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Modi’s War Against India’s Farmers

India's farmer protests are mounting a major challenge to the Modi regime - and the violence deployed in response shows that the government senses the threat.

‘Never before in the history of capitalism has there been such a huge need for radical socioeconomic change – change in the direction of transcending capitalism,’ said Yanis Varoufakis, speaking at the launch of Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project. His words would resonate within the mass movements which are challenging Narendra Modi’s fascist regime in India.

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, a series of struggles have rocked India – fights against the privatisation of education, the dilution of labour laws and environmental safeguards, and the endemic violence against Dalits which underpins India’s neoliberalism. In the last fourteen months alone, two powerful mass movements have arisen.

The first was against an Islamophobic and exclusionary citizenship law, which contravened India’s secular constitution and, in tandem with a national register of citizens, threatened to disenfranchise India’s Muslim population. Central to that struggle was a unique occupation of public space in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi by Muslim women who, in defiance of all stereotypes, sat in protest day and night through Delhi’s harsh winter. They set up libraries, children learnt to draw and read, and art flourished at the protest site. Soon, ‘Shaheen Baghs’ sprang up all over the country.

The government responded by deploying not only the notorious Delhi police, but also agent provocateurs and state-sponsored Hindu thugs. It used the corporate-owned and state-controlled media to demonise the women as ‘paid by Pakistan’. Using the pandemic as a pretext, the iconic occupation was closed down, artwork defaced, and sculpture smashed. This was followed, at the end of February last year, by an anti-Muslim pogrom by state-sponsored right-wing goons, and, finally, by the ongoing arrests under repressive colonial-era laws of hundreds of students, feminists, academics, and activists – many of them Muslims who had visited or shown solidarity with Shaheen Bagh.

Now, in the winter of 2020-2021, a farmers’ movement, staggering in its size and strength, is at the doorstep of the capital challenging the Modi regime. It is demanding the repeal of three Farm Laws which facilitate a corporate takeover of the entire agricultural sector from sale to storage to pricing. These two very different mass movements which have arisen to challenge the government over such a short space of time expose the two faces of the BJP.

On the one hand, the BJP is the political wing of a sinister family of Hindu supremacist groups controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militarist, cadre-based organisation set up in the 1920s, modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts and fuelled by anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hatred, casteism, and misogyny. At the same time, over the last two decades, the party has reshaped itself to fit in with neoliberalism. It has modernised, as it were, embedding its violence against Dalits and religious minorities into a predatory neoliberal version of ‘development’. In the last few years, consciously seeking to emulate Israel’s links with Jews worldwide, it has tried to build a ‘world community of Hindus’, and its neoliberal face, suave and westernised, has become increasingly common in the West. Today, the overseas BJP members, supporters, and allies include hedge fund owners and members of the Tory party – among them Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak, whose father-in-law is billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys.

It is this global framework of corporate and political power that India’s farmers are fighting in an existential struggle. Corporate interventions have brought them nothing but poverty and distress. Trapped into growing Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton seeds with their essential and expensive inputs, many have been driven to indebtedness, despair, and suicide. Millions of others, particularly indigenous farmers, have been displaced from their land by mining and coal multinationals. Farmers and agricultural workers make up more than 40 percent of India’s workforce, but 90 percent of them own only small and marginal holdings (of less than 1.08 hectares) and a growing number are landless.

The main companies set to benefit from the Farm Laws are owned by men extremely close to Narendra Modi: Mukesh Ambani, the fifth richest man in the world, whose company Reliance owns much of India (and who also happens to be a major donor to the Conservative party), and Gautam Adani, well-known for environmental crimes in Australia and global agribusiness. Farmers Unions point out that the new laws will allow these companies to hoard produce, for speculation, if they so desire, and will do away with the previously existing guaranteed Minimum Support Price. In fact, in the future, produce will be sold at world market prices and dependent on its vagaries.

In this situation, many farmers fear losing their land altogether. What chance would we have, many ask, against the might of powerful multinationals? In addition, as economist Utsa Patnaik points out, the laws will usher in a new phase of imperialism in which, as Indian farmers are forced to produce for global agribusiness, the country will become a dumping ground for expensive food grains produced in the global North.

