Understanding the Ongoing Farmers’ Protest in India

by Panchali Kar

If we take a close look at the BJP government, we get a clear picture of its thoroughly reactionary stance. Working class and impoverished people have been targeted by the BJP government, whereas the corporate elite has benefited from policies implemented by the government. This government relies on the strategy of divide and rule so that the people fight among themselves over futile issues, while major crises like basic rights, food, education, healthcare, inflation, law and disorder, forced privatisation, etc. remain unnoticed. People belonging to religious, caste, class, and gender minorities have faced atrocities under state-sponsored terrorism incited by BJP-RSS and their allies.

Religion has been the most critical division, used to brainwash people into fighting and killing over Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan differences. The inhumanity has hit unprecedented levels. Poor Muslim people, including minors, have been lynched and killed over the suspicion of beef consumption (in India the holy cow has become the propagandist symbol of the Hindutwavadi agenda). The Dalits and Bahujans have been lynched for fetching drinking water from a well that has been used by the upper castes. Indigenous people have been kicked out of their lands in the name of development and globalisation. Migrant workers in the cities, away from their hometowns, have had to walk thousands of miles because the government declared a lockdown abruptly, without any plan for how to transport hundreds of thousands of daily wage workers when there would be no work.

The fascist BJP government has made the most of the pandemic to further its anti-human stance. While the BJP has failed to take adequate measures to fight the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, that did not stop them from laying the foundation of the controversial Rama temple at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya, instigating a full-fledged riot at Delhi. The government has also passed numerous laws that harm the well being of poor, hard-working people in favour of corporate elites: the new farm laws and labour code are the most significant.

The farmers of the country have been facing a wretched situation. With the introduction of chemical-based farming, a result of the capitalist green revolution, production costs have increased massively and the fertility of the land has decreased significantly. The farmers are forced to opt for more and more chemical treatments to increase produce yields in the increasingly infertile lands. This is a vicious cycle that has lowered farmers’ incomes and necessitated taking on burdensome loans. With the BJP government refusing to acknowledge pleas for loan forgiveness, many of the small and landless farmers are neck- deep in trouble. The country has witnessed the highest suicide rate for farmers in the past few years. In the past, farmers have occupied the streets numerous times to voice their grievances and demands. Protests by the farmers of Tamil Nadu, and the Kisan Long March by the farmers of Maharashtra are notable. 

The farmers’ acts have been the breaking point for not only farmers but also working people. Thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana have occupied the streets near the Singhu (Delhi-Haryana border), Tikri, and Ghaziabad borders, for an indefinite sit-in demonstration until their demands are met.

The BJP government passed three farmers’ acts in 2020: ‘Farmers produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020′, ‘Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020’, and ‘The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020′.

The first two acts allow farmers to go directly into an agreement and sell their produce to private traders, corporations, wholesalers, exporters, cold storage owners, etc., outside the government affiliated ‘mandis’. The government’s logic for justifying these acts is that farmers have the agency to sell their crops directly to whomever they want, without middle-men, and get better prices.

The reality, however, is far from what it appears. Currently, the farmers get a minimum selling price (MSP) that helps to sustain them irrespective of low yields in adverse situations. The money raised by the mandis, a robust model to control the food grain pricing and distribution, partly goes towards state revenue. With more and more farmers selling their produce outside the government-approved mandis, with the expectation of better prices, the mandis system will eventually become obsolete. As a result, farmers will lose their right to the MSP. If the corporations eventually lower the selling prices, the farmers will not have an alternative market to sell their crops.

The acts also stipulate that farmers cannot appeal to the judicial system in case the corporations refuse to pay the decided price as per the agreement. They can at most raise their grievances to the magistrates or collectors. In case corporations refuse to pay as per the agreement, with excuses of quality, or quantity, or even if no consideration is given for natural calamities, farmers have no option to challenge corporations in front of the court. Even if farmers are given judicial rights, it is very obvious that small and landless farmers, who contribute most to the GDP, are in no position to fight a legal battle with the corporate giants, in case their dues aren’t cleared. We have already seen how PepsiCo has duped the farmers in Central India, who entered into an agreement with them for cultivating potatoes for Lay’s chips. Whole lots of potatoes were rejected if one potato was found rotten in the entire lot. Also, they have dragged farmers into a legal battle under allegations that farmers have grown the particular variety of potato used exclusively for Lay’s chips elsewhere.

The third act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, directly affects the availability of food in the market for working people. According to this act, staples like rice, wheat, onion, lentils, oil seeds, potatoes, etc., are no longer considered essential commodities. As a result, the corporations have no volume restrictions on storing these staple products, which will cause enormous food shortages, and inevitable price hikes.

