The Indian farmers’ magnificent victory

What lessons can workers everywhere learn from this historic struggle, and how is a decent future to be secured for India’s small farmers?

Leaders of the farmers’ movement hold high a portrait of India’s great independence martyr and socialist Shaheed Bhagat Singh, demonstrating the link between their demands and the unfinished liberation struggle of the Indian masses.

In September 2020, India’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, headed by Narendra Modi, rushed through the Indian parliament three farm bills which at one stroke did away with the old agricultural procurement system.

Under that system, farmers used to sell their crops to government-licensed middlemen at government-regulated marketplaces (known as Mandis). The new legislation was introduced through an executive order and was subsequently passed by parliament via a voice vote, without any discussion in parliament or any consultation with farmers’ organisations.

The government’s excuse was that through these laws it was ‘liberating’ the farmers, making it possible for the latter to deal directly with buyers with the result that they would earn more by securing higher prices. The truth, however, is just the opposite. Instead of receiving the minimum support price (MSP), as hitherto, the farmers were thrown under a bus and left at the mercy of powerful corporate interests.

Peasants and workers form a huge and united front

Of the 146 million farmers in India, the overwhelming majority cultivate farms that are on average less than three acres in size. As such, they have no bargaining power and it is therefore inconceivable that, confronted with giant corporate dealers, they would be on an equal footing in terms of bargaining power and be able to secure higher prices. Doubtless they would be free not to sell – resulting in their own pauperisation and bankruptcy, and making way for the corporate takeover of their farms.

At the same time, the government pushed through a labour code that extended the working day to 12 hours – all in the name of ‘reforms’. This infuriated the working class and created a powerful source of opposition to the BJP government. Not surprisingly, then, the Indian working class joined the farmers in creating the largest-ever protest movement in the history of India.

The farmers demanded the repeal of the farm laws. Getting nowhere in their negotiations with the government, and angered by the latter’s stubborn refusal to see sense, the farmers took to direct action. In their struggle against this legislation the farmers received the wholehearted support of India’s working class.

Thus it was that on 3 December 2020, India was the scene of the largest-ever one-day strike in world history. At the call of ten trade unions and 250 farmers’ organisations, the strike attracted 250 million workers and farmers to protest against the farm legislation and the labour code, as well as against poverty, starvation and unemployment, all of which have intensified to an unbearable extent as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated the lives of the masses in India – a country notorious for having a health system unworthy of the name.

Hunger and poverty are endemic in India. Fifty percent of all children suffer from malnutrition in this, the supposedly ‘largest democracy’ in the world. No wonder India was invited to participate in the ‘democracy summit’ organised by the chief executive of US imperialism, Joe Biden!

The strike brought some parts of the country to a near-total shutdown. Beyond Punjab and Haryana (two farming states adjacent to Delhi), the strike spread to states such as Karnataka, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Assam, Maharashtra and several other states.

The Punjab and Haryana farmers’ march to Delhi was met with tear gas and vicious treatment by the police, but to no avail. Braving this brutality, the farmers blocked several miles of roads at various entry points into Delhi and smashed through police barricades with their tractors and other farm machinery.

The strikers settled down for the long haul, setting up communal kitchens, schools for children and health facilities, and even organising armed guards to man the barricades that were blocking traffic into Delhi.

As the strike progressed, so did the vision of its organisers, according to whom the strike was called to oppose the “anti-national, anti-people and destructive policies of the BJP government”. One of the demands of the protesters was an end to the “privatisation of government-run manufacturing and service industries” such as railways, ordnance factories, ports, etc.

Other demands included:

(a) withdrawal of the anti-farmer, anti-worker laws;

(b) a monthly supply of 10kg of food to all needy families;

(c) guaranteed employment for 200 days a year for rural workers; and

(d) pensions for all.

The strike attracted support from workers in almost all of India’s major industries, including steel, coal, telecommunications, ports and banking.

Students, domestic workers, taxi drivers and several other sectors joined the strike across the length and breadth of India.

In addition to all this was the real threat that the government food shops, which provide food at below market prices to the poor, were only too likely to become a victim of the new farm legislation and shut down, thus exacerbating the incidence of poverty and malnutrition and increasing deaths from these causes. It is hardly surprising that the poorest sections of the Indian masses joined the protest movement in droves.

Adding fuel to the smouldering fire of the people’s anger

Masses of Indian people were already incensed by the government’s callous response to the Covid pandemic. When the government imposed a lockdown in March 2020, tens of millions of workers in the informal sector found themselves jobless, with no government assistance. Pauperised workers walking in their thousands from urban centres to their rural homes, in some instances hundreds of miles away, were harassed, beaten up, and in some cases hosed down by the police with bleach.

Through its uncaring attitude and reckless negligence, the government facilitated the spread of Covid from the urban centres, which the workers were forced to leave, having lost their livelihoods, to rural areas which up until then had been relatively unaffected.

Whatever the government’s rhetoric, the laws passed in September 2020 were aimed at rolling back farm subsidies and doing away with the minimum support prices.

Farming provides a livelihood to more than half of India’s workforce and is characterised by poverty, indebtedness and inefficiency. The legislation of 2020 aroused passionate opposition as it put the farmers’ already miserable livelihoods at risk. By handing over to private corporations control over pricing, it threatened to crush smallholding farmers altogether.

Having failed to get the government to see sense, the farmers launched their protest by marching to Delhi’s borders. Braving police violence and intimidation, they set up protest camps along the main approaches into India’s capital. There they remained there for over a year – through harsh winter, baking summer and a brutal second wave of Covid-19.