The farmers faced intense repression—including water cannons, tear gas, and baton charges—as they made their way to the three entry points to Delhi at Tikri, Singhu, and Gazipur last November. Some 170 farmers have lost their lives since then. Like the anti-CAA protesters, they have been demonised by the media. (Because a large number of them are Sikhs, they have been described as Khalistani separatists intent on dismembering India.) Agent provocateurs have tried to penetrate their ranks, but they have stayed firm at these locations, setting up their own library and newspaper, Trolley Times, which already has some 14,000 subscribers. Since 26 January, India’s Republic Day, however, repression has intensified. The events of that day are a classic example of the Modi regime’s methods of control.

On Republic Day, having waited for two long months at the borders of the capital, the farmers decided to enter Delhi on foot and in tractors for a peaceful rally. The route had been agreed with the police and thousands of tractors had been beautifully decorated – but as they trundled into the outskirts of the city they found the agreed route had been barricaded. Shocked and confused, they decided to continue anyway, using their tractors to break through the barricades.

Local people lined the pavements, in many places showering the protestors with flowers. Remarkably, this rally of several hundred thousand was overwhelmingly peaceful and disciplined. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi’s hyper-nationalist display of military hardware was taking place in central Delhi.

With no guidance from the police, unexpected barricades and road closures on agreed routes, and the internet suddenly cut off, a section of the rally got lost in Delhi’s maze of unfamiliar roads and ended up near the Indian Telegraph Office bridge not far from Central Delhi. Here they were met with extreme police violence, from baton charges to tear gas to bullets, fired, according to eye witnesses, from behind the grills of a government building.  A contingent of medical doctors was set upon and brutally beaten, and one 27-year old farmer was killed when he lost control of his tractor after being shot. Distressed, the farmers wrapped his body in the Indian flag, refusing to hand it over to the police.

A section of the rally then pushed forward, and at this point, a number of BJP agents emerged to take control of the demonstration, including Deep Sidhu, an agent provocateur, who directed the protesters to the Red Fort. The gates of the fort were open, and the few police around lounged in chairs as this section of the rally entered the grounds of the historic building. While the national flag continued to flutter from the central ramparts, Sidhu raised the Sikh religious flag on an empty flag post.

The government-controlled media has used what happened at the Red Fort to demonise the farmers’ movement. Almost every report, including those sent out to the foreign press, focused on a so-called ‘Khalistani link’, while the BJP and its army of trolls on social media whipped up hate against the farmers. Shortly after, all major farmers’ leaders were served with First Information Reports (FIRs), which indicate that they are being investigated for cognisable offences.

Currently, there are large contingents of police and paramilitary forces at all three sites, and the internet has been shut down. While many more farmers have arrived from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab, every effort is being made to stop them with trains cancelled and the internet cut off. Deep trenches fortified with barbed wire barricades and nails have been dug to isolate the protesters from the local people and the media. It is reminiscent of the border with Pakistan or China. At Singhu, foot soldiers of the Hindu Right have arrived claiming to be ‘local people’ who want the farmers to leave – their slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, the rallying cry which has so often been a prelude to murderous attacks on Muslims, giving them away. They have been hurling stones at the farmers while a huge contingent of police look on. At Ghazipur, the first site to be targeted by the security forces, the police have had to back off with the arrival of thousands more farmers from Uttar Pradesh, who on hearing of the attacks on their leader set off immediately for Delhi.

While the state-controlled media spreads myths about the farmers bringing down the Indian flag at Red Fort, and Modi repeats this falsehood in his weekly address to the nation, journalists with integrity, like Siddhartha Varadarajan—founding editor of The Wire—are being served FIRs for tweeting stories based on testimonies of the family of the dead farmer, which state that he died of a gunshot wound. Every day, the charges become more grotesque. As Prem Shankar Jha writes, the most recent decision ‘to slap no fewer than ten charges, ranging from criminal conspiracy to sedition, against sitting MP Shashi Tharoor; the respected journalist and editor of National Herald, Mrinal Pande; Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV; Zafar Agha, editor of Qaumi Awaaz; and three other journalists of Caravan magazine, paints a stark picture of the desperation that has seized the BJP […] as it begins to see the power that it seized in 2014 […] slipping out of its grasp.’

There can be no doubt that the Modi regime has been weakened. Will its draconian assault on the farmers movement stop it in its tracks? Or will the movement’s colossal magnitude and its unity be able to brush these obstacles aside like so much debris?  We can be sure, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, that this is ‘a turning point in the history of mass movements in India’ – and perhaps of struggles against global capital worldwide.

About the Author

Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist with a focus on race and gender in British and South Asian politics, and a member of South Asia Solidarity Group. Her 1978 book Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain won the Martin Luther King Award.