Popular Struggles and Movements

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07 Popular Struggles and Movements


Democracy is the government of the people, for the people and by the people. It is a kind of governance that frees people from autocracy. Power sharing is important in a democracy and different tiers of government and various social groups share power.

However, in a democracy, when conflicts of interest and viewpoints arise, those who exercise power, are constrained by the influence and pressure exerted on them by these conflicts. Conflicts and viewpoints are expressed in organised ways and those who are in power are required to balance the conflicting demand and pressures.

Popular struggles in Nepal and Bolivia

Movement for democracy in Nepal

  • Nepal was one of the ‘third wave’ countries that won democracy in 1990, although the king formally remained the head of the state.
  • King Birendra, who has accepted this transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, was killed in a mysterious massacre of the royal family in 2001.
  • King Gyanendra became the new king of Nepal.
  • But he was not prepared to accept democratic rule and took advantage of the weakness and unpopularity of the democratically elected government.
  • He dismissed the then Prime Minister and dissolved the popularly elected Parliament in February 2005.
  • This led to the movement of April 2006 which aimed at restoring democracy took place in Nepal in April 2006.
  • A Seven Party Alliance (SPA) was formed by all the major political parties in the parliament who called for a four-day strike in the country’s capital, Kathmandu.
  • This protest soon took the form of an indefinite strike in which Maoist insurgents and various other organisations took collective part.
  • People went to the streets despite curfew.
  • The security forces were unable to take on more than a lakh people who gathered almost every day to demand restoration of democracy.
  • The number of protesters increased to three to five lakhs on 21 April and they served an ultimatum to the king.
  • Although halfhearted concessions were made by the king, the leaders of the movement rejected them and stuck to their demands for restoration of parliament, power to an all-party government and a new constituent assembly.
  • The king was forced to concede all the three demands on 24 April 2006 which the last day of the ultimatum.
  • Thereafter, the SPA chose Girija Prasad Koirala as the new Prime Minister of the interim government.
  • Most of the powers of the king were taken away by parliamentary laws.
  • The SPA and the Maoists came to an understanding about how the election of the new Constituent Assembly.
  • Finally, the monarchy was abolished in 2008 and Nepal became a federal democratic republic and adopted a new constitution in 2015.
  • Maoists: Those communists who believe in the ideology of Mao, the leader of the Chinese Revolution. They seek to overthrow the government through an armed revolution so as to establish the rule of the peasants and workers.


Bolivia’s Water War

  • The Bolivia government was pressurised by the World Bank to give up its control of municipal water supply.
  • Consequently, the government sold these rights for the city of Cochabamba to a multi-national company (MNC).
  • The company immediately increased the price of water by four times, as a result of which, many people received monthly water bill of Rs 1000.
  • Bolivia is a poor country in Latin America where average income is around Rs 5000 a month.
  • So, a spontaneous popular protest took place, known as Bolivia’s water war.
  • An alliance of labour, human rights and community leaders was formed in January 2005.
  • It organised a successful four-day general strike in the city after which the government agreed to negotiate.
  • Although the strike was called off, nothing happened.
  • The agitation was started again in February and the police took to brutal repression.
  • Another strike followed in April and the government imposed martial law.
  • However, the people’s power forced the officials of the MNC to flee the city and made the government concede to all the demands of the protesters.
  • Consequently, the contract with the MNC was cancelled and water supply was restored to the municipality at the previous rates.


Democracy and popular struggles

  • While the movement in Nepal aimed to establish democracy, the water war in Bolivia involved claims on an elected, democratic government.
  • The struggle in Bolivia was about a specific policy, while the struggle in Nepal was about the foundations of the country’s politics.
  • Both struggles are instances of political conflict that led to popular struggles and involved mass mobilisation.
  • The dispute was settled through public demonstration and involved critical role of political organisations.
  • The following conclusions can be drawn:
    • Democracy evolves through popular struggles.
      • The defining moments of democracy occur when the country is going through transition to democracy, expansion of democracy or deepening of democracy.
      • Such moments usually involve conflict between those groups who have exercised power and those who aspire for a share in power.
      • Some significant decisions may take place through consensus and may not involve any conflict at all in exceptional cases.
    • Democratic conflict is resolved through mass mobilisation.
      • It is possible at times that the conflict is resolved by using the existing institutions like the parliament or the judiciary.
      • But in cases of a deep dispute, very often these institutions themselves get involved in the dispute.
      • In such cases, resolution has to come from outside, from the people.
    • These conflicts and mobilisations are based on new political organisations.
      • Although there is an element of spontaneity in all such historic moments, the spontaneous public participation becomes effective with the help of organised politics and their various agencies of organised politics.
      • The agencies include political parties, pressure groups and movement groups.



