On the 19th of November, the Prime minister of India Narendra Modi came on live TV and announced to the country that he was withdrawing the 3 farm laws, against which hundreds of thousands of farmers from across the country had been protesting for over a year. After the deaths of almost 600 farmers due to exhaustion, suicides, attacks, and disease, this was an unprecedented victory against an authoritarian regime whose viciousness was matched by its arrogance. By winning against a regime like this, the farmers of India have broken the illusion of Modi as an unshakeable and powerful leader. In doing this, the farmers of India have scored a victory for all Indians.
By Adhiraj Bose – Inquilab Mazdoor – India
While, this victory should be celebrated, we also have to keep in mind, that the fight is not yet over. Nor should we distract ourselves from the limitations of the movement.
Some background is needed to understand the context of the farm laws protest. Despite accounting for only 15% of the country’s GDP, agriculture employs directly or indirectly, more than 41% of the workforce.
India has been suffering an agrarian crisis brought upon it by neo-liberal policies. India opened up the economy in 1991, and it was expected that the new neo-liberal order would bring about a rise in incomes and prosperity for all. It did so, for the ultra wealthy, but not for the masses. The masses of Indian farmers, for instance, suffered. Since the year 1995 over 400,000 farmers have committed suicide. The reasons are varied ranging from debt burdens, crop failures due to unsustainable practices, droughts brought about by climate change, and sometimes personal reasons. This is but one aspect of India’s agrarian crisis, and the context in which the farmers’ agitation started.
While production of grain is largely accounted for by the farmers themselves, their trade and distribution is controlled by private entities. Up to 80% of trade in food products is controlled by local politically controlled oligarchs, or food retail companies like Reliance Fresh and Spencer’s. The retailers profit by selling food at higher prices in the cities, but leaving the farmers with an unsustainably low income. The disparity can be ameliorated by the guarantee of a Minimum Support Price, which in turn can be best assured by government procurement centres under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee, which controls the ‘mandi’. The new farm laws would strike at the mandis, while not abolishing the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) , it would bypass them and cause their slow death.
The farmers agitation did not begin out of the blue, but had been building up for some time. The mobilizations of farmers in Maharashtra, the protest by Tamil farmers, and now the mega protest by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, joined by many others from across the country, all came down to the guaranteeing of the minimum support price. The dual pressure of debts, and rising input costs of fertilizers and agricultural implements, and the slow rate of increasing incomes, have all contributed to raising their anger. To this must also be added the frustrations of agricultural labourers and sharecroppers who often times do not own land, and have to work on the land of other farmers to make ends meet. They scrape a living off the margins of Indian agriculture, often times working outside of their home state. The pandemic and lock-downs utterly decimated their incomes, and drove many into abject poverty and loss of livelihoods. They had joined in with the agitation of farmers, knowing that the impoverishment of farmers would mean the further impoverishment of agrarian labourers as well.
The leadership of the agitation
Various farmers organizations, some linked to political parties, and some not, came together to give the agitation a visible leadership. The umbrella organization of the agitation was the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (The united peasants front) . The organization was formed by uniting over forty farmers unions to coordinate the agitation, these included unions linked with the left like the All India Kisan Sabha, as well as those linked with centrist and liberal bourgeois parties like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The seven member coordination committee
The agitation had participation from both large landed farmers as well as small and marginal farmers, who accounted for the greatest proportion of those who had died over the course of the agitation. The core of the agitation remained in Western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, and it is from these states that we find the majority of participants at the protest sites. However, the united body involved representatives from various different national farmer’s union. The Seven Member Committee includes Jagjit Singh Dallewal (President BKU-Sidhupur), Dr. Darshan Pal (President Krantikari Kisan Union),Hannan Mollah (National general secretary of All India Kisan Sabha (36 Canning Lane); Balbir Singh Rajewal (president BKU-Rajewal), Ashok Dhawale (National President of All India Kisan Sabha ), Yogendra Yadav (President of Swaraj India which he founded ), Gurnam Singh Chaduni, Shiv Kumar Kakka. The bulk of the leadership (barring the representatives of the AIKS) are based in North India, from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. The All India Kisan Sabha of course, are both headquartered in Calcutta (now Kolkata) West Bengal, and are linked to the Communist Party of India.
Over the course of the agitation, the organization kept focus on two core demands. Firstly, the repeal of the 3 farm laws, namely : Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The Second core demand was the guarantee of a Minimum Support Price for the procurement of grain from the farmers. Both these demands are minimal enough to unite a broad front of farmers from various backgrounds, ethnicities, castes and classes. The last aspect is of particular importance, since nowhere did distinct demands of agrarian workers, marginal farmers and the landless emerge. There was no mention of land reform as part of the agitation. The agitation remained focused on the two fold set of demands.
