The farmers’ strike has changed the political picture in India. Many Modi RSS/BJP voters have become disillusioned. The nationalist Hinduvta movement has been stalled. This powerful movement is challenging the Indian government which seeks a new model of farming for India, under international pressure to replicate American or Australian model of farming in India, where the corporations control vast swathes of land for monoculture-style cash-crop farming
But socialists should be wary of placing over-optimistic hopes in the protests and the blockade of Delhi by the farmers. It’s a protest of big and small property-owners against being sold-out to global capitalist corporations, not a workers’ movement. These land-owning farmers in the past have not hesitated to repress the lower caste labourers such as the Dalits when asked for more pay or better conditions. Just because a struggle involves millions of people doesn’t make it a class struggle in the sense of a struggle between the working class and the capitalist class. The protagonists are large-and-medium-sized landowning farmers against a government that wants to introduce measures that will harm their interests and benefit corporate capitalists. It’s not anti-capitalist.
The Indian economy has always been predominantly state-capitalist since independence but it has increasingly relaxed the government control with various privatisations and removing protectionist laws to permit more foreign investment under pressure from the reality of international capital. The farmers’ resistance is combating the consequences and effects of the operation of the economic laws of capitalism. Once again, they place their illusory hopes in the regulatory power of the State to protect them. The present laws have not prevented poverty and land-grabs but they believe that the proposed new laws will exacerbate their problems. It is ultimately a futile fight but if the farmers don’t resist, they may as well roll over and be walked all over.
The proposed new farming laws are said to allow private corporate players a greater role in the farming sector, which the government assures will not hurt farmers’ incomes. They take farmers out of the state-controlled markets, so they can take advantage of higher prices. Socialists need to be aware that many of the farmers unions are not representing the small basically subsistence farmer or the landless agricultural labourers but are acting in the interest of the better-off commercial farmers who perceive a threat to their incomes. Small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86.2% of all farmers and these 126 million farmers together owned about 74.4 million hectares of land —or an average holding of just 0.6 hectares each. It is they who lack the political organised clout which is in the hands of the semi-medium and medium land-holding farmers who account for 13.2% of all farmers, but own 43.6% of crop area
These deep structural problems with Indian farming – productivity with other comparable countries show how bad it is. But the problems are very much infrastructure, as in transport, storage, the accompanying wastage but perhaps the most crippling thing is the never-ending debt incurred by farmers, not just from the banks but the traditional money-lenders.
The Delhi blockade is mainly Punjabi Sikh dominated but the movement is nation-wide, multi-cultural and involves the trade unions acting in solidarity. As with most anti-government protests, grievances spread and become incorporated in a general strike. Circumstances arise that highlights fundamental conflicts of interests between the capitalist class and its subordinate and subjugated subservient suppliers.
When the potential of such struggles transcend sectional interests then we cannot with-hold our solidarity but instead we should reach out with the socialist analysis and answer to the problem. Small farming in Asia is dependent for success on mutual aid, helping each other out on shared schemes such as machinery hire, irrigation and cooperatives. Dog-eat-dog rivalry over a bone between them would be suicidal for survival. They develop their own local customs of decision-making, often outside the State’s officialdom.
It is a rare moment in Indian history that the divisive barriers of religion, caste and ethnicity is being eliminated as farmers recognise their collective problems and get together in this fight, casting away the caste prejudices that were deeply entrenched within rural districts. Punjab’s largest farmer union has overcome the caste divide and has begun to support Dalit’s demand for land rights.
It’s increasingly leading to the emergence of a massive united farmers’ front of all the religions, Hindu/ Sikh/Muslim. These protests have also saw the merging of the urban and the rural populations as the general public in the towns express their sympathy with the farmers and extend support, seldom seen in any previous protest movements. Unity is the biggest strength of this movement. It should be noted how the protesters immediately distanced themselves from the flying of a Sikh separatist flag at the Red Fort and re-emphasised the secularism of the protests. The strike and protests rather than fighting each other has brought a fresh understanding that brought the different communities closer together. We are very careful not to say what is occurring in India is a socialist movement. But it is contributing to a change in political consciousness within the rural communities, where people are identifying shared problems and engaging in a common cause to resist government policies that they perceive as a threat to their livelihoods and standard of living. In addition, another cultural change is occurring, women have taken on the entire responsibility of managing their farms and households back in Punjab while the men-folk camp-out at Delhi.
The movement is exercising more control over its leadership. Some reports say this is a relatively leader-free movement, or perhaps multi-leader is better way of describing it, having too many leaders and organisations for any to dominate. It may have its roots in a fairly conservative society but it is reminding all that there is still power in the streets.
If the farmers are destined to prosper, and remain out of poverty, to improve their lot in life, they must set aside their own sectional interests and adopt the socialist case for the ending of capitalism. The farmer’s position, impoverished or well-off is essentially the same as the worker’s: that of a wage slave. The farmer neither shares in the bounties of the harvests nor benefits from the subservience to the government food ministries. There was no escape for the farmer other than the socialist one.
We know all resistance to the capitalists is eventually doomed if they and their State are determined to prevail and fully incorporate India’s farming into the world market where the global businesses hold the power over food production. It is unstoppable and can only be delayed. India is not the only region facing the exact same attacks on traditional small-holder farming methods. But it is the struggle to fight back which is important as it is in this strike that people are discovering solidarity and unity against the religious and cultural differences which had been used previously to keep people divided.