Despite aggressive propaganda against them, harsh repression and an uphill struggle, India’s farmers’ protests are not fading away. They seem to be gaining momentum and taking on characteristics of a deep-going challenge to the Modi regime.
In September the Hindu-nationalist-dominated Indian Parliament passed three laws deregulating the prices, sale and storage of agricultural produce. These laws push towards eliminating the system of minimum prices for farmers and of state-regulated marketplaces (mandis), further empowering corporations and placing the already highly precarious livelihoods of millions of farmers and rural workers at risk.
The protests have been concentrated in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, where the system of state protection and regulation has survived to the greatest degree, but they are spreading. On 6 February farmers and their supporters blocked highways across India. The leaders of the largest farmers’ unions have announced agitational tours to take the protests to new areas of the country.
The movement gained renewed strength in December when it linked up with a tens-of-millions-strong general strike against Modi’s anti-worker and privatising “reforms”. Possibly the largest and most sustained popular mobilisations in post-independence India, they have, in the words of academic and author Ravinder Kaur, built “new solidarities across caste, class, religion and region. One probable reason for the continued popular support is widespread disillusionment with the free-market formula; instead of spreading prosperity, liberalising reforms have produced high unemployment and increased income inequality. Equally alarming for many is the majoritarian impulse of Hindu nationalism and the aggressive marginalisation of minority groups.
“Thus, it is hardly a surprise that the language of love and solidarity has been key to the vocabulary of the protesters, the very opposite of the hyper-nationalist rhetoric that thrives on social division and exclusion. Everyday life in the tent cities at Delhi’s periphery offers a vision of a shared community built on voluntary labour that strives to be inclusive. These protest cities did not emerge from a pre-existing solidarity but have, through the protest itself, created the opportunity to forge new solidarities.”
Meanwhile, the authorities are continuing their attempts to deny bail to Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar, young trade union activists who have been mobilising workers alongside the farmers. Their family and comrades say they have been beaten in jail, and that Kaur has been sexually assaulted. The High Court had to order a medical examination and family visits for him, after he was denied these.
There will be a new bail hearing for Kaur on 24 February, by which time she will been held for almost two months. In a different part of India and of Indian society, climate activist Disha Ravi has also been denied bail following her arrest for links to Greta Thunberg, who has vocally supported the Indian farmers.
Kaur was sacked from her job in a Haryana factory for supporting the farmers’ protests. She faces eleven charges in connection with leading precarious workers to demand unpaid wages, as part of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (Association for the Empowerment of Labourers) which Kumar helped found.
Kaur and Kumar’s cases bear multiple hallmarks of a frame up. Both are from Dalit (“lowest” most oppressed caste) backgrounds, which combined with their militant records makes them particularly vulnerable to police mistreatment.
Haryana is both a centre of the farmers’ movement and at the sharp end of the BJP’s assault on workers’ rights. Last year the state suspended to the pandemic by suspending virtually all labour laws for two months, setting the stage for an epidemic of super-exploitation by employers, including widespread non-payment of wages.
MAS activists say that workers’ struggles in the area have gained new confidence and momentum from the farmers’ movement, and in turn many workers have turned out to support the farmers.