The farmers and common people have waged a war of non-cooperation against these draconian, anti-human farmers’ acts, with absolute determination to continue the protests until the acts are completely withdrawn. This ongoing movement is continually setting new milestones. It has not only laid the foundation for the biggest voice of dissent in the post-pandemic situation, but has also created significant political benchmarks. We have a lot to learn from these protests: praxis, empathy, class unity, determination, reversal of gender roles — the list is unending.

This movement has been one of a kind. It feels like a carnival of life, of colours, and of rights and dignity. Never for a moment in my three day visit to Singhu Border did I feel like an outsider. Unlike popular urban protest spaces, where women are often assigned roles in the kitchen, while men take charge of the rhetoric and demands, here men and women happily prepare roti and daal (flatbreads and lentil soup) together, while they seamlessly discuss why the farmers’ acts are going to wreck havoc on the people. The politics here isn’t disjointed from the peoples’ livelihoods. Therefore, langaars (community kitchens) and sloganeering, medical camps and postering, chit-chats and speeches, all contribute towards an unequivocal unity. People narrate their childhood stories and their politics in a single breath. This movement has also initiated much-needed discussions about women farmers and their rights.

This movement is a learning experience about how different forms of protests can come together under a single umbrella. The movement had started well before the sit in protest on 26th of November. During mid September, the farmers of Punjab and Haryana started to unite, organise, and agitate. They targeted Ambani and Adani, the two main corporations owned by infamous business tycoon families, who are making the most of the BJP government’s anti-human positions. On one hand, farmers have reached out to the people, asking them to reject Ambani and Adani products and services, from telecom to petrol pumps and gas stations, while on the other hand they have mobilised and destroyed the mobile towers owned by Ambani and Adani. No single form of protest has been considered the one and only valid form, and the farmers have struck at the roots of the government in every way possible.

The government has tried to malign the movement saying it’s a kulak outrage and only the rich farmers, who have enormous lands and numerous tractors, are participating. However, this movement has been equally strengthened by the small and landless farmers along with the big farmers. The comradeship has extended beyond class barriers because people know that their lives are at stake and their rights are at stake. People know that fascism is not the answer.

Update

by Garv Taneja

On 26th January, protesting farmers in India launched a tractor rally to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Indian constitution, where hundreds of thousands marched towards Delhi on a route negotiated with the authorities.

The central BJP government tried everything to get farmers to cancel the march because censoring such an event would be close to impossible. They even went to the Supreme Court but to no avail.

There had been a great sense of celebration among the farmers about the Republic Day parade. The event started off peacefully, but soon it became clear that something was not right.

Of the thousands of tractor-trailers being driven in the march, a small faction broke off from the agreed-upon route and soon many others started following that section of protestors. Delhi police, caught unprepared, started erecting barricades to stop the rogue group. To the protestors this seemed like aggression.  They then tried to break through the barriers with their tractors.

Things quickly escalated as the panicked police shot tear gas towards the crowd that was becoming increasingly agitated. Some of the protestors proceeded to capture the water tanks and succeeded in breaking through the barriers.

The farmers then made their way towards the historic Red Fort, where a group of protesters were taped chasing and beating police officers and another group was seen hoisting the religious ‘Khalsa’ flag.

It is hard to overstate how good the series of events has been for the government. News channels showed the clip of the Khalsa flag being hoisted and police being chased and beaten on a loop throughout the day.

These visuals seem to validate the ruling party’s assertion that these protesters are nothing but violent separatists. Wasting no time, the police launched investigations into the protests and registered complaints against all the farmer leaders. But there are many facts that the media and the government have not openly discussed or commented on:

  • The media has not once acknowledged the fact that the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful and continued along the agreed route. The procession was not just peaceful; it was celebratory, with local citizens of Delhi welcoming the farmers.
  • The faction that broke away from the agreed route was led by artist Deep Sidhu, who has on multiple occasions campaigned for the ruling party BJP that is openly contemptuous of the protests.
  • Police have filed complaints against all the leaders even though most of them were not at the scene of violence and led a peaceful march the whole time. No action has been taken against Deep Sidhu.
  • The media has failed to mention the fact that there were last minute changes to the route requested by the authorities that could not have been conveyed to hundreds of thousands of participants in time.
  • Contrary to the claim that the Indian flag was desecrated, it can be seen that farmers were raising Indian flags and their religious or regional symbols.

It won’t be surprising to learn that the government knowingly did nothing for months to help the farmers in hopes of frustrating them, until a section of the protesters or BJP supporters did something rancid and violent.  A similar strategy was successfully employed by the center during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests of 2019-2020.

This ordeal has thrown the farmers’ protest under a blanket of uncertainty. Though most of the leaders and farmers are holding their ground for now, the government clearly has an excuse to try to discredit and break the movement.