In early June 2000, together with Dilli Bahadur Chaudhary of Backward Society Education (BASE), I spent one week in Nepalganj attending a camp on social activism. It was run by Vivek Pandit, a prominent Indian anti-slavery activist. Vivek was in Nepal to assist Dilli and others to come up with plans to make the then nascent kamaiya andolan (the movement to emancipate bonded Tharu agricultural labourers in far western Nepal) victorious.
It was clear right from the beginning that Vivek had little respect for the excruciatingly polite, therefore ineffective, way with which Nepali activists were treating the issue of kamaiya emancipation. With donor funds, some had long been running saving-and-credit courses for kamaiyas, who then slipped deeper into debt. Others had spent years running programs to improve relations between feudal landlords and kamaiyas. Still others were organising literacy and income-generating classes.
All these, Vivek argued, were activities that kept the NGO-wallahs in the aid business while the kamaiyas stayed mired in debt bondage. In that vein, Vivek's challenge to the assembled activists was this: either you take the andolan seriously to really fight to make the almost 200,000 agricultural labourers free from the vicious cycle of debt bondage or you go back to your safe and secure NGO jagir.
Vivek's framing the goal in such stark either-or terms had an electrifying effect on the participants, all of whom replied that they wanted to push the andolan through. With role-plays and tales drawn from his experience in India, Vivek then talked about the ingredients that help make a social movement effective.
One goal at a time: Many of the early failures of the kamaiya andolan stemmed from the fact that the activists made too many demands. While each of those demands were legitimate, having so many made the final output look like a laundry list of wishes and hopes, which were then ignored by the people in power. Vivek insisted that the activists focus on freedom first for the kamaiyas. Once that was accomplished, he said, then go for land, then for housing and so on.
A human face: Too many people want to be the hero of any andolan, said Vivek. This meant factional squabbles which further meant derailment of most struggles. The kamaiya andolan too had its share of credit-seekers. But Vivek was insistent that all should rally around one believable leader who would serve as the de facto face to drive the andolan forward. Too many leaders only confused the followers and diluted the intensity of the single goal.
Flood the media: No andolan could ever move forward without having the media on its side. To that end, Vivek urged the activists to write letters to editors, hold press conferences, prepare position papers and repeatedly make public presentations. Soon after the camp, activists did step up activities to get their messages picked up and amplified by national and international media.
Justice and fairness: Vivek cautioned that using the media could be interpreted as an act of propaganda if the messages did not appeal to people's innate sense of justice and fairness. Thereafter, the andolan's thrust was recast to reflect ethical and legal concerns that few would object to. Who, after all, was going to argue for the continuation of debt bondage when it was portrayed as a slavery-like condition?
Powerful enemies: One trade-off of doing an andolan is that friends' numbers decrease while enemies' ranks swell. Vivek's equation was simple: no enemies, no andolan, therefore one needed enemies for any andolan. He worried that Nepali activists were too nice and wanted to be liked by the other side and were thus reluctant to make enemies.
But he need not have worried. By applying his methods, Nepali activists won the first milestone. In mid-July that year, the then government declared the practice of debt bondage illegal and declared all kamaiya to be free citizens of Nepal.