On 9 December, having forced the far-right BJP government to its knees, the year-long farmers’ agitation in India concluded on a victorious note. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM; the United Farmers Front)—the coalition of more than five hundred farmers’ organisations that led the struggle—suspended the agitation after the government formally accepted the farmers’ major demands.
The issue that triggered the agitation—the government passing three farm laws through Parliament in September 2020—had been resolved a short while before. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 19 November that the three laws would be withdrawn, and Parliament summarily voted to repeal them ten days later.
The pressure of the agitation and the BJP’s fear that the farmers’ anger would adversely affect its fortunes in the upcoming legislative assembly elections in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab were instrumental in this climb-down. To concede defeat on such a major reform measure—one the government had adamantly pursued in the face of intense opposition—amounts to a major setback for the BJP.
The Farm Laws
The three farm laws raised the threat of a corporate takeover of Indian agriculture. The current system means that many states in India have regulated markets on which farmers can sell their produce, and from them, the government procures several major crops at a minimum support price (MSP).
The first of these laws sought to render regulated markets irrelevant, making it easier for the government to undermine the system of procurement at MSPs and thus obliterating the safety net for crop prices. The loss of regulated markets would then allow corporates to coerce farmers into unfavourable contracts, which the second law sought to facilitate. The third looked to increase the dominance of big private players even further, with the removal of restrictions on stockpiling essential commodities like cereals, pulses, and potatoes.
The farmers—particularly those in states where the system of regulated markets and government procurement are strong—immediately understood the grave implications the three laws had for their livelihoods.
Fight to the Finish
Defying police efforts to stop them, the farmers marched to the borders of the national capital in November 2020. Four places on the outskirts of Delhi became the main venues of the agitation: Singhu and Tikri at the Delhi-Haryana border, Ghazipur at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, and Shahjahanpur at the Haryana-Rajasthan border, about eighty kilometres from the Delhi-Haryana border. The farmers at these sites were mainly from Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, but the agitation assumed an all-India character early on, with actions and campaigns taking place across the country.
The farmers’ most impressive feat is that they waged such a protracted battle, refusing to withdraw the agitation until their demands were met. The state, with its far greater powers of attrition, hoped to wear the farmers down, just as successive Indian governments have done when faced with other protests by working people during the neoliberal era. But the farmers were one step ahead.
These farmers were well aware that the government wasn’t going to give in to their demands immediately. They were prepared for a long struggle, and brought along tractors and tractor-trolleys, setting up encampments at the protest sites. They took turns to stay at these sites and return home to tend to crops. They set up community kitchens and washrooms to make a long-drawn-out struggle possible. Food grains, vegetables, milk, and other essential supplies were sent regularly from the villages.
The scorching heat of summer, the biting cold of winter, the rains that turned the ground soggy, and the storms that damaged tents did not deter them. The ploys attempted by the BJP government—branding the protesting farmers ‘Khalistanis’ (Sikh secessionists), ‘anti-nationals’, and ‘terrorists’—were all miserable failures.
Nonetheless, more than 700 protesting farmers lost their lives over the course of the year, many succumbing to the harsh weather conditions at the protest sites. Four farmers and a journalist were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh, on 3 October this year, when a convoy of vehicles associated with a BJP minister and his son ran over protestors. But death and brutal repression did not break the farmers’ resolve.
All sections of peasants and agricultural workers came together in the agitation. While poor and middle farmers were the majority at the protests, sections of rich farmers also joined, signalling a broad unity that was crucial to sustaining the fight and mobilising the necessary resources. Religious groups and charitable organisations also pitched in to run community kitchens, medical camps, and shelters; in Punjab, where the mobilisation was the most powerful, the agitation was taken up by almost the entire society.
But above all, unity among the major farmers’ organisations proved key in making an agitation of this scale and duration possible.
The whittling-down of state support for peasant agriculture in India under neoliberalism has resulted in more than 400,000 farmers taking their own lives since 1995. Protests against the policies that led to this catastrophe have intensified in the past few years: the communist-led All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS; All India Peasant Union), for instance, raised the slogan ‘No to suicide; Unite to fight’ and worked to build an ‘issue-based unity’ among farmers’ organisations focused on combatting the neoliberal assault. It played a major role in the formation of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC; All India Farmers’ Struggle Coordination Committee), a coalition of more than two hundred farmers’ organisations, after six farmers were killed in in police firing at Mandsaur in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh in 2017.
The AIKSCC, other organisations like the Kirti Kisan Union, and various factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) became the core of the SKM. Farmers’ organisations campaigned in villages to mobilise farmers and agricultural workers. The role of the BKU factions were particularly important in Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh, while the AIKS played a major role in mobilising people in Rajasthan and Haryana, and in organising protests in most other states, including Maharashtra, Kerala, and West Bengal.
The agitation was also supported by the Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions in India. The march to Delhi on 26 November 2020 itself coincided with a general strike, and the calls by farmers’ organisations for three country-wide shutdowns—on 8 December 2020, 26 March 2021, and 27 September 2021—were backed by workers’ trade unions.
Importantly, the class-based mobilisation has contributed to healing fractured bonds between Hindus and Muslims in regions like Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh, which was ravaged by riots in 2013. Large numbers of women also participated in the agitation—many for the first time—including in regions where feudal culture rules the roost: they gave speeches, wrote and performed songs, and mobilised people. Thus the farmers’ agitation also proved an important step forward in the struggle to democratise society itself.
While the SKM has suspended the siege of Delhi, it has made clear that the farmers’ struggle is not over. It did not end the agitation immediately after the repeal of the three farm laws, instead waiting for the government to accept its other major demands as well. These included the withdrawal of about 48,000 cases filed against protesting farmers in the past twelve months, and the provision of compensation to the kin of farmers who died at the protests—both of which the government has conceded.
The toughest pending demand—one which the farmers’ organisations consider especially important—is securing the MSP as a legal entitlement for all farmers. The government has agreed to set up a committee to discuss the issue, and the SKM has said that the struggle for the enactment of a law for MSP will continue.
Perhaps most crucially, the farmers’ agitation has squarely identified the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; the parent organisation of the BJP) and the big corporates profiting from neoliberal policies as the people’s enemies. Boycotts against the products and outlets of major corporate bodies Reliance and Adani, and struggle against the RSS’s politics of division and religious hatred, have both been integral elements of the agitation.
If these victories and the class-based unity forged during the agitation are taken forward, as farmers’ organisations and workers’ trade unions intend, there will be far-reaching ramifications for many of the battles facing India today—against privatisation, against anti-worker laws, against fuel price hikes, and against other neoliberal policies. India’s working people have been hit hard in the past three decades: this is a chance to break that cycle.