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Farmers Are Leading India’s Biggest Social Movement in a Generation

Ongoing protests by Indian farmers are the biggest challenge Narendra Modi’s right-wing government has faced since coming to power. We can get a clearer picture of this movement and its prospects for success by comparing it to the major struggles of India's past.

A farmer throws back a tear gas shell fired by the police during a tractor rally in New Delhi against the central government's recent agricultural reforms on January 26, 2021. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

The ongoing struggle of farmers in India is the most significant mass mobilization in decades and represents the biggest challenge to the government of Narendra Modi since it first came to power in 2014.

The three agricultural reform laws forced through Parliament during the pandemic lockdown provoked this wave of protest. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insists that those laws are necessary to modernize an archaic and outdated system of farm production. Farmers, however, rightly see the dismantling of regulations, price controls, and public procurement commitments as a threat to their livelihoods.

They fear that opening up the sector to corporate agribusinesses and financial interests will lead to greater polarization of landholdings. This in turn will cause a large-scale displacement of farmers and laborers into an informal sector that already accounts for more than 90 percent of the total workforce and is incapable of providing enough employment or renumeration.

A Second Wind

Since late November 2020, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh, have camped on the outskirts of Delhi, disrupting the main roads into the capital. Rejecting the government’s offers to temporarily suspend the new laws, they have remained steadfast in demanding their repeal.

On January 26 this year, India’s Republic Day, some five hundred thousand people went on a procession along designated routes that had been agreed upon earlier. It was meant to symbolize the fact that the day belongs to them as much as to anyone else. However, a few thousand were surprisingly able to take an unblocked, unplanned route. They ended up at the Red Fort in the center of the city. A Sikh religious flag was hoisted, and there were some clashes between protestors and police.

Narendra Modi broke his silence to declare the Red Fort incident an insult to the country and insist that the reforms proceed unabated. The police arrested hundreds of protesters and brought charges against journalists reporting on the events. The authorities then moved to blockade the farmers’ encampments with razor-sharp concertina wire, steel spikes implanted in the ground, and concrete walls.

Farmers raise slogans during a protest over farm reform laws at Singhu (Delhi-Haryana) Border on December 2, 2020, in New Delhi, India. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

However, when the Uttar Pradesh government threatened to evict farmers by midnight of February 28, thousands more flocked to the occupation sites after a leadership appeal, first from Uttar Pradesh and then from Punjab and Haryana. At a critical point, just as the government was planning to go on the offensive, the farmers’ struggle got a powerful second wind. The occupations and resistance continue to this day.

The Textile Workers’ Strike

How might we assess the chances of success for the farmers’ movement? One way is to compare it to the last mobilization of a comparable scale: the Bombay textile workers’ strike of 1982–3, when 224,000 of the city’s mill workers went on strike. They shut down the industry, raising demands for increased wages, improved work conditions, and an end to restrictive labor laws.

Those laws denied them the right to choose another, more militant union led by Datta Samant in place of the only officially recognized union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh. Led by the Congress Party and supportive of the owners, the established union had done little or nothing for the workers.

There were more than 58 million workdays lost as a result of the strike, compared to the 29 million workdays in the course of the British miners’ strike of 1984–5. However, in spite of their numerical strength, objective circumstances were not in favor of the workers.

The strike was directed against big and medium mill owners, and, indirectly, against the state. Many mill owners were looking to shift production to power looms outside the city and expected substantial compensation through land sales. For its part, the Maharashtra state government had its eyes on deindustrializing the city so that it would become a commercial-financial center. The state’s intransigence also reflected its awareness that any concession to the Samant union would encourage militancy by workers in other industries.

For India’s national government, breaking the strike also fit into its larger economic plans. The country’s shift toward an economy that would be more open to global capital, with greater privatization of public enterprises and a growing service sector, was already in progress by the 1980s, before the 1991 economic crisis often seen as a watershed for India’s neoliberal turn.

The Bombay struggle was heroic but isolated, despite some public sympathy from ordinary citizens of the city. It lacked both strong backing from other sections of the working class and cross-class support. The major trade union federations basically left it isolated, fearing possible membership desertions to Datta Samant’s union if it should triumph.

However strong it may have been, the 1982–3 strike was essentially a defensive reaction to terrible conditions rather than an expression of rising class consciousness that might shift the relationship of forces between labor and capital.

