The lessons of the Indian farmers’ struggle

Sushovan Dhar

February 23, 2021

No other Republic Day 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 way of doing 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” when the present regime is hell bent at trampling down and doing away with whatever democratic values are left in the country.

See the updated
Radical Socialist Statement on the Farmers’ Struggle: A Second Wind

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 at the tenth round of talks with farmer unions. However, Samjukta Kisan Morcha rejected the offer the very next day. It resolutely clarified the continuation of the movement till the three anti-farmer laws were completely repealed. The AIKSCC was also determined to carry out its scheduled Tractor Parade on the Republic day.

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A few days ago, the Supreme Court had expressed intentions to stay the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws while proposing 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 its belligerent and antagonistic attitude of the present current government – more so after it was elected for the second time in 2019 – the Union Agriculture Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar’s announcement might have appeared a little unusual but not entirely surprising. The government hoped that this announcement would force the unions, determined to take out a tractor rally on Republic Day to rethink their months-long agitation and vacate their blockade of the national capital, tamely. Various measures, including threat and intimidation, to dissuade the farmers were tried and tested earlier but it was 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 options but to dismiss the allegations, washing their hands off.

The continued agitation by the unions, the imminent nature of Republic Day protests and the highest court’s refusal to ban it were just the immediate reasons for the compromise formula. A desperate and a last ditch effort to contain this growing agitation which can potentially spread to other parts of the country, more vigorously. The fascist brigade’s parent organisation, i.e. the RSS was also nervous about the indefinite continuation of this well organised protest. Suresh “Bhaiyaji” Joshi, the number two of the Sangh Pariwar, expressed his apprehensions about the stability of the government in the face of such resolute defiance, in an interview to the Indian Express.

Can this be termed as a partial advance? Sure. Are there reasons to celebrate? Of course, yes. While it is important to abstain from being overwhelmed or getting carried over, there are enough reasons to feel confident about this collective action that has put the government on a back-foot. Certainly, the credit goes to millions of peasants of this country who relentlessly fought with their backs on the wall. The peasantry is clearly fighting for a control over its own destiny (lives and livelihood) against corporate control of agriculture ushered in by this government. Neither the deep agricultural crisis engulfing the country since the last three decades which has led to over 3 hundred thousand farmers committing suicides due to severe indebtedness nor the chronic rural distress which forces thousands to leave their villages to migrate towards urban centres in search of an uncertain future can be undone so easily. We surely need a larger political battle to overcome that but the current struggle is an earnest way towards that direction. It has instilled hopes 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 Labour Codes are attempts to carry on an unprecedented degree of reforms that gives the big bourgeoisie a free hand to run the economy. No doubt they are backing it very strongly. While the labour codes are an attempt to flexibilise employment by giving owners the right to ‘hire and fire’ employees and do away with minimum legal guarantees for the workers, the former 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 – so impressed about the new farm acts – attempting to craft popular public opinion about the laws. Many have gone to the extent of heralding these laws as something that will revolutionise the Indian agricultural sector. Fortunately, the farmers are oblivious towards such enlightened counsel.

The strength and the prestige of this 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 neo-liberal agenda, internalised 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 organisations are 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 lack of 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 and one fears that they are squandering a golden chance to launch similar offensives, in their own interests, just when the iron is hot.

Unfortunately, the major trade unions of the country are controlled by one political party or the other. In the absence of genuinely independent organising, these unions instead of acting as authentic expressions of the working class, function as the transmission belts of their “parent organisations”. Perhaps, this party-unionism explains the weak working-class response to the current farmers’ movement. Can the situation be reversed? Difficult but not impossible! Is it worth giving a try? Yes, we have no other choice! Without the self-organisation of the class it has already conceded a lot, as evident in the current scenario and historically too.

This movement is very important for the left. While any attempt to see this as a peasant uprising to capture state power would be fool-hardy it is also not “a movement of only rich peasants” as per certain sections of the left or more precisely, some adherents of a stage-ist Socialist Revolution. The farmers are fighting for their immediate and longer term survival. It would be criminal for the left either to be steeped in deep sectarianism or squander this opportunity to form a redoubtable opposition to Hindutva coming out of their time-worn ideological cocoons. We must seize the moment and make all efforts to transform these protests into wider peoples’ struggles against the fascist regime and to 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 will also push the representatives of the sections of the rich peasantry to the margins. There is an urgent need to build solidarity with the working-class struggles going elsewhere.

