As a deadlock over contentious agriculture laws continues, farmers in India are poised to intensify their agitation against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Farmers’ leaders have vowed to oust the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the forthcoming assembly polls in crucial regions of the country – in the North Indian states of Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
On 5 September, thousands of farmers belonging to 300 organisations spread across two dozen states gathered in western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district for the kisan mahapanchayat (grand council of peasants), where they reiterated their resolve to continue the agitation against the three agriculture legislations passed by the Modi government last year. The farmer unions also called for a nationwide strike on 27 September, and are planning to hold similar gatherings in different cities.
The massive congregation’s call for the ousting of the BJP governments in the states that are due to hold elections in early 2022 signals a new phase of farmer agitation in the country – where people, mostly in the rural areas, are experiencing massive economic distress, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We take a pledge that we will not leave the protest site even if our graveyard is made there. We will lay down our lives if needed, but will not leave the protest site until we emerge victorious,” Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait, who is spearheading the protests, told those gathered. “We have to stop the country from getting sold. Farmers should be saved, the country should be saved; business, employees and youth should be saved – this is the aim of the rally,” he added.
Tikait further proclaimed his resolve to overthrow the incumbent BJP government in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand that are set for Assembly elections in a few months. “Iss sarkar ko vote ki chot milni chahiye (This government should be electorally defeated),” he said.
The assembly election in Uttar Pradesh holds immense significance in Indian politics given that it contributes 80 seats to the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the Indian Parliament. In 2019, the BJP won 71 seats. In Punjab, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which was formerly allied with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, is expected to face the impact of the farmers’ agitation.
Impact on national politics
The farmer unions have also threatened to keep the agitation going till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, stating that their efforts would now be made to develop the movement that will ensure the formation of a central government that is oriented toward their concerns.
Launching a scathing attack on the Modi central government and the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, Tikait said that the protests will only escalate in the days ahead. “Fasalon ke daam nahi toh vote nahi (If there is no price hike, then there is no vote). People of UP [Uttar Pradesh] will not tolerate [Indian Home Minister] Amit Shah, [Prime Minister] Modi and [Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) Yogi Adityanath. Is the Yogi government so weak that it cannot raise the price of crops by even one rupee? … If we have governments like this, there will be riots,” he added.
The farmers poured to the venue atop tractors, mini vans, buses and trucks. These are protestors that belong to different castes and religions. It is a crowd that comprised a lot of women waving flags of various organisations, clad in different coloured hats. The event was organised by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – the umbrella body of the about 40 farmers’ unions leading the protest movement.
“The mahapanchayat will make the Modi and Yogi governments realise the power of farmers, farm labourers and supporters of the farm movement,” the SKM said in a statement. The organisers said that the gathering, which was attended by a significant number of Muslims and Jats, illustrated that their movement is supported by “all castes, religions, states, classes, small traders and all sections of society”.
In a significant gesture, Tikait asked the crowd to shout “Allahu Akbar” and “Har Har Mahadev”. These respective Muslim and Hindu chants were meant to symbolise solidarity and brotherhood among farmers from all religious groups. The BKU’s Tikait also sat next to Muslim farmers’ leader Ghulam Jola at the event. “We have to get over the divisive politics of this government. There was a dip in our relationship after the Muzaffarnagar riots, but now it is time to move ahead,” Tikait said.
What is also significant about the venue of the gathering is that this western Uttar Pradesh town of Muzaffarnagar and its adjoining clusters had been the site of brutal communal riots between Muslims and Jats that left about 50 people dead and over 50 000 people displaced – a majority of them belonging to the Muslim community. Modi’s ruling BJP had become a major electoral beneficiary in the aftermath of the riots in the region.
The mahapanchayat also marked a protest against Haryana police actions against protesters in Karnal on August 28, when a group of protesting farmers were beaten by police, with about 10 of them ending up with serious injuries. The farmers in Haryana called off their protest on 11 September after the state government assured them of a probe into the incident.
Farmers have been steadfast in their demand that the laws and regulations be scrapped altogether, rejecting the government’s offer of amending or temporarily suspending the pieces of legislation. The demonstrators have only grown in number since November 27 2020, when they arrived on Delhi’s doorstep to raise their ante against the Modi administration.
For months hundreds of them have been encamped at entry points to Delhi such as Ghazipur, Singhu and Tikri. Many of them lost their lives during the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. Yet they have continued to endure the freezing cold, blistering sun and torrential rains during these protests.
New agricultural laws are not the only thing farmers are challenging. There is also a growing despondency as a result of rising inflation, declining farm earnings and unemployment. This rural discontent has been used by the SKM to unify farmers and workers, as well as Hindus and Muslims, throughout the country.
Regaining political attention
The impressive show of strength by farmers caught the attention of many political parties, especially those on the Left. These have committed to engage with the protesting farmers, especially given that rural segments of the population form a major voter share in the country and could redefine the political landscape in the near future.
“The call of truth is echoing. You have to listen, unjust government!” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted in support of the farmers. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “They are our annadatas (givers of food). They keep us alive and the government does not care to listen to them.”
Yechury has continued to extend the full support of his party to the ongoing farmers’ agitation.
Senior BJP member of Parliament Varun Gandhi also urged the government to start re-engaging with the farmers. “They are our own flesh and blood. We need to start re-engaging with them in a respectful manner: [to] understand their pain, their point of view and work with them in reaching common ground,” he tweeted
The BJP government has held about 11 rounds of talks with farmer unions, all of which have ended in stalemates. The Modi government has maintained that the new laws would benefit the farmers. This is not true, say the farmers. Instead, they contend the new laws will largely benefit big corporations.
When these laws were passed, Modi labelled them “reforms”, declaring that they were a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture. But opposition parties and farmers’ groups across the political spectrum have dubbed the changes “anti-farmer” and expressed concern that they could corporatise agriculture and dilute the system of government procurement at guaranteed prices.
From their experience of market liberalisation of the agricultural sector in the early 1990s, Indian farmers now clearly understand that when marginalised, impoverished farmers are exposed to global capitalism, they are more vulnerable and left without any access to help from the government or other institutions.
While the Modi government insists these new laws empower farmers and boost growth by attracting private investment, farmers contend that the legislation threatens decades-old safeguards, weakens their bargaining power and puts them at the mercy of big agribusinesses.
And, for that reason, they will remain in the gates of Delhi and other places until these laws are scrapped. They will march to the upcoming polls with a determination to vote Modi’s BJP government out too, for it is his government that insists on these laws and regulations they have said no to many times.