Railway Workers and the Emergency

That wider shift would have taken place if the 1974 railway strike had been successful. That strike came at the crest of a more general wave of labor militancy in India. It was the largest ever strike in the public sector up to that point, involving 1.7 million people or 70 percent of the total workforce employed by the railways. The unions called it off following twenty days of action between May 7 and 28. The authorities had arrested thousands of workers, with many more suspended, and called in armed personnel to begin running the trains.

The railway strike began when JP Narayan launched a mass movement. Narayan declared that India’s youth would be the catalyst for a “Total Revolution” against corruption, class, caste, and communal antagonisms. This agitation spread through the urban areas of north India. It was the first anti-Congress mass movement of its kind since India had won its independence, drawing together most of the opposition parties.

This agitation and the railway strike played an important part in motivating Congress leader and prime minister Indira Gandhi to declare a state of emergency in June 1975, suspending basic liberties. The end of “the Emergency” and the defeat of Congress in the 1977 elections that followed did not result in an upswing in working-class militancy, although social movements of various kinds did arise.

Those movements included an autonomous women’s movement that was sparked by the gang rape in police custody of a tribal girl, Mathura. It eventually led to the formation of the Forum Against Rape in 1979 — soon renamed the Forum Against Oppression of Women — and then to the inauguration in 1980 of an all-India network of autonomous women’s organizations.

In the same period, civil society groups such as Nivara Haq Sangarsh Samiti — publicly endorsed by Bollywood star Shabana Azmi — emerged to mobilize slum and pavement dwellers to fight evictions and demolitions and to defend the rights of the homeless in Maharashtra. Student movements also erupted in major central universities in Bombay, Hyderabad, Delhi, West Bengal, and elsewhere.

Civil liberties groups sprang up in different provinces to defend human rights against violations by the state or other actors. These organizations sought to build national networks in a new context. Courts at all levels of the Indian state were now seeking to atone for their supine behavior during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency by entertaining public interest litigations of different kinds.

The Farmers’ Movement

Turning to the farmers’ struggle today, the numbers at various times have reached five hundred thousand or more, since there is large-scale movement back and forth between the occupation sites and villages every few days. The period of sustained blockage at the borders has now lasted over four months. When compared to the textile strike of the 1980s, several significant differences are apparent.

The farmer agitation is one aimed directly against Modi’s government at the center, bypassing state administrations, and indirectly against the agricorporates. With the central government as the main opponent, it has had a much greater nationwide impact, attracting broad sympathy across the country. After all, almost half of India’s population is either engaged directly in agriculture and related sectors or in providing goods and services that largely depend on farmer incomes.

Cross-occupational sympathy is much greater than it was for the textile workers’ strike because the striking farmers have social links with the armed forces, police, and lower-level government bureaucracies, not to mention urban wage earners of various kinds, from the self-employed to domestic workers. In contrast with the experience of the textile workers, its effect has been to put the central government somewhat on the defensive.

The different composition of the farm movement is also striking. The action is led not by those who are separated from the means of production or those whom we can call part of the classical working class, as it was in 1982–3. Rather, it is led by the peasant equivalent of what is sometimes called the petty bourgeoisie. This does not mean that the struggle is not progressive — it certainly is.

Prospects for Success

During the 1970s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s, rich Indian farmers led farmers’ movements and were an important force behind certain regional political parties. However, with the growing agrarian crisis, three developments seem to have taken place.

Firstly, the power of regional parties has been eroded. Secondly, the mobilizing capacity and leadership of these wealthier strata has to a significant extent given way to that of small- and medium-sized farmers organized in unions that are often led by left-wing forces, particularly in Punjab. Thirdly, greater migration and greater precarity of work among the lower and weaker sections of the landholding peasantry have made farmers acutely aware of the dangers of corporatization and the loss of public procurement and the minimum support price.

The chances of this movement achieving success are certainly higher than they were for the textile workers, although victory is by no means certain. One major difference is that many textile workers had to return to their villages in their home states just to survive, leaving a considerably smaller proportion to seek financial support and solidarity through demos, flash strikes, etc. from workers in other industrial and service sectors in Bombay and Maharashtra. In the current struggle, the lines of communication, material replenishment, and numerical reinforcement between the rural backstop and the sites of occupation are much closer and stronger.

Can it, therefore, succeed on its own? Even success will not mean that right-wing Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) hegemony will have been seriously undermined. Nor will it shift the general relationship of forces between capital and labor to the extent needed. For that to happen, we need a much longer and wider collective struggle and the emergence of a national political alternative.

