Farhad Mazhar interviewed by Mahfuz Sadique
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‘Seeds,’ says Farhad Mazhar, when i ask him about the focus of his agricultural movement. The man behind the Nayakrishi Andolon (literally, the new agricultural movement) leans back and ties his long grey hair in a pony-tail, fixes the beads round his left wrist. We meet at the first-floor conference room of UBINIG (a Bengali acronym for Research on Alternatives to Development), the organisation spearheading the movement. The room itself stands out as a time-capsule of the 58-year-old’s life, which has been as eventful, as it has been controversial.
On the opposing walls are two worn-out Che Guevara posters. A wooden bookshelf on the floor is stuffed with daily newspapers, files of clippings, and old copies of Chinta — the Bengali magazine Farhad had founded, and also bears legacy to a crucial event in his life. It was Chinta that had carried Farhad’s essay (‘The Ansar Rebellion’) on the 1994 uprising of the paramilitary force. He was arrested under the Special Powers Act, to be eventually released through a court ruling, but only after a national and global outcry had ensued appealing against his detention, including an appeal in the The New York Times, signed, among others, by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
And as if to overpower all other objects in the room, and to point to his present preoccupation, a large framed map of the world with dots showcasing global biodiversity concentrations rests atop the bookshelf. The area indicating Bangladesh is almost clogged with red dots. Farhad Mazhar and the 50,000 farmers of the Nayakrishi Andolon want that map to stay as it is.
‘It was a book, Symbolic Logic, that first got me thinking,’ recalls Farhad. Born in Noakhali on August 9, 1947, Farhad’s ‘turning point’ in life, as he puts it, was that book by Bertrand Russell and AN Whitehead, which spurred in him the need to question conventional wisdom. ‘After getting into university (Dhaka University), I got involved with left-student politics. For me, I guess, it was a philosophical quest,’ Farhad reminisces.
But it was the dogged cynic in him, borne from the firm footings of logical deduction, which pushed Farhad to question the ‘idealist’ nature of left-student politics of the time. While the mid-sixties saw him involved with the politics of the Maoist-block of Chhatra Union, by the late sixties, having graduated with a Pharmacy-degree in 1967, a more decisive means to attaining the result of that elusive ‘class emancipation’ was crystallising within Farhad’s mind. Like many of his contemporaries, he also started contemplating ‘armed struggle’ as the final necessary thrust.
In the early seventies, as the left sought to place itself within the new political context, Farhad’s philosophical quest took a turn. ‘At that juncture, I got involved with the Purbo Banglar Sramik Dal,’ Farhad recalls. Popularly known as the Sarbahara Party (Sharbahara meaning proletariat), led by the firebrand Siraj Sikdar, their dream was of Bangladesh’s own Naxalite movement, a local parallel of the armed Maoist struggle in West Bengal.
This polarisation of Farhad from the mainstream holds a key to the gradient of his thought in later years. The intellectual dictates of the centre — be it political, social, cultural or economic, had started to find the sceptic in Farhad. Though his primary inclination to class emancipation remains intact till today, he had already started questioning the approach prescribed.
During this time Farhad Mazhar was also heavily involved with various cultural movements. He was a key member of the theatre troupe called Bahobachan.
But at the height of the frenzied struggle for change, Farhad left the country. After returning from a prolonged stay in America, where he had attended the New School for Social Research in New York, Farhad came back to the country in 1981 and joined the pharmaceutical operation of Ganasasthya Kendra. The involvement was to be short lived.
And it was in this period in his life that Farhad started engaging in, as he puts it, ‘the search for an effective way forward.’ Though, upon his return, he again started taking an active role in left politics through his involvement with the Oikya Prokriya, a political grouping attempting to unify the splintered Maoist factions in the country, the sceptic in him was lurking in the background. Alongside this, he gave crucial support to the Chhatra Oikya Forum in their fight against the dictatorship of President Ershad.
At the time, Farhad was a regular participant at several study circles of left political parties, which were also engaged at finding a new solution to the class problem. In fact, he still maintains and attends many such study circles, though not all of them are left-leaning. But it was at UBINIG, founded in 1982, primarily as a study circle addressing women’s issues through alternative approaches to the main issues of development, that Farhad found the key to his answer. ‘Between 1983 and 1987, the ideas generated from this study circle gave birth to what are UBINIG and Nayakrishi today. Countering the two basic principles of the development model prescribed by international entities: income-generating and export-based industrialisation approach, we felt that a community-based ‘sectoral’ approach was required,’ explains Farhad.
‘If you develop a specific sector, including all the support networks that it requires, an entire community, and its craft, will flourish. And it is sustainable,’ points out Farhad. Farida Akther, Farhad’s partner-in-life, was one of the key founding members of this circle.
While Farhad kept up with UBINIG’s soul searching for a way forward, the small study circle had gained organisational form through awareness programmes addressing health issues, mainly concentrating on infant mortality and population control. ‘This was a critical phase. We started to look into the possibility of getting involved with specific communities, or rather sectors, and try to provide them with support in the form of alternative ideas,’ explains Farhad. ‘It was clear from our studies that indigenous techniques of production had to be preserved. The only requirement was a more concentrated community-based approach.’
The first implementation of this idea was with the weavers of Tangail. ‘Rather than providing them with credit, we provided them with designs and an assurance that we would buy their products,’ Farhad elaborates. As an outlet for these products, UBINIG eventually created Prabartana in 1989, a sister concern that envisioned promoting artisans and weavers by bringing them to the niche, high-end market.
