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Rumblings of a Revolution: Farmers’ Protests in India

By Nivedita Joon  

Internal borders within territorially well-defined states are hardly ever an exciting topic for research.  Especially in the discipline of international relations, the study of borders is limited to a nation’s external  borders with its neighbouring countries. India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, USA and Mexico – these  borders are the specific locations from where IR theory develops, the spatial divisions that create and help preserve the binaries of us and them, inside and outside, security and insecurity.  

However, since the winter of 2020, three largely quotidian border areas between the Indian capital of New  Delhi and the surrounding states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have become the home for thousands of  farmers who have been protesting against three agricultural laws passed by the central government of  Narendra Modi in September 2020. Along with the heavy deployment of police forces and barricades,  makeshift tents, tractors  converted into sleeping  areas, communal  washing machines,  toilets, libraries and  kitchens (know as  langar), medical camps,  a stage, posters and  political graffiti pervade  the border areas of  Singhu, Tikri and  Ghazipur.

The beating heart of these protests is a singular message – repeal the agricultural laws. In a  nutshell, farmers fear that the new laws will deregulate the agricultural market to an extent where private  companies would be able to dictate terms to farmers, reducing their income and laying off commission  agents involved in the market. A central concern is also the government’s refusal to guarantee the minimum  support price (MSP) within the laws, lending credence to the suspicions that the new laws will eventually  make farmers worse off in the long run. Since India’s economic liberalisation in the 1980s, the  experiences of Indian farmers with private contract farming has led to reduced incomes and more debt.  While the government invited farmers union leaders for talks, and the Supreme Court of India has stayed the implementation of the new laws, farmers unions are adamant about their complete revocation and have refused to leave the protest sites without their demands being met. On March 5 2021, the protests completed a 100 days, but at the cost of 248 farmer lives.   

Well-functioning, deliberative democracies require every policy to be implemented once consensus has been forged amongst all stakeholders. But the consensus amongst farmers and opposition members of Parliament remains that the bills were rammed through the house in a way that breached proper parliamentary procedure. Once farmers witnessed the open mockery of democratic institutions by the government, they understood that the streets were their only option. By January 2021, the highest constitutional court of India gave a strange judgment that halted the implementation of the laws, and offered to form a committee to decide upon the  issue. The judgment was bereft of any engagement with the substantive concerns raised by the farmers, and it did not undertake any effort to verify the constitutionality of the bills passed. Nevertheless, the protests  persisted and have grown to become a mass social movement. The Supreme Court’s judgment is by now as irrelevant to the protests as the official Parliamentary sanction on the laws.  

The enactment of these new laws and the government’s reaction towards it must be seen in tandem with the  regime’s unabashed illiberalism towards any kind of dissent, its full force behind establishing India as an  ethno-nationalist Hindu state which relegates Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Classes as second class  citizens, along with its close connections with mega-rich business owners such as the Ambanis and Adanis.  The anti-worker and labour rights position of the regime was visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 

India. When India declared a nationwide lockdown, millions of migrant workers traversed hundreds of  kilometres from economic hubs such as Mumbai and Delhi to their homes in Bihar and West Bengal. Termed  as the “worst domestic migration crisis” since the Partition, around 200 migrant workers died while walking  back home amidst the lockdown induced market failure and apathy of government agencies. To kick start the  crumbling economy, state governments ruled by Modi’s party (The Bharatiya Janata Party) passed  amendments to labour laws that increased working hours, took away guaranteed minimum wage, clamped down on unions, and weakened worker safety and protection laws.  

Along with the regime’s bed-fellowship with neoliberal forms of business interests and a general contempt  towards democratic procedures, its response is characteristic of upper caste Brahmanical hegemony cloaked  under the garb of ‘Hindutva’. In the early days of the protests, the ruling party’s internet troll army launched  a massive campaign to label the protesters as ‘seditionists’, ‘traitors’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘khalistanis’ – a  pernicious slur used to refer to the militants belonging to the secessionist movement of Punjab in the 1980s.  Name calling and labelling is a tried and tested strategy of this government to discredit and delegitimise all  forms of popular discontent in the country – from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in 2019-2020 by labelling muslim protesters as ‘jihadists’ to the farmers and labourers protesting now. The grouping of all  protesters under a single cloak of ‘anti-national elements,’ ironically induces the diverse social groups of  protestors to find a common ground for solidarity. One of the most striking elements of these protests is the coming together of richer, landowning farmers belonging to upper caste Jat and Jatt communities, and the  poorer, worker and labourer classes belonging to Dalit communities.  

Although agriculture in the northern hinterland of India perpetuates feudal, casteist, sexist practices as well  as generational economic inequality, privatisation of farming has united otherwise class adversaries. The  arbitrary arrest and subsequent bail of Dalit labour activists, Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar, is a case in point  in the regime’s discontent with the emerging Dalit assertion and farmer-labourer unity. Along with Nodeep  Kaur, women from Punjab and Haryana have shown tremendous support for the protests. While women are  historically a critical component of the agricultural economy, the dominant communities in the two states are  notorious for their sexist attitudes and customs against women. The active participation of women in the  protests has ignited a conversation about progressive change within the society.  

By fencing the capital city and forcing farmers to remain at the border, the regime succeeded in averting an  open theatrical confrontation between the national forces and the sea of protesting farmers. But, perhaps  because of this insistence on creating a clear divide between the noble government and the traitorous  protestors, the regime has allowed for the possibility of solidarities amongst different and unequal societal  groups – Punjabis and Haryanavis, lower and upper castes, labourers and owners, men and women, Hindus  and Muslims. It remains to be seen whether the movement can sustain solidarities over a long period of  time, especially with the upcoming regional state elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2022. But, across the border  and away from the secure capital, the echoes of Inquilab can be distinctly heard. 


Nivedita Joon is a Master’s student in International Relations and Political Science atThe Graduate Institute of Geneva and currently the student Advocacy In-charge of the Student Initiative on Asia (SIA).

Twitter: @JoonNivedita  


Photo from wikipedia

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