Certainly, if it is successful, the farmers’ movement will halt for some considerable time the neoliberal corporate strides into Indian agriculture. Defeat, on the other hand, will accelerate that push and further consolidate the ties between the BJP and capital.

The agricultural laws must be opposed, and respect is due to the left leadership of the unions that have constituted the backbone of the struggle, although that leadership does have some political and theoretical limitations. Unlike industrial unions of individual workers, these are unions of farm owners aspiring to raise incomes within a capitalist framework that, on their own, are unlikely to move in a direction that is eco-sensitive and geared toward cooperative ownership on a larger scale.

That shift is the only real way to overcome an agrarian crisis that will continue to afflict farmers even if these laws are repealed. Repeal of the laws may be a necessary condition for any decisive improvement in the state of Indian agriculture and the lives of those who rely upon it. But it is far from being a sufficient one.

Broadening Opposition

As the first big successful push against the Modi government, this struggle has undeniably encouraged other forms of opposition. Student and teacher bodies outside the Hindutva tent have been angered by the government’s efforts to ideologically homogenize the public higher-education system through personnel and curriculum changes.

Progressive civil society groups and NGOs are concerned about the cumulative assault on democratic rights as the BJP seeks to curb even the mildest forms of public dissent, using draconian laws to frighten, harass, and punish liberal and left-wing activists. Many regional parties that are not allied to the BJP know they face a political force that is out to suborn them or eliminate them altogether.

There are substantial sections of the Indian populace that wish success to the farmers’ movement and will be emboldened in their own struggles by its progress. But the strength of that movement derives from the fact that it is independent of the opposition parties and is seen to be so. What unites the abundance of farm unions in struggle is their specific focus on addressing the economic plight of farmers and farm workers.

The opposition parties are the ones who should be forging a broader platform of struggle for the defense of democratic rights and the advancement of social needs for all layers of Indian society. So far, this is a responsibility that those parties have comprehensively failed to discharge. Frankly, it is doubtful they have the capacity or even the moral and political inclination to do so.

Where a broader unity with farmers can be forged — one that would potentially be powerful enough to force the Modi government to fully concede — is with India’s organized working class, itself greatly angered by the latest labor laws. These laws aim to make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers. They also seek to put up onerous new barriers to unionization and legal strikes, promote casualization, and much else in that vein.

Sections within the farmer bodies have not only called for wider, pan-Indian farmer unity but also raised the slogan Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta (unity of farmers and laborers), which is a step forward. But how are they going to put this into practical effect and overcome the Modi government’s intransigence? In the early stages of the movement, there were hopes that the BJP-led coalition government in Haryana would fall because the Jannayak Janta Party would withdraw its support. However, that has not come to pass, and there is little reason to think it will happen further down the line even if the occupations carry on.

If the BJP suffered a serious overall defeat in the five state-assembly elections where polling has started or is due to begin soon, that would certainly boost the morale of the farmers and Modi’s other opponents. But, in practice, the results are more likely to be mixed, with gains for the BJP in some places perhaps more than compensating for weaker performances elsewhere.

The Need for Strike Action

The key is not just continuing the occupation, or mounting periodic demonstrations, marches, and solidarity events, but mass strike action. This form of action would hit directly at the authority of the government and affect their big-business backers where it hurts the most — namely, in their pockets.

The central trade union federations — barring, of course, the BJP-controlled Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh — have extended support to the farmers’ struggle and carried out solidarity actions. But these federations are controlled by their respective party-political masters, which makes it harder to forge basic unity among workers. Indeed, the way that more than forty farm unions and other bodies have managed to work together should be an object lesson for the trade union federations.

The new labor laws represent a death warrant for those federations, which should be enough to spur them to action. Ritual one-day strikes across the whole of India may be helpful, but, ultimately, they are not the answer. What is needed are large-scale rolling strikes every few days across different industrial sectors and states. This way, the economic burden on strikers will be lessened, since these actions are spread out over time and across different sections, places, and regions.

There is an opportunity today to forge with farmers the kind of unity in struggle that could inflict the most powerful blow yet to Modi’s neoliberal project. Even if this opportunity is lost and the final outcome is some compromise that falls short of a total repeal of the laws, politically, things will not be the same. There will have been a more lasting breach in the popularity of the Modi regime, for which the farmers and their struggle deserve our profound admiration.