On the frontlines of the Indian farmers' strike

On the frontlines of the Indian farmers' strike

'A do or die battle' — As protests over a controversial new farming law in India spread to other cities across the world, those leading the demonstrations are refusing to back down until their demands are met.

On November 26, hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to the Indian capital of New Delhi from surrounding states in opposition to proposed new legislation put forward by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In a show of solidarity, upwards of 250 million people across the country participated in a 24-hour general strike. It’s a movement which has now caught the world’s attention, with international leaders speaking out in support of the farmers and their right to protest.

The farmers have set up interim camps along the border of New Delhi, obstructing the central arteries which connect the city with the rest of the country. Due to the nonviolent nature of the protest and the importance farmers have in Indian society, the government has been deterred from its usual tactics of violence to crackdown on dissent. The Delhi government even denied police permission to convert nine stadiums into temporary jails for farmers. “Farmers are not criminals,” the city government said.

“The atmosphere is amazing,” says Kirankumar Vissa, who belongs to the All Indian Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Commission (AIKSCC), a coalition founded in 2017 of more than 250 farmer organisations across the country. “It is the police themselves that have barricaded the National Highway to prevent the farmers from coming in. The farmers have set up a stage, their own place to cook, an outdoor kitchen. They’ve created a small village.”

“This was an attempt to unite the farmer movements across the spectrum of small farmers, big farmer organisations and social workers,” Vissa, who spent ten days at the protest site, explains.

Vissa helped coordinate some of the protests and activities on the ground, ensuring that COVID-19 guidelines were followed while organising the hundreds of thousands of farmers who descended upon the capital. “We had deliberately decided that the states which are far away would organise local protests,” he says. “The plan was that the states surrounding New Delhi would mobilise into Delhi, while the states that were far away would have token representation.” 

The New Delhi-based protests have grown splinter movements in the northeast in Assam while Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south have also seen mass movements. AIKSCC have stood firm in their demands, going as far as to evict its national convenor, V.M Singh, who was willing to hold separate discussions with the government. 

The farmers, weather-beaten, gnarled, sporting white beards and colourful turbans, arrived in convoys of tractors with trolleys carrying pots, pans, rice and grains. Initially, they were met with water cannons, barricades and tear gas before finally prevailing and setting up temporary homes to show the government they were to be taken seriously. 

“It was a war-like situation,” Vissa explains. “We didn’t know whether the [farmers’] tractors would pass through those barricades and come into the city… but the police, who saw how they were outnumbered, didn’t put up a resistance.”

“They’re living on the road, it gets very cold at nights and there are mosquitoes,” Vissa says of the farmer’s current situation. “[The farmers] are saying that we are ready to be here for three months, six months, whatever it takes. In fact, people back at their homes are telling them to stay there and don’t come back until they’ve achieved their demands.”

Alongside India’s developed industrial and technology sectors, India’s traditional farming sector is heavily influential. Agriculture is the largest source of livelihood for many Indians. In a country of 1.4 billion, more than half eke out a living on these farms, according to Indian census data. Decades ago, India was a recipient of international food aid. But, in the 1960s, a “green revolution” began with the emergence of pesticides and machinery which allowed India to become self-sufficient. Nowadays, it grows surpluses of wheat and rice for export to places such as China. 

Yet, the farmers who feed so much of the nation have always had a brutal time. Even before the pandemic created mass despair, farmer suicide rates – 28 people a day – increased in part due to crippling debts, losses on market goods and crop devastation from extreme weather. 

After the BJP forced through three pieces of legislation on September 20, the farmers had had enough. Though discussions around these proposed laws began in July, the Modi-led government rubber-stamped the bill quickly through multiple layers of government and enacted it into law with a Presidential sign-off before the farmers even had a chance to voice their opposition to it. 

The three bills allow for corporate investors to legally dominate with liability on the farmers, making it easier for big companies to exploit them. States like Punjab and Haryana will lose money, as they are likely to be ignored with big companies having more choices. Small farmers will also have a lack of resources to travel and sell their goods, as they will be stuck with higher costs to grow but unable to price them higher due to lower demand for their products. The bills will also remove certain commodities, which means a monopoly of a few big companies will price and dictate the goods being sold. 