  • The Karnataka Pulpwood Limited was set up by the Karnataka government in 1984.
  • For 40 years, about 30,000 hectares of land was given to this company virtually free of cost.
  • Local farmers used much of this land for grazing their cattle, but it was now used for planting eucalyptus trees, which could be used for making paper pulp.
  • A movement called Kittiko-Hachchiko (meaning, pluck and plant) started in 1987.
  • It was a non-violent protest, where people plucked the eucalyptus plants and in place of that, they planted saplings of trees that were useful to them.

Mobilisation and organisations

  • Struggles in Nepal and Bolivia were made successful by different organisations.
  • The SPA which called for indefinite strike in Nepal, included some big parties that had some members in the Parliament.
  • The protest was joined by the Nepalese Communist Party (Maoist) as well, which did not believe in parliamentary democracy.
  • The Maoist party was involved in an armed struggle against the Nepali government and had established its control over large parts of Nepal.
  • In addition, many organisations other than political parties were involved, like all the major labour unions and their federations.
  • Also, the organisation of the indigenous people, teachers, lawyers and human rights groups extended support to the movement.
  • Similarly, the water war in Bolivia was not led by any political party but by an organisation called Fedecor.
  • Fedecor comprised local professionals, including engineers and environmentalists who were supported by a federation of farmers who relied on irrigation, the confederation of factory workers’ unions, middle class students from the University of Cochabamba and the city’s growing population of homeless street children.
  • The movement was also supported by the Socialist Party who came to power in 2006 in Bolivia.
  • Thus, in a democracy several different kinds of organisations work behind any big struggle and play their role in two ways:
    1. They influence the decisions in a democracy by direct participation in competitive politics.
      • They do so by creating parties, contesting elections and forming governments.
      • However, many citizens may not have the desire, the need or the skills to take part in direct political activity other than voting, and hence do not participate directly.
    2. Citizens, however participate indirectly by forming an organisation and undertaking activities to promote their interests or their viewpoints.
      • These are called interest groups or pressure groups.
      • At times however, people decide to act together and they do not form organisations.

Pressure groups and movements

  • Organisations that attempt to influence government policies are called pressure groups.
  • But they do not aim to directly control or share political power like political parties.
  • Pressure groups are formed when people with common occupation, interest, aspirations or opinions come together to achieve a common objective.
  • The word people’s movement is used to describe many forms of collective action: Narmada Bachao Andolan, Movement for Right to Information, Anti-liquor Movement, Women’s Movement, Environmental Movement.
  • A movement attempts to influence politics rather than directly take part in electoral competition similar to an interest group.
  • They are different from an interest group in a way that the movements have a loose organisation and their decision making is more informal and flexible.
  • Also, they depend much more on spontaneous mass participation than an interest group.


Sectional interest groups and public interest groups

  • Interest groups usually seek to promote the interests of a particular section or group of society as in trade unions, business associations and professional (lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.) bodies.
  • They represent a section of society like workers, employees, businesspersons, industrialists, followers of a religion, caste group, etc. and are thus sectional.
  • They mainly focus on the betterment and well-being of their members, not society in general.
  • Sometimes they represent some common or general interest that needs to be defended, rather than one section of society.
  • In such cases, the members of the organisation may not gain from the cause that the organisation represents as was the case with the Bolivian organisation, FEDECOR.
  • Promotional groups or public interest groups are the second type of groups that promote collective rather than selective good.
  • They aim to help groups other than their own members, for example, the participation of the human rights organisations in Nepal.
  • Another example is that of a group fighting against bonded labour fights.
  • It fights for those who are suffering under bondage rather than for themselves.
  • The members of a public interest group may undertake activity that benefits them as well as others.
  • BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) is such an organisation.
  • It majorly constitutes government employees that campaigns against caste discrimination.
  • BAMCEF is principally concerned with social justice and social equality for the entire society, although it also addresses the problems of its members who suffer discrimination.


