Early January this year, while responding to a journalist’s query about the perseverance displayed by India’s farmers even after several rounds of failed negotiations with the Government of India, Rakesh Tikait of Bhartiya Kisan Union had evoked the everyday struggle of a peasant in the field.
“Resilience is in our blood. Every year after sowing seeds, we wait patiently for months on end to reap the harvest. It is back-breaking work in difficult conditions. Often, a drought or an untimely hailstorm wreaks it all and smashes all our hopes for a better yield and income. Yet, we persist. We do not give up. We do not run away. Come winter, and we plant again. In one village of Rajasthan, my people have waited 12 long years for rains. Farmers are the epitome of patience. Our farm is our life. If we can wait for rain for 12 years, what are these three farm laws? We will wait, but we will not accept defeat.”
It was a telling insight into a movement that has made it to the front pages of news dailies worldwide. At the time of drafting this article, the protest by Indian farmers is completing seven months.
It has been a tumultuous ride, says Dharmendra Malik, the media in-charge of Bhartiya Kisan Union. “First, they derided us as the misguided rural folk. Then we were labelled as hooligans and even terrorists! Then came the accusation of some international conspiracy. There was also an attempt to blame the second COVID wave on us. Ironically, trolls on Twitter give lessons on patriotism to farmers. We spend 10 hours on the farm every day, toiling to put food on everyone’s plates. Yet for some, we are anything but humans with legitimate demands and a right to protest.”
Samyukta Kisan Morcha (The United Farmers Front), often referred to as SKM, is an umbrella network of nearly 40 different unions from around India. Bhartiya Kisan Union and Rakesh Tikait are among the most visible faces of this coalition at this point. SKM and its collective leadership comprising representatives from all prominent unions, has been spearheading this protest since late 2020. In January, it organized a massive tractor rally at the national capital to mark the country’s Republic Day celebrations.
“While 95% of these demonstrations were carried out peacefully, in a beautiful coordinated display of national flags and celebrations, a small group of people created ruckus inside the capital. SKM always suspected this to be a ploy to defame the movement. Suddenly, everyone was talking about how this motley crowd of protesters was desecrating national symbols. The media was quick to condemn the whole movement for the actions of a few. However, it is now evident that this attack was part of a plan – orchestrated by some group of people, perhaps in connivance with some vested interests, to break the unity of the movement.” recalls Malik.
The government’s immediate responses in the aftermath of this incident created further controversy. An attempt to clear the protestors from their camps along Delhi’s borders backfired and galvanized their supporters in the village. More people from farms around the national capital flocked to the sites of the protest. In a striking move, cops planted nails on the roads to prevent farmers from coming out of their tents. Images of large platoons of armed cops facing up to a large number of unarmed protestors created contrasting images of a State trying to silence a democratic protest.
“If they plant nails, we will plant flowers”, exhorted Tikait on national television.
In a matter of days, the movement grew into perhaps one of the biggest seen in several decades. Scores of ‘mahapanchayats’ (meeting of village councils) held around the national capital drew thousands of people.
In several speeches delivered during this protest, Rakesh Tikait and Yudhvir Singh – both senior leaders of the BKU and among the core members of SKM-have warned people that pro-corporate reforms are pushed through with little consultation and often in the name of farmers’ welfare.
“Indian government is among the largest recipients of foreign funding here. They get loans and aids from institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Many of these aid and loans come with conditions to open up the Indian economy to global competition. How can Indian farmers compete with farmers of advanced economies when our subsidies are a fraction of what they receive from their governments? So instead of falsely accusing farmers’ movements of running some international conspiracy, the government must come clean with a white paper and explain how the free trade agreements and pro-corporate policies helped the farmers and working-class of his country in the last 30 years. That will reveal the real conspiracy – one that has trampled upon the interests of the food producers of this country so that a few business families and transnationals can laugh all the way to the banks”, alleges Yudhvir Singh.
Despite calls for concern and restraint from allied nations and the United Nations Human Rights Council, the crackdown on protestors have continued in different forms. Internet shutdowns and arrest or detention of scores of activists made headlines for days on end in February and March. Some international celebrities drew attention to the situation, which further riled up the Indian government. Indian State alleged a global conspiracy to defame the country’s image but offered no proof to substantiate these claims. Cases of sedition were slapped on volunteers and supporters of the movement. Any civil society organization or institution that spoke in favour of the farmer’s demands were accused as ‘anti-national’, activists allege.