Post-script

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 scopes, we need to pay attention towards 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 Hindutva project must acknowledge this. A long-term political project to deal with it must be based on class struggle and our search for a lesser evil, i.e. relatively ‘harmless’ bourgeois allies, will act as serious roadblocks 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 electoral alliances. What will be the fate of this movement six months down the line? We don’t know but it is worth recalling the ancient Chinese proverb “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

Originally published in Groundxero on January 28, 2021.


Radical Socialist Statement on the Farmers’ Struggle: A Second Wind

We salute the courage and commitment of the overwhelming majority of farmers who have just renewed the momentum of their remarkable months long struggle after the unanticipated events at Red Fort on Republic Day. Whatever the initial motivations of the farmers involved at the Red Fort, the government was keen to use the occasion as a means to forcibly evict and more generally delegitimise the farmers’ long struggle. We welcome the fact that the courage of farmers from Western UP, Haryana and Punjab has served to demonstrate the power of solidarity and organisation in the face of a brutal state. Ar the same time, the role of Deep Sidhu and the way the police treated him, suggest that there may indeed have been a ‘false flag’ component. But the lumping of the KMSC with him is erroneous.

Consider the following:

  1. Around 5 lakhs of farmers of various groups/unions marched in Delhi along designated routes but with minimal media coverage while internet connections there were repeatedly disrupted. However, one group (KMSC) which had already before January 26th made its intention not to respect the assigned routes or starting time, made its way to its own target. Another group following Deep Sidhu (with a pro-BJP political history) and Lakha Sidhana (with a serious criminal record) were able to go to the Red Fort where a Sikh religious flag was hoisted on a smaller flagpole, though the main pole with the Indian tricolor remained in position. Although in comparison to the 5 lakh farmers procession, the total number of these ‘breakaways’ was around 5000 at its peak, it was the Red Fort event that hogged the media coverage while government spokespersons and their TV anchor drumbeaters all went berserk, screaming about the supposed insult to the Indian flag on Republic Day.
  2. This served as the excuse over the next two days to decry and condemn the whole of farmers’ movement for ‘going out of hand’, for their ‘insult to the nation’, for having ‘moral responsibility’ for acts of vandalism and clashes with the police trying to ‘restrain’ them even as all the leaders of the farm unions taking the designated route, when learning of what had happened, took their distance from the events at ITO and Red Fort.
  3. Using this manufactured ‘public outcry’, two days late on January 28th, the Centre sent police and large paramilitary contingents to the Singhu and Tikri borders between Haryana and Delhi, while the UP Adityanath government called for immediate eviction by midnight of those encamped at the Ghazipur border. Armed UP police were also sent to Ghazipur and District authorities cut off power and water supply to the farmers there.
  4. Meanwhile at Singhu and Tikri a group of supposedly local residents of around 200 people each, suddenly collected on the same day demanding eviction of the farmers there; encroaching into the farmers area even as the police and other forces on standby were seemingly incapable of preventing this and the subsequent stone pelting and fighting started by these ‘local’ residents. Revealingly, their main and constant outcry and sloganising was not about the inconvenience caused to them but that the farmers—as shown by the Red Fort events—had insulted the flag and the nation, which was exactly the line of indictment assiduously pursued by the BJP and Centre.
  5. Charges were levelled against the leaders of the entire farmers’ agitation under, sedition and UAPA provisions, including those heading major unions at Tikri (Joginder Singh Ugraha), at Singhu (Darshanpal Singh), and at Ghazipur (Rakesh Tikait). Charges under sedition laws and UAPA means there can be arrests for prolonged periods without bail. Clearly, the government had planned systematically to make an assault on various fronts with the aims of defaming the farmers movement, reversing their momentum, preparing grounds for arrest of leaders, curbing dissenting voices deemed important both within and outside the movement itself, frightening people and groups giving solidarity in different ways, shifting public opinion as much as possible to its side, reinforcing the ‘strong man’ image of Modi out to build a ‘newer and stronger’ India.