“These three laws are a serious threat to the very existence of farmers,” says Prof. Paramjit Singh Judge, President of the Indian Sociological Society. The laws heavily favour corporations, clearly stating that farmers could be dispossessed from the ownership of their land, while any disputes surrounding land or price would be “executive-led” and would function outside of a civil court. “There is no proper procedure,” said Prof. Judge, “and it goes in favour of the bureaucracy and the corporate houses – this means it has permanently closed the doors to the judicial justice.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned on promises of wanting to modernise and industrialise India. Critics have said he has failed to deliver, with these new bills being a direct dismissal of the farmers, who make up a huge voter base for his party. 

Farmers represent a powerful political constituency. They’re also being touted as a crucial factor in bringing India out of its current steep recession, with two-quarters of negative growth having left the country stunned. The government claims that these new laws will streamline farming and will help transform the agricultural sector through increased private investment. 

Those who oppose the bill state that these measures will only help a few corporations while leading to unemployment and growing debt for small scale farmers. Farmers also believe that many could lose their land if they are forced to sell their property to corporate entities, which will directly deal with the production and marketing of goods.

Modi has never publicly acknowledged the current protest, but responded to criticism for the bill in a tweet, saying: “For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities.” 

For farmers, incomes are dwindling. The average annual income of a farming family, according to the 2016 economic survey, in more than half of India’s states was a paltry 20,000 rupees or £203. 

“Never in the history of India has such a large movement occurred,” says. Prof. Judge. “This is also a movement in which not one class of people have participated, everybody is participating, except for the corporate sector.”

The issue remains, though, that the ruling BJP has successfully quashed many of the unrest movements over the last eighteen months that have erupted in India. This has been helped by the national media in India, who are beholden to the government’s requests. And they continue to paint a negative portrayal of the farmers. 

“The farmers have come prepared for a do or die battle,” Vissa states. “It’s sad that the farmers had to take such a big risk while the pandemic is still on and in the cold winter for the government to actually sit and negotiate with the farmers.”

The farmers are in a position to dictate terms, and their declaration to stay in the camps for six months has been greeted with universal acclaim rather than derision. “Watching our elders, our parents, our family and friends, our loved one’s brave tear gas and water cannons and bust through barricades and face off police brutality – that was quite something,” says Toronto-based Jaskaran Sandhu, the director of administration for the World Sikh Organisation. 

Underlying this admiration, though, is a sense of fear. “We know that the Indian state is not shy from using violence,” he says. “We are concerned because we know that the Indian state likes to label any form of dissent or opposition as extremism; we’ve seen it in our own history in the Sikh Genocide [of 1984]. But we know if we can get international scrutiny… maybe we can assure the safety and protection of our loved ones.”

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has expressed concern over India’s response to the demonstrations, stating that his country “will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest”. The Indian government swiftly retaliated by summoning the Canadian high commissioner saying Canada’s statement “constitutes an unacceptable interference in our internal affairs”.

“Such actions, if continued, would have a seriously damaging impact on ties between India and Canada,” read the statement from the Indian government. In response, Trudeau said: “We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we’ve reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns”.

Aakash Bagul, a member of the Communist Party of India (a Marxist organisation) who attended a small rally in Mumbai in support of farmers said: “Whether it’s Canada or Australia or France and many other countries; people are protesting how the farm bills of the Modi government are wrong [and] for being against the interests of farmers. It’s a big shame that even on the international platform, the Modi government is being ridiculed for its policies.”

Farmers are the biggest voter block in the country. They also contribute nearly 15 per cent to India’s $2.7 trillion economy, which might make the BJP’s callousness towards them surprising. “The BJP has been taking a more authoritarian approach to governance over the years,” Sandhu explains. “We’ve seen it through whether it’s how they treat parliamentary process and bypassing normal debates, stakeholder engagement. We’ve seen it with communal violence, often either state-sponsored or aided and abetted by the state across India by this Modi government. We’ve seen this over and over again.” 

Now, with the protests more than two weeks old, the end is still nowhere in sight. But, there remains a genuine fear that if these acts are not withdrawn, it could have long-term consequences which could destroy the essential fabric of Indian society. What brings hope amid the uncertainty of how this protest will evolve is the sheer size of the movement, the international support and the skilful organisation of the farmers. 

“We haven’t necessarily seen a large mass protest of this scale under the BJP government,” Sandhu says. “It is being led by farmers, your everyday regular citizens of India, which make up a large chunk of the nation’s population. Most importantly, it is the first real check on the Modi government’s power.” 

“They [the farmers] have planned it so well. This is something I have not witnessed in my entire life,” Prof. Judge says. “As long as this movement is nonviolent, the government is helpless.”

Find out how to support the strike by visiting Khalsa Aid

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