Contrary to the government’s expectations, the protesters garnered support among huge swathes of India and across several parts of the world. Every attempt by the authorities to crush the movement – from arrests through to threats to clear the camps around Delhi, to maligning the protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-nationals’ who were conspiring against India – failed ignominiously.

After the failure of several rounds of negotiations, the government agreed to suspend the legislation, but the farmers, with the backing of powerful unions, refused to budge until the legislation was actually repealed in its entirety.

The strikers were determined to carry on whatever the price. Seven hundred farmers died through privations and repression. Four protesters were murdered when a car registered to a government minister ploughed into a protesting crowd in the state of Uttar Pradesh in October 2021.

On 5 September, the Kisan Mahapanchayat (the grand assembly of farmers’ organisations) called by the Samayukt Kisan Morcha (SKM – Farmers’ United Front) gave the call for a secular and socialist India.

On 27 September, the SKM called for a general strike across India – the third such strike during 2021. It was hugely successful, with millions joining the struggle.

On 18 October, farmers blocked train tracks across India in protest against the government, which had twice unsuccessfully attempted to weaponise religion as a means of sowing divisions among the protesters.

In the face of this mighty movement, the Modi and his ministers had the choice of either beating a retreat or resorting to massive brute force to crush the movement. It decided to opt for the former. On 19 November, the prime minister declared that his government had “decided to repeal” the three agricultural laws passed in September 2020.

This is the second time that the government has backed down, the first being in 2015 when it was forced to take back the Land Acquisition Act.

In his television broadcast to the nation, Modi said: “We have taken these laws back … We have decided to repeal all three farm laws. We will start the constitutional process to repeal all three laws in the parliament session that starts at the end of this month [December].”

Though still maintaining that the laws were necessary ‘reforms’, he was obliged to acknowledge that they could not be implemented because of the farmers’ opposition. He appealed to the protesting farmers “to return to your homes, to your loved ones, to your farms, and families”, adding: “Let’s make a fresh start and move forward.”

Even after Modi’s broadcast, the protesters refused to disband until the legislation repealing these laws had gone through parliament, such is the distrust of the government among the farmers and workers. Since then, these laws have been repealed.

During his television address, Modi, with a goodly dose of hypocrisy, stated: “Whatever I did was for the farmers. What I am doing is for the country.”

This statement is absolutely false, for the legislation was brought in entirely in the interests of the corporate giants, while its repeal is motivated by the electoral interests of his BJP.

Early in 2022, three north Indian states – Punjab, UP and Uttarakhand – will go to the polls. Any major electoral setback for the BJP, especially in UP, would spell disaster for the ruling party. Although the BJP currently controls UP and Uttarakhand, the year-long farmers’ protest has eroded its electoral base there. By conceding the farmers’ demands, Modi is attempting to avert electoral catastrophe in the coming state elections, as well as its ramifications for the parliamentary elections due in 2024.

What now?

Although the farmers have won a great victory on the question of the repeal of the anti-farms legislation, they have still some important demands to deliberate, for which a committee has been established. Most important of these demands are the minimum support price, an end to the hike in electricity prices, subsidised fuel, the repeal of the labour codes, and debt waiver.

Peasant indebtedness is at the heart of the agrarian crisis, with its resultant distress sales of land and the spread of suicides among the impoverished peasantry. Between 1995 and 2018, nearly 400,000 people committed suicide, 100,000 of them after Modi took office in 2014.

The farmers and their supporters among the working class and the broad masses of the people are rightly jubilant over their well-deserved victory, but they know that the road ahead is one of further hard struggle. No further victory will come their way any more easily than has the present successful conclusion of the fight over the farm legislation.

But there is one important legacy of their struggle: namely, the understanding that through determination, perseverance and unity, they can emerge victorious from the coming trials.

The farmers won because they overcame all caste, religious and regional divisions, giving a practical demonstration of the strength of unity among the oppressed and exploited. Every attempt by the BJP government over many years to sow division among the masses through its fundamentalist Hindutva ideology has been blunted considerably through the united class struggle of the workers and peasants.

Taking a long-term view, however, one must acknowledge that under the conditions of capitalism, the small peasantry has no future. Even in the absence of anti-peasant legislation, the small peasantry is bound to disappear through the laws of the capitalist system of production.

Socialism alone, by organising collective farming, can rescue the peasantry from the destitution and backwardness which are its lot under capitalism.

Let it be remarked in conclusion that this significant struggle of the Indian farmers has barely received the attention it deserved in the imperialist mass media – that gigantic lie machine for deceiving the working class and broad masses of people.

While devoting tons of paper and thousands of hours of broadcasting time to any number of insignificant ‘freedom-loving’ counter-revolutionaries – from Venezuela to Russia, from Belarus to Hong Kong, the ‘seekers after truth’ of the imperialist propaganda machine ignored almost entirely the Indian farmers’ struggle. And this for the simple reason that the journalist coterie working for the imperialist media, whose wallets are stuffed with the loot from imperialist exploitation, clearly see the BJP lining up behind US imperialism, whose interests, along with those of the monopolies that own the various media outlets, this bribed fraternity is obliged to serve.

It is only the working class in the imperialist countries whose interests lie in giving full support to the oppressed masses of India. It is, sadly, a measure of the degeneration and corruption eating into the working-class movement, thanks to the havoc wreaked by social democracy, the chief purveyor of bourgeois ideology among the working class, that neither the TUC nor any major trade union raised a finger in support of one of the most significant struggles of the Indian people.

Let the Trotorevisionist clique, who would have us believe that the Labour party could be an instrument for socialism, explain the despicable silence of its leadership (in the trade unions and the party) in connection with its stance toward the struggle of the Indian masses.