The far-right Hindu nationalist government of India is also a radical neo-liberal government. Not long ago buffeted by a wave of protests against its anti-Muslim changes to citizenship laws, it is now being rocked by mass demonstrations against its neo-liberal policies — by India’s farmers.
There have been five national general strikes against the Modi regime’s privatisations and weakening of labour laws, including two in 2020, mobilising tens and maybe hundreds of millions of workers. Although they slowed the assault on workers’ rights, these mobilisations were over quickly.
The 2020 strikes were accompanied by farmers’ protests against Modi’s agricultural “reforms” — and after the December 2020 general strike, the farmers’ protests continued and stepped up. Now, following clashes on India’s “Republic Day” (26 January), they are surging again.
Three laws passed by the Indian parliament last year further open up various aspects of agriculture — including sale of seeds, storage and sales prices — to takeover by large corporations (including some run by rich Indians with strong links to the regime). They look set to further undermine the system of guaranteed prices for farmers introduced in the 1960s, as well as subjecting them to more unaccountable control by corporations and state bureaucrats.
Even in terms of immediate economic impact, these changes are not just an issue for farmers. Large-scale employment, predominantly for poor and lower-caste people, in the current system of state-controlled market yards is also threatened, as are systems providing subsidised food gain and essential commodities to the poor more widely.
The situation for many farmers in India is already grim, with the spread of poverty and indebtedness dramatised by a spread of suicides. Many, particularly farmers from tribal communities, have been displaced from their land by mining and other corporations.
In addition to protests in Delhi, numerous farmers’ encampments have been set up, particularly in the North West, with an infrastructure of protest and cultural resistance growing up around them. Since 26 January, the movement has been experiencing a fresh influx of support, with new protests and assemblies of thousands being held. On 6 February farmers blocked highways across India.
The protests have drawn international attention, particularly since widely discussed tweets from Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris — which elicited a wave of sexist and racist denunciation from Hindu bigots online.
The government has resorted to stark repression, turning chunks of the capital into an armed camp and unleashing tear gas, water cannons and baton charges. Hundreds of farmers have been injured and a few killed, in addition to many dozens who have died as a result of camping out in bad conditions or committed suicide.
Legal actions are being initited against journalists and politicians who have written or spoken out about the protests, including in several cases charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition.
The regime has also mobilised far-right Hindutva gangs to attack the protesting farmers. It is attempting to portray the protesters as terrorists, and to link them to Sikh-separatist nationalism. Many of those mobilising are Sikhs, who are concentrated in two states where the protests are strong (Punjab and Haryana). There seems a real risk of anti-Sikh pogroms.
The farmers’ movement itself is not without contradictions. Although few Indian farmers are rich (over two thirds own less one hectare of land), in some areas the protests are dominated by the relatively better-off and higher-caste, with the government claiming it has support from poorer and lower-caste people. And farmers’ interests are not always the same as farm labourers’.
Some farmers’ leaders have previously been involved in Hindu-chauvinist attacks on Muslims and others.
However, these protests are drawing in a growing variety of farmers from different religious, ethnic and caste groups, which is reported to be weakening barriers and forcing some reckoning with previous divisions and oppression. They are also mobilising many women. In some areas farmers’ organisations have also formed new alliances with farm labourers’ and other unions.
How far these processes will go remains to be seen, as does how much this movement can push back and undermine the Hindutva-neoliberal regime. It deserves solidarity — particularly in countries, like the UK, whose governments actively support Modi.