in the company of some truly revolutionary and brilliant people and wanted to soak as much of it in as possible. The mood of the conference felt joyful and full of fighting strength as we chanted and sang at the beginning and end of each session. I shared an old Pennsylvanian protest song too – about the devastation of coal mining in the 1950’s – a process being repeated in India today. We don’t sing or chant enough in our UK movements, and I am determined to change this – seeing from my experiences in India how important songs and poetry are to bring people together, to express our feelings of sadness, joy and defiance, and to energise ourselves.
The most overriding sense of the conference for me was the feeling of deep connection I felt to all of the participants. Though we come from different cultures, thousands of miles apart, there seemed to be an instant recognition and familiarity when our eyes met and we shared our stories. It felt like an implicit understanding that we are all committed to fighting injustice in this world, without funds, sometimes with difficult consequences, from our hearts. In the UK I very rarely find other activists who I really trust and respect, and I sometimes feel very isolated. Connecting with so many brilliant people at the Samajwadi Jan Parishad biennial felt like coming home, like being part of a big global activist family. For me this is so supportive and inspiring and will give me double the strength and energy to continue this work in the UK.
A heartfelt thank you to all our SJP comrades. Zindabad!