The Ongoing Farmers’ Agitation in India: Revolutionary Possibilities

Sushanta D. Roy

Summary: Assessment in wake of the January 26 confrontations — Editors

‘Rud Jaange, Wapas Mud De Ni!’ (We Will Die but we will not go back!)

– The Rallying Cry of the Kisan Andolan (Farmers’ Agitation) in 2020-2021 in India

 

A massive tractor rally took place in Delhi on January 26, the Republic Day of India. It was smeared with controversies resulting from violent clashes between the farmers and the security personnel which had even caused the death of one protestor[1], but in spite of the controversy, the agitation continues to gather steam and attract tens of thousands of civil rights activists, students, youth, women and workers to the protest sites.  The movement, since its beginning in September, has carried on a successful All India General Strike in December, and now the January 26 actions.

India continues to be gripped by the massive protests at the borders of Delhi by the Indian farmers, but in fact the current government is witnessing an incessant surge of people’s movements since the last couple of years[2]. The 2020-21 addition to the wave of struggles being the Kisan Andolan (Farmers’ Movement) against the recently passed corporatist farm laws- Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020[3]; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020[4]; and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020[5]. The major demand coming from the farmers and their organisations is the repealing of the three contentious farm laws passed by the Indian parliament in September 2020. The three laws collectively often referred to as the ‘Black Laws’, are primarily about the corporatisation of agriculture in the country. The government wants to dissolve the responsibilities of the state in buying the farmers’ produce and wants to open up the market for corporates such as Ambani and Adani to store and sell the agricultural produce as they see fit and profitable[6]. Right from the onset, the passing of these three laws, has stirred up the Indian left and left of centre political and civil society organisations. Neoliberal policies are not alien to India, but the present government’s method and agenda of passing laws and regulations which outrightly reject any conversation with the stakeholders have not gone well with most of the populace. Protesting against the three laws, the farmers have been demonstrating peacefully in large numbers at the borders of Delhi- Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Shahjanpur among others.

The denouncement and repercussions from the government in response to the protests have been strong. From labelling the protestors as being terrorists to exercising massive armed force, the government has tried tooth and nail to disrupt the movement with no success. The trajectories which the movement have taken both geographically and strategically have been diverse in nature. The movement has not only expanded geographically with time within the country, but it has garnered support from wide range of Indian diaspora settled abroad. From the United Kingdom to Canada to New Zealand, the Indian diaspora has been particularly active in demonstrating against the three farm laws, and in solidarity with the Indian farmers. There has been an active support from different organisations and political formations, both national and international, to the movement. The organisations involved in the movement comprised of the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS)- the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All India Kisan Mahasabha- a wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM)[7], etc. There was also the massive involvement of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC) and the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers’ Front) to bring the different organisations, which according to many exceed 500, onto a workable agreement to participate in the movement against the farm bills and demanding a legal provision of the MSP.

While in the beginning, the movement was led by the farmers of Punjab, with time, the farmers from other states of the country have also joined ranks with them. The most important of this expansion, has been the coming together of the farmers of Haryana, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and most importantly, Uttar Pradesh (UP), primarily the west of UP. Meanwhile, the farmers in the other parts of the country such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and the like have also demonstrated in solidarity with the protesting farmers at the borders of Delhi. The ongoing Kisan Andolan is a living testimony of how movements are amorphous entities which are spontaneous in nature. It has to be admitted that the leadership could not anticipate the violence which broke out during the Tractor Rally on the 26th of January, but it also has to be understood that once a movement gathers a force as huge in numbers like the ongoing farmers’ agitation, it is futile to think about controlling or disciplining the movement. Under the present circumstances, the best that the organisations can do, which is a revolutionary duty, is to be with the people. The transformation of the leadership of the movement from left-wing ‘party’ politicians and civil society activists to active farmers’ leaders, who are entrenched within the caste-class based rural agrarian communities, poses an important question to the progressive movement as a whole- the question of addressing social inequalities while being within a movement with agents who at times turn to promoting such inequalities either covertly or overtly.

Many theories have been floated regarding the cause of the violence on January 26. While the right wing has been persistent in its efforts to label the violence as being the brainchild of the terrorists within the movement, most of the left has been trying to disown the violence as being an act of right-wing perpetrators within the movement. There are some very revealing proofs which point to the possibility of the latter being the case[8]. However, the search for truth, in the opinion of the present author, lies not in the black and the white but rather in the grey area composed by dialectical relationship between the spontaneity of any major mass movement and the ability or desire to control and discipline by the established political formations. The movement, in the beginning, was led by the established unions in the country, primarily the AIKS and the Samyukta Morcha– organisations which are strictly secular and known to be on the left of the political spectrum in India. These organisations also have a certain rank and file order in their organisational set-up which allows them to regulate the activities of their members, if not outrightly control them. But organisations like the BKU and the other farmers’ unions, which are non-partisan demands based organisations, share no such regulatory power over their members- especially not of the kind which would ease the intra-movement tensions in a movement like the one in question. Unlike the established unions, not all the organisations in the movement share a secular past. The BKU, which has now emerged as a major mobiliser of the movement, has a long history of struggles in the country, most importantly within the 1980s when the country was witnessing a surge of secular agrarian movements in the country[9]. With time however, the BKU, as like some of the other prominent rural agricultural unions of the country, fell into the trap of right-wing Hindutva politics which made them swing to the right[10]. However, the economic neoliberalisation carried on by the ruling government has again pushed these organisations towards the fold of a politics, which though not revolutionary at the outset but are however, undoubtedly progressive in form and content.

