Indian farmers win their long struggle against Modi’s government

Famers' march to Delhi, 26 November 2020 (Photo: Randeep Maddoke/CC)

On 19 November, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, announced the repealing of three farm bills passed last year by his government. It is truly a historic victory of India’s farmers and of the wider working masses of the country against the authoritarian regime of BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). In September, last year, the government enacted the three laws, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020. Passing these laws was a savage neoliberal attack to facilitate the takeover of India’s agriculture by corporate capital. Such an attack has been repealed marking a major victory.

The farmers’ agitation that began last year was a historic development. Perhaps for the first time in the past seven years,  such agitation put the authoritarian regime of Modi on the backfoot. The regime was not able to rely on mobilising chauvinist hysteria to quell the opposition as previously it did. The grand spectacle of the farmers’ struggle captured the imagination of the masses and evoked massive sympathy, support across the country.

The Modi regime acting as an agent of corporate capital, symbolized by the Ambani-Adani billionaires, was generally understood by the masses. The fundamental antagonism between the interests of capital and that of the working class/masses manifested starkly. The massive movement rose up to challenge big business interests. It was a momentous development in the history of post-independent India.

Such a historical movement arose at an equally historic juncture. The covid crisis only exacerbated what had been otherwise brewing up as part of the structural crisis of capitalism. It pushed the economy that was already reeling under a series of blunders by Modi (2016 bank note demonetization, General Sales Tax rise among others) in the past few years, off the cliff. While the plight of migrant laborers became the symbol of the misery caused by reckless lockdown, it was by no means limited only to it. A cross-section of society, including the petty bourgeoisie, was deeply impacted by the economic turmoil and see no end to it. The pent-up class discontent among working classes, masses built over the past few years, and the last year, in particular, is the primary reason that the farmers’ struggle could evoke mass sympathy and support. The participation of the petty bourgeoisie (though, at this stage, those from Punjab, Haryana) indicates the extent of the crisis. It is under such periods that the cleavage between big bourgeois and petty-bourgeois develops sharply, with the former strangulating the latter.

The daring struggle of farmers

The BJP regime was banking upon its brute majority in the parliament, along with the so-called personal charisma of Modi, to crush the resistance of the farmers, who were already protesting even before the enactment of these laws. Belying such arrogance of the ruling regime, the farmers’ protests consolidated into a historic and long sustained massive sit-in strike by hundreds of thousands of farmers at the fringes of Delhi. The farmers mainly came from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. The agitation that started on 26 November 2020, far from waning, would only get stronger over the coming months. After initial talks, when it became clear that farmers’ unions would accept nothing less than complete rollback, the Modi regime resorted to all kinds of dirty tactics to break through the agitation. The very beginning of the agitation, with the call of ‘Chalo Delhi’ (‘march towards Delhi’), marked the showdown. Farmers crossed over borders to reach Delhi, not in their hundreds but in thousands, braving water cannons, batons, and barricades made to stop them from reaching the capital. As thousands of farmers camped at the city’s border, with more thousands joining them over the next few weeks, the agitation grew stronger, making the central government yet more desperate. The government deploying an army of social media trolls and supportive media companies, waged a massive smear campaign to try to discredit the farmers’ protests. The state even to the extent of erecting barricades against the farmers and installing barbed wire, creating a fortress with the heavy deployment of police and security forces. It even cemented iron nails to stop more protestors from joining the struggle.

What had taken place in Lakhimpur Kheri in the state of Utter Pradesh (UP) is another graphic display of the brutality unleashed on protesting farmers. The son of a federal minister drove his car into the protesters, killing eight of them in the process. So far, at least 700 farmers have died due to the threat of the BJP’s legislation or lost lives during the agitation. Such brutal measures aimed at intimidating the protest only proved counter-productive. It created even more determination among protesters to continue the struggle.

Modi’s party, the BJP, is facing state elections in UP and Punjab in the coming months. This is also seen as a reason behind their somersault. However, this may not help them regain enough support, particularly in Punjab.

