Lesson from India farmers’ victory: United mass struggle can win
A boy shows freshly plucked chillies from his field on the outskirts of Prayagraj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Nov. 20, 2021, following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's retreat on farm laws he pushed through which sparked a year-long farmers' strike. | Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

The historic victory of the Indian farmers’ (Kisan) struggle in forcing the Narendra Modi government to roll back its three anti-farmer, pro-corporate farm laws underlines the importance of the politics of mass struggle.

The strength of the farmers’ united movements under the leadership of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM—“United Farmers’ Front”) put the government on the defensive, with the struggle organically transforming into a mass struggle against the ruling BJP and its governments at the center and in several states.

This transformation, with direct and spontaneous farmer mobilizations against BJP leaders’ visits to villages in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, was linked to the real-life experiences of the farmers themselves with the arrogant and aggressive promotion of corporate interests when farmers were suffering due to a variety of reasons created by government policies. The Lakhimpur Kheri atrocity—a vehicle-ramming attack on a protest that led to eight deaths in ensuing violence—symbolized both realities: that of farmer mobilization and the other of the brutal nature of the BJP response.

This potential of the politics of mass struggle as a transformative trigger to disrupt and change the status quo has all the more importance given the present correlation of political and class forces which favor the interests of corporations and push neoliberal policy frameworks.

Activists and farmers celebrate news of the repeal of farm laws in Hyderabad, Nov. 19, 2021. | Mahesh Kumar A. / AP

The left forces and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), in particular, have been consistent in their advocacy and commitment through mass action with an alternative vision for addressing issues connected with agrarian distress.

Opposition political parties, regardless of their earlier positions, were compelled to backtrack and come out in support of the farmers’ struggle and demands. This also shows the potential of mass struggle politics to push pro-people agendas.

It is also true that the farmers are not undifferentiated in their class moorings.

The conscious involvement of the poorer sections of farmers in organizations like the All-India Kisan Sabha (the Communist farmers’ front) as well as the solidarity of the workers’ trade unions and agricultural worker unions prevented the movement from developing as one only of the richer sections of the peasantry, which is how it was branded by the Modi government.

It is of course known that the vast sections of the poor peasantry who do not have land holdings big enough to produce a large marketable food surplus are totally left out of the Minimum Support Price benefits and the procurement system that keeps farmers in India afloat. But the Modi government tried to sell the absurd idea that agricultural corporations would provide better prices for these poorer farmers than the current cooperative system. However, the attempt to divide farmers was a spectacular failure.

No doubt the concerns of this vast section of poor farmers will be addressed in a comprehensive way by the next phase of struggle announced by the SKM, which includes a universal right to the Minimum Support Price for farmers and a wider range of crops among other issues.

The social aspect is also important, particularly for rural women. Women’s struggles for recognition of women as farmers have received a big boost in this struggle.

These are green shoots which grew in the soil of mass struggle politics, even finding a space in areas and regions hitherto out of bounds for women, such as the Khap Panchayats (assemblies of community elders common in parts of northern India). But they are still just green shoots. They will need a supportive environment to really take root. This, too, can come only with a strengthening of the politics of mass struggle.

Rather than admit he failed, Prime Minister Modi resorted to bluster in defeat. There was not a word of regret in his reversal speech for the 700 farmers martyred in the struggle. There was no assurance that all false cases against the farmers would be withdrawn. There was no apology for the harsh words used against farmers in the course of this one year.

Women leaders were at the forefront of the farmers’ struggle in India. Here, Hyderabad police detain activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and supporters of the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) protesting against the killing of four farmers in Uttar Pradesh Oct. 18, 2021. | Mahesh Kumar A. / AP

Farmers were labeled terrorists, traitors, goondas, disruptors, liars, and cheats by leaders of Modi’s party. One of them, who is still in the central cabinet, was complicit in the horrific happenings in Lakhimpur Kheri. Modi, however, maintained a deafening silence.

The prime minister also scored an own-goal when he defended the laws, saying that he was sorry he had failed to convince “some” of the farmers. The question arises: If the laws are good, if only “some” of the farmers have opposed them, then why withdraw them?

It doesn’t need a political scientist to fathom the reason: The huge political fallout of the continuing farmers’ struggle on the forthcoming elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the epicenters of the struggle. The message in the PM’s defense of the laws, even while withdrawing them, was heard loud and clear by the farmers: Given an opportunity, the government will push for the laws again, more so if they win the state elections.

The main contender against the BJP for power in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, is going to the polls with the slogan: “Their intentions are not honorable, they will reinstate the law after the elections.”

The statement from the United Farmers’ Front indicates that they are not withdrawing their struggle until the most important issue they have been raising—a legal guarantee for minimum support prices for their produce—is addressed by the government. Other issues have also been flagged by the leaders of the farmers, many of whom have expressed skepticism about the announcement that the laws are being withdrawn.

Distrust of the government runs quite high. So if the BJP thought it could remove the farmers’ agenda from the electoral battle by this move, it may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

There is another more cynical reason for the BJP move. In Uttar Pradesh, particularly Western Uttar Pradesh, communal riots just before the last assembly elections paid the BJP rich electoral dividends.

Since the countdown began to the elections this time, the BJP is in mission mode to again create communal disharmony by using an arsenal containing toxic ethnic and religious slogans, campaigns targeting minorities on so-called “love jihad” (allegations that Muslims are waging a campaign to marry and convert Hindu women), violent anti-cow slaughter campaigns, and giving license to the police to arrest young Muslims at will.

The response to the campaign of division has been tepid. The unity of the farmers across religious communities and castes has acted as a barrier to the default electoral strategy of the BJP. The BJP hopes that by accepting the farmer demands for now, they can get the issue out of the way and have a better chance at pushing their own divisive agenda.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s retreat on his farm laws is part of an attempt to salvage his party’s chances in upcoming state elections. Activists and farmers are warning that Modi could bring back the laws if his BJP party wins. | Manish Swarup / AP

It would be good for India if the government learned the lessons the farmers have taught it.

One: Bulldozing parliamentary procedures using the strength of a brute majority can be costly. If the government had sent the farm bills to the standing committee, if it had given farmers the opportunity to be heard, if it had allowed fair voting procedures, this situation would not have arisen. The bills, in their present form, would not have become laws.

Two: Disregard and contempt for dissenting voices is counterproductive. From the very beginning, this government used all its power to defame farmers. Just as advocates of justice for Adivasis and Dalits and minorities have been branded “urban Naxalites” (Maoist insurgents) and imprisoned, farmers’ leaders were branded as anti-nationals.

Three, which needs no explanation: India’s laboring classes, the farmers and workers, have shown by their courage that dictatorship does not work, that dictatorship can be defeated.

The victory of the farmers’ movement has wider implications and will bring confidence to all those on the side of justice and the values of democracy and secularism enshrined in our constitution.

This article is adapted from People’s Democracy.


Brinda Karat
Brinda Karat

Brinda Karat is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a leader of the All-India Democratic Women's Association. In 2005, she became the first woman elected to the politburo of the CPI(M). She is also the author of Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women's Struggles.