But it was to be an unlikely event that would give Farhad and UBINIG, the opportunity to implement their ideas at a far larger scale. The floods of September, 1988, which devastated the country’s crop, became an unlikely thrust for Farhad to get involved in implementing the ideas of community-approach to production. While generic ideas of production were at hand, the specific problems of farmers were another issue.
‘In Tangail, where UBINIG had already concentrated their work with weavers, farmers asked for help. They brought up the issue of seeds. The seeds for their winter crops were lost,’ recounts Farhad. Imbued with the intellectual rigour of the left, Farhad leapt into the problem. After many discussions with farmers, and through a study conducted by UBINIG in 1989-90 on the perception of farmers towards ‘modern agriculture’, i.e. chemical-based agriculture, it became clear that what was being dubbed as ‘modern’ was also ‘degenerative’.
And this is where Farhad Mazhar comes full circle: ‘just as Marxism is not intellectually suited for our culture, any attempt at implanting farming techniques and ingredients from outside — dubbed as modern — is fundamentally flawed.’
The problems pointed out by farmers were multifarious. Ranging from the declining fertility of the soil, progressive need for fertiliser usage to maintain yield levels to worsening health conditions, such as intestinal, skin and respiratory diseases, most of which farmers attributed to the increased usage of chemical fertiliser.
‘Nor UBINIG or I gave them anything new. Rather we just suggested them to go back to their traditional farming techniques. And that is how Nayakrishi came about. Since the techniques used are essentially indigenous, Nayakrishi at its core is a community-based farmer’s movement,’ Farhad points out.
‘To start with, we suggested that farmers make compost as a replacement to chemicals. They succeeded in the 45-day trial,’ Farhad recalls. But Farhad is cautious in pointing out that ‘such indigenous techniques have been passed on, and developed, from generation to generation through trial and error in different ecologies and landscapes.’
Somewhat contradicting the theme of ‘practicing indigenous techniques’ though, like their very own Ten Commandments, Farhad suggests that farmers who come under the Nayakrishi Andolon follow ten ground rules, which should dictate all farming practices. They are: ‘Water is life and also wealth’; ‘Seed is the totality of life activities, the metaphor and the organising principal of farming in material forms.’ And some wordings, along with traditional farm knowledge, carry subtle references to Farhad’s history with the left: ‘Agriculture is not merely milk and meat production and it is never a factory.’
Under the vision of Farhad, the Nayakrishi Andolon, while essentially remaining a peasants’ movement, has propelled itself to become one of the components — regionally and globally — in the fight to preserve biodiversity. The issue has gained gradual attention at global platforms since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, and now ranks as a key battle between translational-driven, capitalism-based economic discourse vs. the anti-globalisation camp. Farhad Mazhar is flexing his intellectual fibres to provide the farmers with the appropriate course of action.
Farhad’s mind, probably relishing in the process, points out: ‘Transnational companies are trying to make indigenous materials and techniques obsolete. If they succeed, our farmers will become prisoners to these corporations.’
‘And this is where seeds come in. To counter any attempt by large corporations to patent our traditional seeds, farming families of the Nayakrishi Andolon have set up seed banks of traditional varieties,’ explains Farhad. These are called ‘community seed wealth centres’, with elaborate networks of akhra (seed huts). Farming families also engage in seed swapping, in the process completely bypassing commercial seed. To give all these activities a strategic focus, the families have formed a nationwide network: Nayakrishi Seed Networks (NSN), mostly operated by the women of the household.
‘This practice not only helps farmers remain self-reliant, but, in turn, has become the primary protection for biodiversity,’ Farhad explains. In fact, in terms of protecting biodiversity NSN has become a formidable force: over one thousand rice and vegetable seed varieties. And further exhibiting Farhad’s first answer, a poster in the staircase of UBINIG’s office reads: ‘Keep the seed in your hand, sister.’
While an ever-growing peasants’ movement that came out of a study circle of disillusioned leftists remains as Farhad Mazhar’s key focus, his ‘philosophical quest’ that started decades ago has not stopped yet.
Some call it disillusioned, some see it as ‘radical’. Though, Farhad remains an independent, yet marginalised, intellectual voice in the country, his comments often stir up mixed, and often heated, responses. His attempt at bringing the Bauls, the wandering spiritual singers of Bangladesh, to the forefront of national culture, has earned widespread acceptance.
On the other hand, over the years, as more and more of Farhad’s lectures, writings and comments on philosophy, politics and culture have increasingly slanted towards giving an alternative intellectual expression to Islamic Socialism, and also an indigenous political language based on spirituality, he has drifted further away from the mainstream intelligentsia of the country.
Farhad remains dogged though. ‘My quest continues. My actions and my ideology have to be in unison. UBINIG, Nayakrishi Andolon are manifestations of my ideas. Economic and political struggle cannot be separate. With time, the politics behind it will also become more consolidated than now’, Farhad believes.
Does a man leave behind a singular legacy? Or is it fragmented, and should each string stand on its own? Time will tell, as it will also show whether Nayakrishi Andolon, Bangladesh’s indigenous peasants’ movement can stand the tide, and not be ‘overwhelmed in the modern world, co-opted or submerged beneath the staggering flow of business as usual.’
In Farhad, though, the eccentric cynic might just have found that elusive exception. Maybe he has, at last, found the ‘magical seeds’ of hope in the grand quest for ananda, which refers to ‘harmony with all entities of life’ in Nayakrishi farming.
Proof: ‘Nayakrishi will become a global movement in ten years!’
Interview: Mahfuz Sadique