After a year of the persistent protest, Indian farmers have shown the world how people power and solidarity can win, argues Shabbir Lakha
In a humiliating defeat, India’s Prime Minister Modi announced on Friday that his government will be repealing the wildly unpopular farm laws that had sparked a year-long farmers’ uprising. Part of Modi’s neoliberalisation of India’s economy, the laws aimed to deregulate the agricultural industry and open it up further to private capital under the guise of ‘modernisation’.
It was quickly recognised by farmers that the expansion of market forces in agriculture and cuts to government subsidies would be massively detrimental to the majority of farmers who cultivate on small areas of land and who are already among the poorest sections of society.
The farmers began organising rapidly, particularly those in the north-western Punjab region where land inequality is starkest, and went from local rallies, to big demonstrations, to the huge insurgency of hundreds of thousands that besieged Delhi and brought Modi’s government to its knees.
The unity and determination of the farmers has been a sight to behold. Backed by over twenty trade unions and forming alliances with workers in transport and other industries, the farmers forged an unbreakable front. They maintained this even in the face of violent state repression which saw protesters and leaders of the movement arrested, beaten and killed and labelled as terrorists.
The farmers managed to galvanise and maintain huge public support despite the government’s attempts to arrest and intimidate sympathetic journalists and shut down social media pages supporting the movement. On 26 November 2020 they joined in the general strike which an estimated 250 million workers took part in, and merged the demands against Modi’s labour laws and the farm laws.
At every stage the farmers escalated their protests instead of backing down. When the government offered to suspend the laws earlier this year, the farmers still refused to back down for anything less than the full repeal of the laws. And even now that Modi has conceded, the tens of thousands of farmers still camped at the gates of Delhi have said they won’t move until the repeal has been formally passed through parliament.
The victory for the farmers’ movement is extremely significant because they have blown a hole through Modi’s authoritarian rule by showing that people power can win. In his televised address on Friday, Modi looked desperate in his plea to farmers to “return to your home, to your loved ones, to your farms, and family. Let’s make a fresh start and move forward”.
There will be no fresh start for Modi. Farmers celebrating were seen chanting “long live the unity of the farmers”. Farmers were quoted in The Guardian saying, “repealing the farm laws is just the beginning” and “we are more powerful than Modi”.
The timing of Modi’s announcement may have been driven in part by a fear of losing upcoming state elections, but that political damage has been driven by the farmers’ movement. More importantly, Modi’s ability to govern with an authoritarian grip has been seriously undermined. The farmers of India unleashed a spirit of radicalism and resistance and the genie can’t be put back into the bottle.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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