Movement groups

  • Many groups are involved with movements that are mostly issue-specific and seek to achieve a single objective within a limited time frame, like the Nepalese movement for democracy and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in India.
  • Other movements are more general or generic movements that seek to achieve a broad goal in the very long term.
  • The Nepalese movement had a specific objective of reversing the king’s orders that led to suspension of democracy.
  • The Narmada Bachao Andolan started with the specific issue of the people displaced by the creation of Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river.
  • Its objective was to stop the dam from being constructed.
  • It became a wider movement gradually that questioned all such big dams and the model of development that required such dams.
  • Such movements tend to have a clear leadership and some organisation but their active life is usually short.
  • On the other hand, movements that are long term and involve more than one issue like the environmental movement and the women’s movement have no single organisation that controls or guides them.
  • A large number of organisations and issue-specific movements come under the label of Environmental movement.
  • These movements have separate organisations, independent leadership and often different views on policy related matters but share a broad objective and have a similar approach, thus called a movement.
  • In some cases, these broad movements have a loose umbrella organisation like
  • National Alliance for Peoples’ Movements (NAPM) which is an organisation of organisations.
  • NAPM constitutes various movement groups struggling on specific issues, which coordinates the activities of a large number of peoples’ movements in our country.
  • Pressure groups and movements exert influence on politics in a variety of ways:
    • They carry out information campaigns, organising meetings, filing petitions, etc. to gain public support and influence the media into giving more attention to these issues.
    • Workers’ organisations, employees’ associations and most of the movement groups often resort to organising protest activity like strikes or disrupting government programmes in order to force the government to take note of their demands.
    • Business groups often employ professional lobbyists or sponsor expensive advertisements. Some persons from pressure groups or movement groups may participate in official bodies and committees that offer advice to the government.
  • Interest groups and movements seek to exert influence on political parties without directly engaging in party politics.
  • Most of the movement groups have political ideology and political position on major issues.
  • There may be direct as well as indirect relationship between political parties and pressure groups:
    • Pressure groups may either be formed or led by the leaders of political parties or act as extended arms of political parties. For example, most trade unions and students’ organisations in India are either established by, or affiliated to one or the other major political party. The activists and leaders of such party are mostly, leaders of pressure groups.
    • Political parties may emerge out of movements. For example, the Asom Gana Parishad was formed when the Assam movement led by students against the ‘foreigners’ came to an end. Long-drawn social reform movement during the 1930s and 1940s formed the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
    • The relationship between parties and interest or movement groups is not so direct in most cases. They take positions that are opposed to each other but are in dialogue and negotiation. Movement groups have raised new issues that have been taken up by political parties. Interest or movement groups lead to new leadership of political parties.


Is their influence healthy?

  • Groups that promote interest of one section to have influence in democracy may not appear to be healthy because a democracy must look after the interests of all sections.
  • These groups also seem to wield power without responsibility as they are not accountable to the people like political parties in elections.
  • Pressure groups and movements may not get their funds and support from the people.
  • But those who have lots of money and small public can hijack public discussion in favour of their narrow agenda.
  • However, pressure groups and movements have deepened democracy and as long as everyone gets an opportunity to exert pressure on the rulers, it is not an unhealthy activity in a democracy.
  • Public interest groups and movements perform a useful role of countering the undue influence of a small group of rich and powerful people.
  • They also remind the government of the needs and concerns of ordinary citizens.
  • Sectional interest groups also play a valuable role.
  • No single group can achieve dominance over society if different groups function actively.
  • Whenever one group pressurises the government to make policies in its favour, another will bring counter pressure not to make policies in the way the first group desires.
  • As a result, the government gets to hear about what different sections of the population want.
  • Thus a rough balance of power and accommodation of conflicting interests is established.


Green Belt Movement

  • 30 million trees were planted across Kenya due to this movement, led by Wangari Maathai.
  • Corrupt government agents were responsible for much of the deforestation in 1970s and 1980s.
  • They illegally sold off land and trees to well-connected developers.
  • President Daniel Arap Moi’s government elements encouraged ethnic communities to attack one another over land.
  • As a consequence, livelihoods, the rights and even the lives of many Kenyans in the Rift Valley were lost.
  • While supporters of the ruling party got the land, those in the pro-democracy movement were displaced.
  • This government believed that if communities were kept busy fighting over land, they would have less opportunity to demand democracy and thus it would retain power.

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