Photo credit: People’s Dispatch
Braving fierce police repression, tens of thousands of farmers in India are carrying out one of the largest sustained strikes the country has seen. Mass protest occupations have raged on for over 50 days with spirits still high. The struggle also involved an historic 250 million worker-strong nationwide general strike in November 2020. Farmers and agricultural laborers continue to demand nothing less than the repeal of the three pro-corporate agricultural laws adopted by the far-right government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2020.
With the backing of 450 unions and other organizations, farmers and agrarian workers have set up protest camps occupying major highways and central entry points into India’s capital city, New Delhi. Many are primarily from the western states of Punjab and Haryana — the farming heartlands of India, which produce 50 percent of the country’s rice and wheat. However, the struggle has drawn support from workers across the country who volunteer in the community kitchens, clinics, libraries, etc. at the organized camps.
India’s farmers and landless workers toil in the fields to feed the nation, but they are given no say in the decisions that impact their livelihood and survival. The three agrarian laws being contested were drawn up and passed into law in the thick of the pandemic by the Modi government. The laws favor agribusiness corporations and would remove restrictions on corporate land purchases.
The three laws were a step in the direction of further privatization of India’s agricultural sector, opening it up to private investment and foreign companies. In the process, state subsidies and minimum guaranteed prices for specific agricultural commodities — the controls and regulations in place to protect farmers from being subject to capitalist market forces — would be slashed.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers and agrarian workers have risked their lives traveling great distances, weathering the cold and rain in the winter months, to protest unjust laws during the pandemic. At least 25 protestors have died from cold temperatures in the past two months. But these laws are a question of life and death for tens of millions of farmers and their families.
More than half of India’s 1.3 billion people are connected in some way to the agricultural sector. There are approximately 118 million farmers and 145 million agricultural workers in India. The rest are tied to other aspects of food production and distribution. Eighty-five percent of India’s farmers own less than 3 acres of land.
One of the many great ironies of capitalism in a developing country like India is that farmers who feed the nation are unable to feed their own families and go to bed with empty stomachs. In 2019 alone, there were 42,500 farmer suicides in India. The problems they face are enormous: rising debts from predatory loans, lack of state investment in modern farming infrastructure, and extreme weather events like drought, heavy rains, and infestations ruining crops. India’s farmers are resolute in demanding the expansion of subsidies and protections from the government to ensure that prices of commodities, and hence their wages, are not at the mercy of the capitalist market.
The ruling party in India — the BJP — represented by Prime Minister Modi, is an ideologically fascistic, far-right force. The farmers strikes are posing a real challenge to their deeply reactionary, religious fundamentalist vision for the country’s future. In the past seven years, the Modi government has seen many mass protests to its rule. To thwart support from sections of the Indian working class by flaring nationalist sentiments, the government tried to designate the protesting farmers as “anti-national,” “traitors,” “terrorists,” “seditious,” and “non-patriotic.” But recognizing both the crucial role of farmers in feeding the nation and the suffering they endure in society, many segments of the Indian working class are supportive of the ongoing protest movement.
In the past two months, nine rounds of negotiations have taken place between the leadership of the farmers movement and the Modi government. The next round of negotiations began on Jan. 21. As a response to the pressure of the mass protests, the highest court in India temporarily halted the implementation of the anti-farmer agricultural laws. A committee of so-called experts was formed to mediate, but the panel is largely seen as symbolic and filled with pro-government officials. The government has also offered a one-and-a-half year “pause” on the implementation of the reform. But the farmers movement is united in settling for nothing short of repealing the new laws.
The protest movement of the farmers and agrarian workers in India has received international support. Indian-Americans in the United States have organized solidarity demonstrations in more than 13 states, including in major cities like Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and more. The world is witnessing an inspiring fight back by some of the most oppressed sectors of Indian society — a true testament to the power of working-class organization.