Farmers' Protest at Tikri Border, December 2020 Farmers' Protest at Tikri Border, December 2020. Photo: Randeep Maddoke / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The renewal of farmers’ protests has the potential to unite forces that could challenge the BJP’s neoliberal programme of hate and division, argues John Clarke

Indian farmers have postponed a massive march on New Delhi, as they take part in a process of negotiation to which the government of Narendra Modi reluctantly agreed. ‘Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda, accompanied by Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai, engaged in discussions with representatives of the farmers’ unions.’ Protest leader Jagjit Singh Dallewal explained that the farmers had decided to try to resolve their grievances through discussions but he also stressed that ‘the protest would continue in a peaceful manner until a resolution is reached.’

Having successfully challenged the neoliberal ‘reforms’ that Modi tried to impose on them in 2020, which would have moved Indian agriculture towards an unregulated market system, the farmers are now pressing demands that include a proper system of minimum pricing for their produce. These are being put forward, moreover, in the context of ‘financial instability within the agricultural sector.’

With an election impending, Modi hopes to avoid a major confrontation with the farmers. However, the present mobilisation is a very serious one and it is far from clear if concessions will be granted by the government that are significant enough to meet the needs of the farmers, contain the present upsurge, and prevent very serious social conflict.

Major confrontation

The acute risk of such a major confrontation was readily apparent last week, when farmers gathering by the tens of thousands on the fringes of the capital ‘were met with tear gas bombs, barbed wire fences, and a heavy deployment of security.’ Yet, the determined and well organised farmers’ movement is able to mobilise huge numbers, deploy heavy agricultural equipment imaginatively and draw on widespread popular support. As such, it is a major social force that is not so easily intimidated.

Following the struggle that was taken up in 2020 and 2021, Modi’s agricultural laws were withdrawn ‘with a promise to agree on a minimum support price (MSP) – a legal guarantee from the federal administration covering all farm produce.’ However, the farmers charge that the government has not lived up to its promises, only offering protection on some essential crops, and they are looking to ensure that comprehensive price protections are put in place.

Modi agreed to open negotiations in the context of a tense standoff between state forces and the farmers. ‘The way [the authorities] have dug ditches, blocked roads with concrete boulders and heavy vehicles, it feels like we are in the midst of a war. The government is treating the farmers’ protest at par with an attack from an enemy country,’ observed Randeep Singh Surjewala from the opposition Congress party.

It is easy to appreciate why the possibility of another round of struggle with the farmers would undermine the usual intransigence that Modi displays when he faces a challenge. When ‘Indian broadcasters showed columns of hundreds of tractors moving towards the capital from the surrounding states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh’ last week, the obvious comparison to the previous struggle must have created fear and loathing in government circles.

During 2021, ‘farmers breached barricades and marched into the city on Republic Day … Tens of thousands of farmers then set up makeshift camps. At least 700 people were killed during the protest.’ However anxious Modi is to avoid any fundamental change of course in the implementation of his regressive political agenda, he is also clearly ready to make substantial efforts to avoid anything on the scale of the last upsurge of farmer resistance.

As serious a problem as the farmers’ movement poses for Modi’s neoliberal remodelling of Indian society, its great potential ‘to build unity among workers and peasants against neoliberal policies and Hindutva authoritarianism’ is perhaps even more troubling for the government and its powerful backers. The farmer-led resistance, moreover, goes beyond the domestic agenda of the Modi regime and constitutes a challenge to ‘the policies pressed upon India by organizations like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, which [seek] to dismantle India’s public procurement system, food subsidies, and regulatory frameworks.’

As Modi works to intensify division and hatred within Indian society, the farmers move against him with dynamic forms of united action that ‘starkly reveal the exploitative and oppressive inner core of Hindutva politics.’ Thus, his ministers are seeking, through the present process of negotiation, to prevent an unbridled confrontation, while avoiding any further major retreat.

It is entirely possible, however, that a viable compromise may prove impossible to broker and, if that proves to be the case, the whole history and orientation of the Modi regime suggests that it will opt for confrontation if a choice must be made. Despite this, the impending election is a compelling reason to try to at least postpone an all-out fight with the farmers.

Modi had been looking to consolidate his grip on power and move into the elections in May from a position of strength. The Congress opposition party had made some gains in recent months, but this trend seemed to be reversing, and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had strong grounds for confidence. While Modi’s reactionary base of support wouldn’t be deterred by a confrontation with the farmers, less committed voters might well be alienated by such a development.

Neoliberalism and Hindutva

The blending of regressive economic and social policies with the politics of hatred and division aren’t unique to India. To confirm this, we have only to look at the record of Donald Trump in the US, whose ‘rhetoric has given perhaps a new legitimacy to some who feel they can express attitudes which had once been discredited, but now seem again permissible.’ In the context of India, however, the path that Modi has taken has been to implement policies that serve the interests of the country’s billionaires and the international investors, while unleashing the full force of Hindu chauvinism, and overturning any commitment to secularism and inclusively democratic forms of government.

Modi represents an ‘alliance forged between corporate elites and Hindutva forces. Both the necessity to push through neoliberal policies and impose Hindutva values on society requires a high degree of authoritarianism.’ The viciousness of this whole approach has played out in acts of sectarian violence across the country, especially the targeting of Muslim communities, that have been initiated by state forces or carried out under their protection.

This ugly advance of Hindutva was on display recently, as Modi joined in a triumphalist celebration of the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque that was destroyed by a right-wing mob in 1992. ‘Accompanied by state holidays, leading Bollywood celebrities, and live telecasts, the Prime Minister of India consecrated the incomplete and partially scaffolded Ram mandir in India built in place of the Babri Masjid.’

With their reignited struggle to resist the neoliberal restructuring of agriculture, the Indian farmers offer inspiring proof that there is nothing inevitable about the hateful agenda that Narendra Modi personifies. They move against his government at a vital time in the life of India, but the fight they take up also resonates across the world.

In 2021, the ‘grit, resilience, sacrifice and the unity of the farmers made the protests a historic event in the fight against neoliberalism [that] inspired people all across the world.’ Those qualities are on display again, as the farmers try to build upon their previous victory and make further vital gains.

If they are unable to secure a decent settlement at the negotiating table, the farmers’ march on New Delhi will resume. It is a struggle of particular importance that we should all look to, learn from and support in every way we can.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.