The limitations of the agitation
If we see the protests in this light, there was nothing remotely revolutionary about it. While we acknowledge the positive effect of the victory of this agitation, we must also acknowledge these limitations. The agrarian question in India is of vital importance, and the agrarian distress needs answers which goes beyond reformism, and aims at resolving the root causes of distress. The control of food trade at the hands of corporations and oligarchs, the spread of unregulated private money lending, the increasing costs of input and the increasing pressure over small, marginal and medium land owning farmers (who account for the bulk of farmers in India), and the ongoing proletarianization of the petty producers. Capitalism is at the root of the problem, and while it might give some momentary relief to tweak the system and offer concessions, the system as it is, will continue to squeeze out the farmers till there are none left, but those which are large enough, or connected with monopoly corporations. The BJP government is of course, committed to the latter, and making them bend was a big victory, make no mistake, but it is by no means a final victory.
The spokesperson for the BKU, Rakesh Tikait, has gone on record stating that the agitation would continue till there is a guarantee for minimum support price, and the picket set up at the Singhu border near Delhi would continue till the bills are formally repealed at the winter session of the parliament (which begins on the 29th of November and ends on 23rd of December). The draft bill for the repeal of the act has already been made and tabled before the parliament, and it is likely that the Modi government would not shirk away from his word. The three farm laws will be repealed, but this only brings us back to the situation as it existed in 2020 when the agitation had started. The dire state of Indian agriculture would not change, but it would be prevented from becoming worse.
The pressing questions of land reform, landlessness in India, and disparity of land ownership remain unanswered by this agitation, nor did the leftist parties raise this question, either in propaganda or in their own parallel movements. The focus of the agitations has remained locked in negotiating better prices and conditions of trade. The market is never questioned, nor is the capitalist system as a whole ever questioned.
The political impact of the agitation
During the protests several key state/regional elections took place in India, most important of them being Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The farmers agitation attacked the BJP in the realm of elections, taking their movement across the country to states where elections were happening, to rally against the BJP. It is debatable to what extent this affected the outcome of the elections, but it is undoubted that they did swing support against the BJP. The party lost bitterly in West Bengal, and they lost the key Southern state of Tamil Nadu, and lost Punjab handily. The farmers agitation has repeated this tactic in Uttar Pradesh, which is due to go to polls early next year. The state of Uttar Pradesh is the most populous and most politically influential state in the country, and it is no surprise that the BJP has been focused on retaining it at all costs and using it as a sort of political laboratory for their Hindutva agenda, led by their hardline leader Yogi Adityanath.
The BJP government’s propaganda machinery has been working overtime to paint Uttar Pradesh as a model capitalist state with thriving industry and security for its people. The reality is, Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst governed states in terms of crime, and remains one of the poorest states in the country in terms of per capita income. The Yogi Adityanath government has been running an autocratic regime which has no tolerance for dissent and pursues an aggressively communal agenda. The government has been infamous for its cover up of the COVID pandemic where cremation grounds were sealed from the public, photography was prohibited and harassing doctors for exposing critical oxygen shortages. Anger has been growing against him, not in the least for his brazen support for the farm laws. The Uttar Pradesh police has been particularly harsh in its handling of the farmer protests.
With the elections nearing, the hated government of Yogi Adityanath is threatened. The farmer’s agitation has aroused anger in the people of Western U.P especially among the Jat community who are a large and influential community in the region. The farmer’s agitation also saw unity between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, something that strikes at the core of the BJP’s thinking. The farmer’s agitation was unprecedented in its longevity and tenacity, not being cowed by police brutality, nor the pandemic, nor the divisive tactics of the BJP which tried to paint the farmers as ‘Khalistani terrorists’. None of their tactics worked, and now the government was forced to bow down to the organized masses of farmers. It is obvious the BJP has its eyes on the elections in this key state, which is key to it holding on to power in the country at the national level, what is not obvious is that this could very well be a ploy to pacify the masses. After a year of exhausting protests, the farmers might be satisfied with a pyrrhic victory, leaving the field open for the BJP to strike back again, once they have consolidated power in Uttar Pradesh and won the upcoming national elections in 2024.
The need for a peasant workers alliance
The three farm laws were pushed through parliament without a debate, along with the labour codes. The latter consolidates several labour laws into four labour codes, these codes are framed in a way that will benefit the bosses and make it much harder to organize and agitate. Despite this, the response from the workers union did not match up to that of the farmers. Almost as soon as the farmers started their agitation, central trade unions conducted a general strike. At the same time, there was an agitation of Dalits against the murder of a girl at Hatras. This presented a moment where the workers and peasants could unite into an alliance and bring in it’s fold the key democratic struggle of the Dalits. If given revolutionary leadership, this triumvirate would be the foundational revolutionary alliance in India.
The farmers have won a concession, but the workers have yet to. Between the two movements there was little coordination, nor was there much effort to unify these movements into one massive nationwide agitation, bringing together workers, peasants and the oppressed minorities. This however, requires political leadership, so far none of the leftist parties seem to be up to the task. If there is any leadership, the direction of the movements are limited to reforming capitalism rather than paving the way for its overthrow.
The farmers agitation shows that there is a lot of energy among the masses of the oppressed classes, and even in the worst of circumstances, there is potential for mass mobilization, and more importantly, the class enemy, even with its most vicious thug representatives in the form of the BJP, aren’t invincible. This should encourage us to organize and agitate further.
LONG LIVE THE FARMER’S AGITATION !
DOWN WITH CAPITALISM!
FOR A WORKERS AND PEASANTS UNITY !