The historical significance of the victory

The Modi regime is the most vulgar form of capitalist rule seen in India in recent times. In the past seven years, the regime carried out reckless neoliberal assaults at the behest of corporate capital. Last year, after the pandemic, the BJP government exploited the covid crisis only to push their agenda too far. In its endeavours, the government has ripped apart any pretence of bourgeois democracy, cutting the state’s various liberal institutions to the bone and thus exposing themselves, in the crudest form, as the servile organs of the state at the disposal of and in the service of capital. The passing of farm laws and new labour codes, last year, was the most savage attack aimed at reducing the working class to slavery conditions, as well as plans to bring agriculture under the domination of corporate capital. With this, capital opened its salvos aimed at the very heart of the society but only to find itself at an impasse.

The new labor laws passed by the Modi government greatly weakens the existing labour laws, which already were inadequate to provide any meaningful protection to workers. Aggressive neoliberal measures adopted by the Modi government, like the large-scale privatization of banking and the railways, opening up of public sectors to a private investment aimed at dismantling whatever meager public control over the means of production that was set up in the 1950s 1960s still existed.

But more importantly, it was a savage attack on the working class at its strongest link. The trade unions in privately-run factories and private service sectors were consistently weakened over the last three decades. The sheer fragmentation of the production process, outsourcing, and the neoliberal onslaught resulted in the weakening of the bargaining power of workers in the private sector. In comparison, the trade unions in the public sector are still stronger. The measures of privatization in the public sectors however was a direct assault on these workers. In response, we could see a rise in trade union struggles by workers in different sectors, as well as general strikes called by central trade unions. In sectors like banking, the sheer pressure of workers pushed BMS (Bharatiya Majur Sanghatana), a trade union affiliated with the ruling BJP, to participate in strikes called by bank workers. With this backdrop, the main trade unions, barring BMS, consistently supported farmers’ agitation. The general strike on 26th November, last year, upheld the demands of the agitation, along with demand specific to workers.

The way forward?

The momentous victory of the farmers’ protests achieved during a pandemic, cold weather at Delhi, acute state repression, and a massive smear campaign, essentially undermines the perceived omnipotence of a government that resorted to the most brutal and reckless measures to crush the resistance. More importantly, at least for the time being, it has successfully repealed the attempted takeover of agriculture by corporate capital. The victory holds the promise that sustained movements by the working masses can defeat the brutal BJP regime and its savage attacks in the interest of its master, the capitalist class. Notwithstanding such a victory, however, it is necessary to take the momentum gained by victory to consolidate the ongoing struggles by various sections of working class into a larger political force that challenges the prevailing capitalist system and the rotten political class that oversees its interests.

In the recent period, there has been a sprawling of struggles notwithstanding the further concentration of political power. In  December 2019, a massive anti-CAA, NRC struggle opened up and a fresh layer of youth and liberal sections of the middle class was pushed out of their comfort zone to take part in the agitation. Even a section of the liberal bourgeoisie saw it as a discomforting move. The prowess of the regime to mobilize communal chauvinism to quell any such struggle helps it in the short term. In the long run, this policy further frustrates the working masses who are reeling under the ongoing crisis.

Objective conditions have paved the way for a larger political movement against the capitalist order. This, of course, can only reach a successful conclusion by the working class leading it under the banner of a socialist revolutionary party. The farmers’ agitation and the acute objective situation, exacerbated by the covid crisis, offer an opportunity to build wider political agitation. While the rise in trade union struggles is a welcome step, that alone is not be sufficient. The established parliamentary left parties viz. CPM (Communist Party of India – Marxist) and CPI (Communist Party of India), have failed to provide such a leadership offering the programme and demands to consolidate such struggles.

A section of liberals who do not see underlying socio-economic conditions and forces as the vehicles of change would continue to put its faith in opposition parties. It is true that the political landscape continues to be bleak and the opposition forces are too weak to capitalize on the current momentum. But working masses have shown the courage to push them aside and lead their own struggle. It is out of these rumblings that we could see an alternative socialist force could emerge offering the programme to lead the struggles of various sections of society constantly crushed by capitalist interests along with the caste system and regional bosses’ interests.

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November 2021