Post the events of the 26th of January Tractor March in Delhi, the movement slowed down for a moment, only to be reignited again after the political and tactical move from Rakesh Tikait of the BKU, which was until then a minor player within the movement. Tikait’s emotional call to the farmers after the security forces attempted to arrest him midway through a speech at Ghazipur border galvanised the farmers returning to their homes after the 26th of January rally, who hearing Tikait’s appeal, rushed back to the borders of Delhi[11]. While the pre-26th January movement was centred around the activities at Singhu and Tikri mainly, the post 26th movement is gathering steam at the Ghazipur border. There is also a considerable shift in the manner in which the media has been covering the issue. While most of the right-wing media has continued to portray the protestors as terrorists, the liberal media has now focused exclusively on Tikait. It is worthwhile to note in this context that the period within which the left-led unions were leading the movement, the liberal media focused on the ‘people’, but with the rise of Tikait, a person who aligns closely with the apolitical nature of the liberal media, the media seems to have found a new icon of the movement. Of course, the efforts which Tikait has taken post the 26th of January to involve the Panchayats (rural governmental set-ups) into the movement has been appreciated by almost everybody, but it is also, equally necessary to take cognisance of the fact that the agricultural class in India is also a class and caste segregated populace in itself- for the sustenance of which the Panchayats play an important role. The class is characterised by a massive internal class segregation between the landed and the landless peasantry, as well as caste and gender hierarchies stereotypical of caste-Hindu communities. The rise of BKU, however, as a leader of the movement has caused a stir within the Indian left so much so that the recent activities of the BKU has also seen mobilisational efforts from progressive women’s organisations which were previously known to keep a distance from the same, especially post the riots in UP.

Of late, the agitation has received global attention, primarily due to the tweets coming in from multiple celebrities[12]. Reacting to which, the public relations wing of the government has also come into action ‘forcing’ multiple Indian celebrities to come out in support of the government[13]  which has again stirred up an ideological clash between different celebrities[14]. The ‘Chakka Jam’ (Stop the Wheels!) called by the farmers has also met with a resounding success nationally[15] and has also attracted global attention[16]. Meanwhile, the central Modi-led government has transformed Delhi into a fortress with deemed to be permanent cemented barricades constructed all around the city with nails being installed on the roads with cement and plaster so as to stop the farmers from walking or driving into the city[17]. These moves however have been counterproductive to the government because they have exposed the hypocrisy of the government which keeps on saying that its willing to talk to the protestors[18] but at the same time installs inhuman barricades and cuts down supplies of essential commodities for the farmers at the protest sites[19]. The movement, right now, stands at a very critical juncture. While on the one hand, it is garnering support from the masses of India in both rural and urban spaces, on the other hand, it has become extremely ‘open’ in nature which has invited diverse elements of the political milieu within it, which includes organisations which have a history of regressive reactionary politics. The role, here, of the leadership of the left becomes extremely crucial, especially in negotiating with the different ideas within the struggle as well as retaining the spontaneously rebellious nature of the movement, while also being resolute and vigilant against the tendencies within the movement of giving into reactionism and identity politics. However, with all the contradictions therein, one unquestionable fact is that for once, the ruling class in India has massively underestimated the collective and united force of the Indian masses!

 

Footnotes

[1] See https://thewire.in/agriculture/farmers-republic-day-tractor-march-eyewitness-account

[2] It all started with the anti-CAA protests after the BJP under Narendra Modi came to power for the second time in 2019, which were then followed up by a strong political unrest over the state of migrant workers and the general management of governance during the pandemic.

[3] See http://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2020/222039.pdf

[4] See https://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/farmers-empowerment-and-protection-agreement-price-assurance-and-farm-services-bill-2020

[5] See https://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/essential-commodities-amendment-bill-2020#:~:text=The%20Essential%20Commodities%20(Amendment)%20Ordinance%2C%202020%20allows%20the%20central,is%20a%20steep%20price%20rise.

[6] See https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/how-mukesh-ambani-gautam-adani-were-caught-in-crossfire-over-farming-laws-121011700060_1.html

[7] A full list of the major organisations involved can be found from the Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020%E2%80%932021_Indian_farmers%27_protest#cite_note-:02-49

[8] See https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/bjp-planted-stooge-deep-sidhu-to-create-chaos-in-tractor-rally-aap-101611750072576.html , https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/who-is-deep-sidhu-actor-blamed-by-farmers-for-tractor-rally-violence-2358744 , https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/punjab/bjp-hiding-sunny-deols-ties-with-deep-sidhu-206103 .

[9] See https://kafila.online/2021/02/01/how-not-to-read-rakesh-tikait-nakul-singh-sawhney/

[10] See https://caravanmagazine.in/agriculture/muzaffarnagar-riots-and-legacy-issues-rakesh-tikaits-unlikely-rise-to-farmer-leadership

[11] See https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/signs-of-new-alliances-emerge-in-up/article33734713.ece

[12] See https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/05/rihanna-greta-thunberg-india-modi-farmers-protests/

[13] See https://scroll.in/article/985962/two-tweets-that-shook-a-global-superpower-indian-sovereignty-and-desi-celebrity-outrage

[14] See https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/farmers-protest-taapsee-pannu-sonakshi-sinha-swara-bhasker-slam-top-stars-over-tweets-2363318

[15] See https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chandigarh/chakka-jam-farmers-halt-chandigarh-panchkula-in-its-tracks-7177964/

[16] See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/06/farmers-block-roads-across-india-in-protest-over-agriculture-law

[17] See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55899754

[18] See https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/pm-modi-at-all-party-meet-says-government-always-ready-to-talk-with-farmers-offer-to-suspend-laws-still-stands-sources-2360425

[19] See https://www.newslaundry.com/2021/01/31/power-water-supply-cut-but-farmers-at-tikri-arent-going-anywhere

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