The lessons of the Indian farmers’ protests

The latest COVID-19 crisis in India is overshadowing a farmers' revolt over land and agriculture. That revolt holds lessons for Africans.

Image credit Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0.

No other Republic Day—a national holiday in January marking when India became an official republic in 1950—has witnessed such unprecedented levels of public claims over their nation. The streets of Delhi were enlivened with spontaneous marches of hundreds of thousands of peasants who wanted a serious say in Res Publica or public affairs. Within a bouquet of lame excuses intended to stop the peasant march, one had been particularly ironic—that this demonstration was a “conspiracy” to defame India before the world by having a tractor parade in the capital on Republic Day.

The struggling peasants proved that they held high the banner of the “world’s largest democracy,” while the present regime is hell bent on trampling down and doing away with whatever democratic values are left in the country.

Earlier, in an interesting twist to the tale, the Union government on January 20 proposed to suspend the three contentious farm laws for one and a half years, and set up a joint committee to discuss the legislation. However, Samjukta Kisan Morcha rejected the offer the very next day. It resolutely clarified that the movement will continue until the three anti-farmer laws are completely repealed. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) was also determined to carry out its scheduled tractor parade on Republic day.

Not long after that,the Supreme Court had expressed intentions to stay the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws. It proposed to form an independent committee chaired by a former Chief Justice to “amicably resolve” the stand-off between the farmers and the government. Of course, there were serious questions about the “independence” of the committee. Nevertheless, the first signs of backing down were obvious.

Government forced to step backwards

Given the belligerent and antagonistic attitude of the current government, the announcement of the Union Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, about delaying the laws might have appeared a little unusual. But it was not entirely surprising. The unions were determined to have a tractor rally on Republic Day. The government hoped that it would force them to rethink their months-long agitation and tamely vacate their blockade of the national capital. Various measures, including threat and intimidation, to dissuade the farmers were tried and tested earlier, all in vain.

In an attempt to discredit the agitation, a section of the ruling dispensation hurled accusations of infiltration by Sikh separatist elements. This foul play resulted in a backlash and the government ministers in charge of negotiations with farmers’ unions had no option but to dismiss the allegations, washing their hands of them.

Peasants fight for livelihoods

Can this be termed a partial advance? Sure. Are there reasons to celebrate? Of course, yes. While it is important not to be overwhelmed or get carried away, there are enough reasons to feel confident about this collective action that has put the government on the back foot. Certainly, the credit goes to millions of peasants of this country who have relentlessly fought with their backs to the wall. The peasantry is clearly fighting for control over its own destiny (lives and livelihoods) against corporate control of agriculture ushered in by this government.

A deep agricultural crisis has engulfed the country for the last three decades. It has led to over 300,000 farmers committing suicide due to severe indebtedness. This chronic rural distress has forced thousands to leave their villages and migrate towards urban centers in search of an uncertain future. This situation cannot be undone so easily. We need a larger political battle to defeat it. But the current struggle is a significant step in that direction. It has instilled hope in the minds of millions who want to fight this fascist regime and regain the democratic soul of the nation.

The recent farm bills, plus the new labor codes, are attempts to carry out an unprecedented degree of reform that gives the big bourgeoisie a free hand to run the economy. There is no doubt that they are backing it very strongly. The labor codes are an attempt to flexibilize employment by giving owners the right to “hire and fire” employees and doing away with minimum legal guarantees. The farm bills can be seen as a response to the agrarian crisis from the Right. They are ably supported by the media and a pet group of economists, attempting to craft popular public opinion about the laws. Many have gone to the extent of heralding them as something that will revolutionize the Indian agricultural sector. Fortunately, the farmers are oblivious to such enlightened counsel.

The strength and the prestige of the agitation stems from the courage and tactical ingenuity of a movement that has a real economic base. It is an endorsement of the fact that the neoliberal agenda, internalized by all political parties in India including sections of the mainstream Left, continues to be resisted from below. The resilience shown by the peasants, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, and their organizations is exemplary and, frankly, much more radical than the politics of the existing Left parties.

The crisis of the Left

The crisis of the Left partially explains the relative inertia on the part of the trade unions and the overall workers movement to come out in full support of the current protests. There have been minuscule attempts by workers to join in unison with the agitating farmers. One fears that they are squandering a golden chance to launch similar offensives, in their own interests, while the iron is hot.

Unfortunately, the major trade unions of the country are controlled by one political party or the other. They fail to act as authentic expressions of the working class. In the absence of genuinely independent organizations, these unions function as transmission belts of their “parent organizations.” Perhaps this party-unionism explains the weak working class response.

Can the situation be reversed? Difficult but not impossible! Is it worth giving a try? Yes, we have no other choice!

This movement is very important for the Left. While any attempt to see this as a peasant uprising to capture state power would be foolhardy, it is also not “a movement of only rich peasants” as claimed by certain sections of the Left (adherents of a stageist Socialist Revolution). The farmers are fighting for their immediate and longer term survival. It would be criminal for the left to be so steeped in deep sectarianism that we squander this opportunity to form a redoubtable opposition to Hindutva (Hindu nationalism).

We must seize the moment and make all efforts to transform these protests into wider peoples’ struggles against the fascist regime and give it an anti-capitalist character. The current momentum can be deepened by including the demands of various sections of working people. Demands for employment generation, food security and food sovereignty among others would serve to reinforce the appeal and strength of this movement among the masses across different regions. Pursuing these demands would not only help the movement to gain support among the working people, but it would also push the representatives of sections of the rich peasantry to the margins.

There is an urgent need to build solidarity with the working-class struggles taking place elsewhere.

Strong movements from below

The current struggle also helps us to throw light on another important question. Can the fascist forces be defeated by forming electoral coalitions or are they best dealt with by powerful mass mobilisations from below? While not entirely ruling out the possible electoral scope, we need to pay attention to the evolution of Indian elections and the trajectory of the Right wing. The Sangh Parivar and the other Hindutva forces have maintained a consistent ultra-right direction since the 1950s, unhindered either by electoral defeats or any alliance with “secular” forces. One vividly recalls the optimism of a section of the liberals when the extreme-right entered the Janata party to form the government in 1977. With Vajpayee as the foreign minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet, many saw the Hindutva project contained, tamed and civilised.

History has treated such optimism with contempt. No electoral misfortune is enough to uproot this agenda and any genuine battle against the Hindutva project must acknowledge this. A long-term political project to deal with it must be based on class struggle. Any search for a lesser evil (i.e. relatively “harmless” bourgeois allies) will act as a serious roadblock to vibrant opportunities for class agitation and mass movements.

The Farmers struggle and its partial advance has shown us the way. Strong movements from below can have the potential to take on the Hinduvta juggernaut much more than stitching together electoral alliances.

Further Reading