The historic farmers’ struggle in India – What way forward?

Indian farmers protesting, 27 November 2020 (Photo: Randeep Maddoke/Wikimedia Commons)

The massive peasant protest of recent months, anchored around India’s capital, Delhi, with wider support across the country, is historic. It is the first time in the seven years of Modi rule that any action has pushed his authoritarian government onto the back-foot. This regime, which could on every occasion mobilise enough chauvinist hysteria to quell opposition to its policies, has, so far, failed to do so with the farmers. The dramatic events of 26th January, Republic Day, in particular, posed a new, major challenge.

The farmers’ movement began at the end of last year with a mobilisation of the peasantry in Punjab and Harayana, two north-western states in the country, because of peculiar historical factors there.  It soon spread to other states. Since the actual sit-in protest began, comprising hundreds of thousands of peasants anchored around the outskirts of Delhi, peasants from northern states, like Uttar Pradesh, have gained a higher presence.  Most other states have seen big solidarity campaigns in support of the sit-in.

The grand spectacle of the farmers’ struggle has captured the imagination of the impoverished masses and evoked huge sympathy and support across the country. Such a massive mobilisation across states, comprising men and women camped at protest sites for weeks, braving the severe cold and brutal police repression, has had an electrifying effect.

It erupted over a new law doing away with state-regulated markets for agricultural produce, with guaranteed prices, in favour of so-called ‘Free’ market contracts which benefit giant monopoly firms. The Modi regime, acting as an agent of corporate capital symbolised by Ambani and Adani, is no longer just a phenomenon discussed by left analysts; its real loyalties have now been revealed and become a part of mass consciousness.  The fundamental antagonism between the interests of big capital and that of the working class and poor have manifested itself starkly and a massive movement has risen up to challenge it. This is a momentous development in the history of post-independence India.

This historic movement is taking place at an equally historic juncture. The Covid crisis has only exacerbated what had been building up as a fundamental, structural crisis of capitalism. It has pushed the economy, already reeling under a series of blunders by Modi in the past few years (demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax among others), off the cliff. While the plight of migrant labourers became the symbol of the misery caused by the reckless lockdown, it was by no means limited only to that. A whole cross-section of society, including layers of the middle class, was deeply impacted by the economic turmoil and could see no end to it.

The pent-up class discontent among working people, accumulated over the past few years, in general, and the last one, in particular, is the primary reason that the peasant struggle could evoke mass sympathy and support. The participation of petty-bourgeois layers – at this stage mainly from Punjab and Haryana – indicates the extent of the crisis. It is in such periods that the cleavage between the big bourgeoisie and the smaller or petty bourgeoisie develops sharply with the former strangling the latter. This is significant.

Historic juncture

Big business finds itself in an acute predicament at this juncture. The Modi regime is a vulgar form of capitalism and is still determined to push through its agenda. In the past seven years, this government has carried out a reckless, neoliberal assault at the behest of corporate capital, exploiting the Covid crisis to push it to the hilt. In its endeavour, it has ripped up any pretence at basic democracy, cutting its various liberal institutions to the bone and exposing them in the crudest form as the servile organs of the state at the disposal of, and in the service of, big business.

The recently passed farm laws and labour codes are the most audacious of its onslaught, aimed at reducing the working class to near-slavery and bringing agriculture that has more than 50% of the country’s labour force in it under the domination of corporate capital. This bosses’ government has aimed its attack at the very heart of society, only to find itself at an impasse.  The massive and sustained struggle triggered by such a move during the pandemic and winter temperatures in Delhi – shocking the ruling class that kept fumbling for the past two months – has again brought to the fore, and on a grand scale, the acute and fundamental nature of capitalism.

Notwithstanding the final outcome of the struggle, it has already undermined the ability of this omnipotent government to implement its agenda and that will have a lasting effect. Successfully enacting and implementing these laws may not have aided the economy immediately, but it would have certainly boosted the confidence of big business. But that is unlikely to happen now. The major crisis developing in the global capitalist system, along with the ongoing economic crisis in India, only makes things worse. Capitalism in India thus finds itself in a blind alley.

Precisely a year before the current farmers’ struggle, in December 2019, a massive struggle against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens) had opened up. A fresh layer of youth and liberal sections of the middle class were pushed into taking part in the agitation and mass protests. Even a section of the liberal bourgeoisie saw it as a discomforting move. The ability of the regime to mobilise communal chauvinism in order to try and quell any such struggle, though it helps in the short term, in the long run only further frustrates the working masses, reeling under the ongoing crisis.

The weakness of the movement

The leadership of the peasant struggle in Delhi has, so far, showed the political acumen to hold together the struggle and stand up to such an authoritarian government. The events on 26th January, however, exposed certain weaknesses of the struggle that flows from the very character of it. Considering that the economies and overall class structure in Punjab and Haryana are heavily based on big capitalist farming, and the wider presence of small petty-bourgeois sections in the struggle is obvious and to an extent welcome. It marks a new stage in the crisis of Indian capitalism.