Instead, the determination of Tikait to continue the border siege at Ghazipur, no matter what the costs in terms of possible arrest or physical deterioration, along with public declaration of this intent proved to be another spark that led to massive support from farmers and the wider public in UP. The resulting en masse rush of thousands to come in tractors, by bus or on foot to the Ghazipur site thereby swelling the ranks to beyond any earlier peak. Reinforcement also came from Haryana and Punjab while re-found enthusiasm has led to many more trooping to the encampments at Singhu and Tikri. The police and paramilitary forces at Ghazipur had to abandon their eviction plans while power and water connection were restored due in part no doubt to the negative political fallout for the BJP in UP. In short, the farmers’ struggles have got a second wind and will continue.

Again, the coverage of events of Republic Day by certain journalists and a few prominent persons on twitter and social media, because they were mildly or implicitly critical of the government’s handling of the January 26th events of its subsequent messaging, became the excuse for issuing FIRs charging them under draconian laws for criminal behaviour.

This is not to deny that matters are still delicately poised and in balance. The prospect of a severe setback has been overturned but the battle ahead is still going to be a hard one. It is critical that the initiative of the mass of this movement continues to be expressed by its leaders and that the remarkable flourishing of argument, strategic discussion and development of political consciousness that is currently happening in the encampments is deepened and extended to those who continue to stream into the movement. The farmers are showing a level of determination that might yet lead to success in repealing these laws. How broad this success will be and how quickly it could be won also depend on the actions of other Left and democratic forces. Four of these are critical:

  1. Farmers’ groups in other parts of the country are slowly joining in the agitation in the more militant and sustained mode demonstrated by this movement. Their participation, including in places like MP, Chhattisgarh and Orissa where the existing marketing system is an important lifeline for farmers, as well as in places like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and in the South where its importance might be currently diminished. Left groups active among farmers in these places should seek out creative and locally relevant ways to enter into sustained agitations.
  2. The most important constituency we look to beyond farmers must surely be the working classes. The intelligence and courage of the farmers in the course of a prolonged substantial battle over issues is an example the Trades Unions must follow. No more ceremonial one day strikes. This is the time to prepare and launch a staggered wave of strikes across industrial and service sectors over the labour codes.
  3. The farmers have also placed concern about the PDS on the negotiating agenda. This is a lifeline to the broad masses across the country and many social movements have been active in securing and enhancing these entitlements. A sustained push is possible in this moment towards securing and enhancing the welfare support the Indian state provides.
  4. Finally, the opposition parties, for their narrow political reasons, have been riding piggy back on this struggle by expressing verbal solidarity but what else seriously have they done? It is not for them to try and capture control or establish dominant influence on the movement which in fact they cannot. This has denied the Modi government any real credibility when it dishonestly claims that Congress, AAP or other parties are the behind-the-scenes manipulators of this great agitation. But it is time now for these opposition parties to separately—individually or, better still, collectively—mobilise their members, activists and supporters to carry out sustained protests and demonstrations against the Centre and against BJP-ruled state governments everywhere. This should not just be against the farm laws. Broadening the struggle requires coming out for freeing political prisoners; against the nefarious aspects of the new labour codes; against the centralising anti-federalist and anti-democratic measures and practices of the Sangh whether in governing institutions or in the broader society, be these the CAA, ‘love jihad’, the draconian laws themselves, as well as the attempts to legally harass, arrest and otherwise punish those critical of Hindutva and this government.

The fact that the UP government’s attack led to Tikait’s emotional appeal, followed by massive support from peasants in western UP, should not blind us to one complexity. It has already been remarked upon by many that Khap Panchayats have moved against the BJP. More sophisticated BJP supporters have attempted to use this contradiction to attack leftists for their alleged hypocrisy. This is a contradictory reality. It is indeed true that khaps were used by the BJP in thre period of its ascent in UP. The potential for khaps to turn in reactionary ways does exist. Yet, by calling for greater mobilizations, for mass struggles in which Hindus and Muslims, people of various castes, are compelled to fight together, these khap panchayats also push their members in a different direction. The task of a really activist left has to be to strive to push the dalits may bring them into conflict with resultant in as far a progressive direction as possible, while being aware that defence of Muslims and Dalits may bring them into conflict with these bodies. The task is to try and see that participation in progressive struggles weakens reactionary currents.

4 February, 2021

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