Chukki Nanjundaswamy, one of the senior leaders from Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, elaborates on this strategy, “In some states, companies and hotels that offer transport and lodging facilities to protesting farmers are either slapped with a tax notice or raided by State officials. A young girl in Bangalore was booked under sedition charges when she compiled information about social media campaigns in support of farmers. The tactic is to spread fear among the supporters of the movement. They cannot explicitly target the farmers – as we form a massive voter base for every party in every State. Hence they go after people who support the movement – even if that support is a mere call for solidarity. And it is not just the supporters. Even the leaders of SKM are targeted. Police pulling Yudhvir Singh away, on live camera, while he was briefing the press in Gujarat is a recent example”.
The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) and the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) are also members of La Via Campesina – a global network of farmers’ organizations spread across 80 countries. Some supporters of the ruling party have tried to give this association a different hue and questioned the movements on their international coalitions.
Chukkidismisses it as another attempt to tarnish the campaign. “If industries can have their associations like CII [Confederation of Indian Industries] or global platforms like the WEF [World Economic Forum], why is it a problem that farmers can also have our coalitions? These are not old times. Farmers are as informed as policy makers these days. From farmers in other countries, we have seen and understood how agribusiness expansion had affected their autonomy and rights over land, water, seeds, etc. KRRS and BKU joined the global network of farmer’s organizations as early as the 90s so that farmers spoke directly and expressed their concerns directly – without intermediaries – at all decision making spaces, especially inside global bodies like the Food and Agricultural Organization and other similar platforms. Why is opinion making and alliance building only the prerogative of the industry?” she asks.
It is by now clear that repeated attempts to malign and criminalize the movements have not dented the determination of the protestors.
During a devastating second wave of COVID that saw daily cases surge to a peak of 400,000 in early May, the protestors who were still camped along the border sites, ensured physical distancing, enforced masks and organized health camps. Several of them had already moved back to their villages to work during the harvest season.
“Even as our people worked from villages, they were alert to what is happening near the national capital. We have ensured a robust network of communication between SKM leadership and our people. Thousands of people are still willing to come back to the protest site if we issue a call. But right now, with COVID protocols in place, we are waiting it out”, reminds Malik.
Back in their villages, many of the protestors are also organizing in their neighbourhood. In some places, the protestors have barred the entry of all leaders from the ruling political party. “Unless they decide to side with the farmers, this boycott will continue.” These protests have not been without altercations. Recently in the State of Haryana, protesting farmers who raised black flags against the visiting Chief Minister were tear-gassed by the police, and some of the local leaders were arrested. The SKM leadership reacted to this by camping outside the police station until the police released them on bail. A month ago, SKM organized a decentralized protest where people raised black flags in their farms and fields to support the protest from everywhere.
The movement has also made efforts to reach out to the trade unions and other sectoral actors to broaden the alliance. While they have accepted solidarity from political parties, there is a clear intent to keep the protest clear of any political affiliations.
Tikait says, “If the opposition parties were effective, perhaps we never needed farmers to hit the streets. But now that we have, we do not want any political party to take undue advantage of our movement and shoot from our shoulders. This movement is about the three farm laws, and it will remain as a people’s movement.”
During the last seven months, several trade unions, Dalit organizations and women’s movements have expressed solidarity with the protesting farmers.
Yudhvir Singh of BKU emphasizes why this is significant “It is important that people who are fighting for social justice – whether it’s farmers, peasants, factory workers, health workers, women or indigenous people – all remain united. For long, the fragmentation within people’s movements has only served the ruling class’s interests. Here is a moment to come together. We may have several internal contradictions, which is natural for any such formation to have. But what is important is to remain united even in the face of those contradictions. So far, SKM has displayed this unity and has also managed to stitch alliances across India with progressive movements. Such alliances should grow, as the struggles of the peasantry, the small-scale farmers and the working class are all intertwined. We need each other to defend our rights and win these fights.”
Farmers say that they are still waiting for an invite from the government. They hope that the recent setbacks in the local and state elections held across India, have made it evident to the political class that people are against these reforms.
“We want them to invite us without any conditions. Our demands are clear. Repeal the three laws, bring in a legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price and then set up a panel with farmers to consult on the future course of action.” reminds Rakesh Tikait. “Hul chalane wale, haath nahi jodege. (The hands that hold the plough will never plead).” he says.
Yudhvir Singh insists that a government that was elected to serve the people must do its job.
“For a long time, those in power have trampled over farmers’ dignity. We are not going to remain silent again. Over 350,000 farmers have taken their lives in desperation since 1995. Several million among us are bogged down by debt and are in despair. Nobody is against reform. But governments must carry out reforms from the point of view of India’s small-scale farmers and farmworkers. It should not become an excuse to consolidate agricultural land and turn them into contract farms of big corporations. For nearly 600 million people in India, farming is not just a means to earn income; it is a way of life. Anyone who meddles with this cannot have people’s interest in mind”, he adds.