On Republic Day, a few hundred farmers deviated from the route of a tractor rally, marched towards Red Fort, and hoisted a religious flag on it evoking clashes with police. Later, it turned out that a popular singer, Deep Siddhu, who instigated such action, was earlier closely associated with the ruling party, the BJP, and may have acted deliberately to discredit the movement. Such events demonstrated that elements of the petty-bourgeois could well play into the hands of the ruling class. Their actions could distract the class orientation of the struggle.

The present movement is the direct outcome of a class attack in the interests of monopoly capital on the Indian peasantry. An assessment of the historical role of the movement will not be carried out in terms of the actual outcome vis-a-vis repealing the laws. It will be in terms of its ability to light the touch paper of widespread class discontent that is welling up in Indian society and will lead to explosive class struggles that challenge the rule of capital and its agents in power.

Although the power of the struggle came from the rock-solid mobilisation of the peasants in Punjab and Harayana, in its initial stages, in the long-run its success may only come from the support and mobilisation of wider sections of society across the country.  The mass sympathy evoked by the struggle has its roots in the pent-up anger and discontent against the Modi regime – its total involvement in defending the interests of the corporations and its ongoing attacks on the mass of the population during the worsening crisis. However, if not organised and mobilised around a clear class programme, the support for the farmers could wane. Passive sympathy of wider sections of society would anyway be too weak to push back the savage attacks of a vicious authoritarian regime with all the state institutions and opposition parties paralysed. The immediate aftermath of the Republic Day events gives a glimpse of it.

The parliamentary left parties and other left organisations have rightly put their weight behind the movement and have been running solidarity campaigns in its support. But it has already reached its limits. Just continuing along the same lines will not bring a lasting victory. What is needed now to achieve real change and get rid of the Modi government is a stepping up of action by the working class in terms of political strikes and demonstrations.

The way forward

There is an acute need to turn this struggle into a mass movement firmly rooted in class discontent and challenging the rule of capital with a programme of demands specific to various sections. Even the peasantry in India is not homogeneous and the specifics of it in Maharashtra are significantly distinct from those of Punjab and Haryana. While the peasantry in Maharashtra has been sympathetic, in general, to the struggle, it is far from mobilised. Such mobilisation could still happen around demands specific to its situation. The legacy of the cooperative movement of the past and the rich history of peasant struggle in the nineteenth century offers examples of strategies to pose demands and mobilise support.

The same holds true for the working class. Trade unions have supported the protests and have held agitations, demanding the repeal of the attack on the farmers. But general slogans of the unity of peasants and workers, without any concrete content or programme, would be merely symbolic.  Changes to the country’s labour laws brought in by the Modi government, last year, were a savage attack on the working class reducing them to a form of slavery. Trade unions did organise a one-day general strike against these changes but that is not enough.

There is an acute need to link up the organised workers’ struggle to broaden and further lead this movement. Lack of such a militant and united struggle by trade unions could exhaust the peasant unions which are already stretched thin by this action. The despair and discontent among youth over the massive levels of unemployment is yet another strong source of mobilisation to turn into a mass movement. Of course, all this will have the peasants’ struggle as the rallying point, but only as a rallying point. The actual mobilisation has to happen with a clear programme of demands rooted in their material conditions and a broader campaign with sharp slogans and arguments which connect them with the larger struggle of working people against the rule of capital.

New Socialist Alternative (CWI India) demands these initial steps to be taken immediately:

  • Stop criminalising the farmers’, workers’ and youth protests.
  • Restore the Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism immediately. It should be fixed in consultation with the farmers’ unions and peasant organisations’.
  • Implement universal PDS (Public Distribution System) to ensure food security for all, including small, marginal farmers.
  • Repeal detrimental new agriculture laws without delay.
  • Stop the programme of privatisation of agriculture and the public sector now.
  • Re-nationalise all Industries, utilities and services under democratic workers’ control and management.
  • Increase farm subsidies now.
  • Increase public investment in agriculture infrastructure including storage facilities and the public procurement system.
  • Strengthen APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) Mandy system (that ensures farmers are given a minimum support price announced by the state) throughout the country.
  • Cancel all debts of small, marginal farmers and of the landless peasants.
  • Benami (in absentia) land-owning must be stopped forthwith. Pattas (registration documents) should be transferred to the actual tillers of the land.

In addition, we say:

  • No to direct or indirect capitalist influence in agriculture. Peasants should establish their own democratic committees to decide on prices, subsidies and distribution requirements.
  • Ban corporate capital from the food processing industry and take over existing companies. Set up cooperative based processing industries under the democratic control of workers and peasants.
  • Vast swathes of land under government control must be made available to landless peasants for cultivation and to produce food
  • Democratically elected workers’ committees also need to be set up and link up with farmers to provide the industrial needs of the farming industry.
  • These committees, along with those of the small farmers, should come forward in a fight to build genuinely socialist organisations to fight for a workers’-led government of democratically elected working people, farmers and poor. Replace today’s representatives of capitalist and landlord parasites; implement a socialist plan to share the resources, for all.

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