Indian farmers' protest Indian farmers' protest. Photo: Randeep Maddoke / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Withstanding government efforts to destroy their epic mobilisation, tens of thousands of Indian farmers are holding firm in their encampments at the gates of Delhi, writes Susan Ram

Nearly 60 days on from the start of their epic convergence on Delhi, tens of thousands of Indian farmers continue to lay peaceful but spirited siege to India’s national capital.

Within the sprawling encampments of tents, trailers and tractors that have transformed every approach to the city into a brilliantly hued carnival of protest and resistance, an army of peasant farmers, their resilience sustained by incredible levels of public support, are posing an unprecedented challenge to the far-right BJP (Bharata Janata Party) government of Narendra Modi.

On January 21, following consultations with protestors, farmers’ leaders rejected the government’s latest attempt to break the impasse: an offer to withhold implementation of three contentious ‘farm laws’ for eighteen months, together with the setting up of a ‘joint committee’ to resolve matters.

Correctly reading this as a fresh attempt by Modi and crew to destroy the momentum of the mobilisation, farmers are holding firm to their core demand: the immediate, unconditional repeal of all three laws: a legislative trinity aimed at embedding big business in India’s agricultural sector.

In an earlier analysis, I provided some background on the dispute and its wider significance, both for peasant producers themselves and also for India’s overarching system of food production and food security.

This update seeks to bring Counterfire readers up to speed with recent developments while returning to the issue of the sustainability of this uprising and its wider political significance.

The government’s response

Since November 26, 2020 – the day on which farmers began converging on the capital behind the slogan ‘Delhi Chalo! (‘Everyone to Delhi! Delhi or bust!’) – the Modi government has been applying a range of strategies aimed at bringing the farmers to heel.

Outright repression, including the deployment of batons, water cannon and tear gas by police and security forces attempting military-style blockades of roads and railway tracks, characterised the opening phase of this state response. But rather than disperse the marchers, the brutality of this offensive, captured on camera and beamed across India and the world, proved a goad that stiffened the resolve of the multitude of hardy, physically robust working people heading for the capital.

Next item in the government’s bag of tricks: wearing down farmers through endless negotiations. Since mid-October the regime has carried out eleven rounds of talks with farmers’ leaders, often accompanied by the dangling of a concession or two. By this means, the government has sought to portray itself – to those at home as well as the wider world – as ‘reasonable’ and ‘ready to talk.’ But such image-burnishing has been undermined by the regime’s adamantine refusal to negotiate in any meaningful sense of the term on the core issue: unconditional repeal of the farm laws.

Alongside this, to no one’s great surprise, Modi and team have been trying out a range of divide-and-rule initiatives.

One strand has involved outright smears, specifically the charge that ‘anti-nationals’ are lurking in the farmers’ ranks. This accusation seeks to play on the fact that large sections of the peasants gathered outside Delhi are Sikhs from the nearby states of Haryana and Punjab.

As non-Hindus originating from a region with a history of political secessionism (the Khalistan movement, particularly active in the 1970s and 1980s), Sikhs are grist to the mill of the BJP’s longstanding project: the transformation of India into a Hindu supremacist state in which ‘minorities’ (Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, people of tribal and low caste origin) will enjoy a subordinate status and reduced rights.

Attempts to open up fissures within the farmers’ movement along class, caste and regional lines have also been rebuffed.

Early in the new year, the government tried out a new tactic: enlisting the services of the judiciary. On January 12, India’s Supreme Court – the country’s apex legal body – abruptly announced its decision to “temporarily suspend” implementation of the three disputed laws. Using language critical of the government’s handling of the dispute, it also announced that it was setting up a committee of four ‘experts’ to resolve all contentious issues.

All came unstuck the moment the names of the experts were revealed: all four had previously made public statements in support of the three farm laws.

Balbir Singh Rajewal, a leader of one of the farmers’ unions responded, 

“This is the government tactic to reduce pressure on itself. All the committee members are pro-government. All are people who so far justified the government laws – they are writing articles to justify the government law.

“We have decided that our agitation will continue.”

Understanding the movement’s resilience

What explains the extraordinary staying power of this peasant uprising, by many estimates the largest-ever mobilisation of the peasantry in independent India? In terms of numbers, one must count not just the tens of thousands gathered at Delhi’s borders but also those who have been on the streets in villages, towns and State capitals across the land – from solidarity protests in Kerala to massive supportive actions in Mumbai. This is a movement that has caught the imagination and triggered the active involvement of millions of peasant farmers.

Among the multiple factors at work, there is (to begin with) India’s rich history of peasant struggle, reaching back deep into the colonial period.

In the Punjab, a new phase of united struggle emerged in the early 2000s, as crisis conditions bore ever deeper into frontline grain-producers, intensifying levels of debt – and farmer suicides. This period also saw farmer organisations in Punjab stage joint campaigns against theWorld Trade Organisation’s 1995 Agreement on Agriculture, which directly attacked farm subsidies and public stockholding of food grains.

For Sukhdev Singh Kokri, State general secretary of one of Punjab’s largest farmers’ unions, the success of the prolonged campaign against the WTO helps explain farmers’ ready grasp of the real intent behind Modi’s new laws.

A second factor is the growing unity of peasant organisations, a long-term process built up over successive of struggles and reinforced by the founding in 2017 of a national-level alliance: the AIKSCC (All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee), comprising more than 250 farmer organisations.

Thirdly, new organisations geared to widening the base of the movement are playing an increasingly prominent role. In Punjab, the BKU Ekta (Ugrahan), formed in 2002 and active in many districts, has consciously sought to mobilise beyond the ranks of the rich peasantry. In addition to its work among small and marginal farmers, its efforts have contributed to the successful participation of a large number of women in the Delhi protests.

While the Modi government plots the movement’s doom from within the luxurious confines of Edwin Lutyens’ imperial citadel, the peasants at the gates confront more pressing practical questions. How to keep farms running in their absence? Who’s to handle the harvesting of crops? What about the tending of precious livestock?

It’s here that the ingenuity, improvisation and inventiveness characteristic of moments when working people come together in struggle are already powerfully evident. Back home in rural Punjab, or Haryana, or Maharashtra, friends and neighbours have come forward to sustain the farming activities of the Delhi protestors. Farmers have set up rotas by which those needing to leave the camps for pressing reasons have replacements at the ready.

As to provisions: hot food, blankets against the bitter winter chill, and every other necessity continue to roll in, at times to an almost overwhelming degree. Cultural performances help keep spirits buoyant, while the bi-weekly publication of the demonstrators’ own newspaper, Trolley Times, keeps everyone abreast of developments. At one camp, farmers have organised a makeshift school for children living in nearby slums. Self-organisation is emerging in kaleidoscopic forms.

Under its flawed reading of the situation, the Modi government assumed that those protesting at the gates of Delhi would be unable to sustain the movement for long. Thus far there is nothing to suggest this is anything other than a monumental miscalculation.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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