India and the farmers' protests

Solidarity mounts against Narendra Modi's BJP

The farmers' protests in India show no signs of abating – despite repressive measures. Government attempts to stigmatise the farmers have only prompted sections of the urban middle class to support the uprising. And the boundaries between the different religious identities, repeatedly invoked by the Hindu nationalists in the ruling party BJP, also appear to be softening. By Dominik Muller

"We will only leave when we have defeated Modi and the laws have been abolished," the Indian online magazine "The Wire" quoted two women farmers as saying in March, as they continued to linger and chant their slogans at one of the many protest camps on New Delhi's access roads. They were waving both orange and green flags – colours that stand in India for Hinduism and Islam – as a way of demonstrating unity.

Following the shocked inertia in reaction to the election in 2014 of the Indian People's Party (BJP), which has ruled with an absolute majority ever since, mass protests are now increasing. The intervals between them are getting shorter – and the number of participants larger. New social alliances are joining forces against the neoliberal authoritarianism of the Hindu nationalists in the BJP.

It began in 2019 as students from various universities took to the streets with the legendary Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the lead. They were protesting against increases in tuition. Massive protests followed at the end of the year against a new citizenship law that was mainly directed against Muslims. But neither protest managed to drive the Narendra Modi government into a corner the way the current farmers' movement has.

A blow to the heart of Indian society

The BJP regime's planned reform of agricultural laws has struck a blow to the very heart of Indian society. This is because India, though much-touted as an "emerging market", is in fact still essentially an agrarian society. In India, as in China, a higher share of the population work in the primary sector, i.e. earning a living from fishing, hunting and gathering, or from agriculture and livestock farming, than anywhere else in the world.

Farmers protest against the new farm laws by the central government, Calcutta, India, 12 March 2021 (photo: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/picture-alliance)
Fighting for survival: "Since the opening of the market in the early 1990s, Indian farmers have increasingly faced global competition, and debt in particular has led to hundreds of thousands of suicides. Agricultural experts like P. Sainath call this spiralling debt 'neoliberal terrorism'. Even before the Modi government came to power in 2014, politicians often courted farmers while simultaneously curtailing state subsidies. Farmers contribute only 17 percent to India's economic output and are therefore considered 'unproductive'," writes Muller

Around half of the more than 1.3 billion Indians eke out an existence this way, many on the basis of self-sufficiency, i.e. farming primarily to feed themselves. Their contribution is not included in the gross national product, and only the surplus is sold. More than eighty percent of farmers in India grow their crops on less than two hectares of land. By comparison, the average area of a farm in, say, Germany, is around sixty hectares.

"Neoliberal terrorism"

Since the opening of the market in the early 1990s, Indian farmers have increasingly faced global competition, and debt in particular has led to hundreds of thousands of suicides. Agricultural experts like P. Sainath call this spiralling debt "neoliberal terrorism". Even before the Modi government came to power in 2014, politicians often courted farmers while simultaneously curtailing state subsidies. Farmers contribute only 17 percent to India's economic output and are therefore considered "unproductive".

With the new agricultural laws, the last mainstay for small farmers, a guaranteed minimum price for many important agricultural products, is now about to be abolished. Farmers are to be enabled to sell their food "freely" in future. Supermarket chains and other buyers stand to profit from the legislation, which will enable them to exert increasing pressure on producers to lower their prices. The new agricultural laws are in part a response to demands made by the EU, which has had a draft free trade agreement with India on the table for years. 

Farmers' associations and trade unions have been protesting against the draft laws for the past several months. Farmers from the north, including many Sikhs from Punjab, took the initiative, but now farmers from other parts of India and landless labourers have joined in, along with students, scholars and intellectuals. The farmers organise tractor processions, occupy central access roads to the capital and set up protest camps.

 

At first, the BJP tried the usual methods to agitate against the disgruntled farmers, branding them "Khalistanis", separatist Sikhs wanting to establish their own kingdom. But that tactic didn't work and the farmers instead soon gained a huge following, including the urban middle classes and extending far beyond the states of Punjab and Haryana.

The government continues to react with harshness, calling the protests "anti-national" and claiming they have been incited from China and Pakistan. It has censored the press, arrested journalists, blocked Internet access, and is using violence against peaceful street blockades.

Farmers are being detained en masse. And yet the movement continues to grow, with backing from nearly all opposition parties. These are now the largest farmer's protests in India's history.

"Anti-national" support from Greta Thunberg

Pop star Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, the icon of the Fridays for Future (FfF) movement, may not be from China or Pakistan, but they are now also being branded "anti-national" by the Indian government because they have dared to publicly support the protests.

In mid-February, 22-year-old Disha Ravi was detained for several days. She is one of the FfF spokespersons in India and is said to have worked with Greta Thunberg to post a guide on how to support the Indian farmers' protests on social media. The government has issued arrest warrants for two additional FfF activists.

As early as December last year, Joginder Ugrahan, president of India's largest farmers' association, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, already declared his solidarity with other protest movements – such as the one against the new citizenship laws, which are intended to deprive Muslims in particular of their civic rights. At a major rally in the state of Haryana on Human Rights Day he appeared alongside speakers from other movement.

Ugrahan announced that, in order to take on the authoritarian central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, "it is time to ally with various democratic movements in the country". Action needed to be taken not only against the controversial agriculture laws but also against the "corporatisation" of Indian agriculture.

Ugrahan also decried the arrest of numerous activists and intellectuals "on false charges just for pointing to the plight of the poor". He continued that "their protests were peaceful, just like ours," but that there was "an emergency-like situation in the country."

The verbal and physical attacks by the government on the farmers and their supporters are only bringing the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities closer together. Their divisions have been a key factor empowering the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party, which could now falter with these latest developments. Pressing common interests take precedence over identity politics.

For many farmers, too, the protest is not just about their own work but, as many of their slogans state, concerns "everyone who eats food". In India, the world's largest bastion of smallholder agriculture is fighting for its survival – which could very well spell the demise of the Hindu nationalists.

Dominik Muller

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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