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19 February 2021

How a farmers’ protest in India evolved into a mass movement that refuses to fade

A new revolt against both deregulated capitalism and state oppression is challenging the powerful alliance underpinning Narendra Modi’s government.

By Ravinder Kaur

The Indian stock markets “sky-rocketed” in early February. The surge was a “standing ovation”, according to media reports, to the market-friendly budget the government had tabled in parliament on 1 February. The “deep reform” proposals that investors were cheering included the proposed sale of key public-sector enterprises, raising limits on foreign capital investments, and spending big on infrastructure.

Delivered during India’s worst recession in decades, the budget was proof that Narendra Modi’s government had not wasted the opportunity the pandemic had provided to accelerate its deregulation of the economy. Framed by the government as “One Nation, One Market”, the budget sought to position India – a federal system of states – as a single economic unit governed by a strong centralised government, ready to dislodge China from its position as the world’s factory.

[see also: Chinese New Year reveals the hidden costs of China’s Covid-19 recovery]

The official optimism and elated stock markets came amid a sharp escalation of what has been described as “India’s largest farmers’ protest”, the months-long struggle that has brought tens of thousands of farmers to the borders of Delhi. The contrast between the euphoria of the financial markets and the anxieties of the striking farmers was as jarring as it was revealing of the battle lines fast reshaping Indian politics. Just as the government was proposing more market liberalisation to boost the neoliberal reforms introduced in the 1990s, it was also erecting a border fence to cordon off protest sites – barriers made of concertina wires and heavy concrete blocks, with thick nails in the ground – designed to halt the protesters’ progress into the city.

The state was not just impeding the protesters’ physical movement but also disrupting digital connectivity. There have been regular Internet shutdowns in the protest sites and demands that social media platforms suspend social media accounts that are critical of the government. In some camps, water and electricity were cut off and basic amenities removed to force the protesters to leave. The heavy presence of armed police in riot gear at this internal border reinforced the menacing atmosphere. A strange scenario was unfolding: the state was gearing up to battle its own citizens to enforce the rule of the market.

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The protests began last summer in the northern state of Punjab, in response to the rushing through of three new farm laws to open India’s agricultural sector to the market. Subsidised and once partly shielded by the state, the sector, according to the World Bank, employs more than 40 per cent of India’s workforce. The protests only became visible in national media in late November – international coverage of the mobilisation, still remarkably thin, has been even more belated – when the farmers’ unions gave the call to march to the national capital: “Chalo Delhi” (“let’s go to Delhi”).

What made the images of seemingly endless caravans of people travelling to Delhi in tractors, trolleys, cars or sometimes on foot so spectacular was not just the march itself but the government’s attempt to stop it from reaching the city. Tens of thousands of protesters faced barricades, water cannon and even tear gas shells. Soon, tent cities began appearing along Delhi’s outer perimeter as the government refused to allow the farmers entry. The tent cities of Singhu, Tikri, Shahjahanpur Kheda, Ghazipur – once just the names of villages at the doorstep of the capital, have become part of a popular vocabulary of democratic dissent and solidarity.

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The three laws at the heart of this dispute – on pricing, sale of produce and storage – remove safeguards that had partly insulated farming from the vagaries of the market. While the government claims deregulating agriculture will double farmers’ incomes and improve productivity, the small and marginal farmers who make up 85 per cent of the sector fear they will lose out to private investors. The new laws strip away the protective cover of a minimum price guarantee and the mandi system (regulated wholesale markets), leaving farmers exposed to a barrier-free market in which they have little bargaining power against the major corporate players.

The farmers’ anxiety also stems from previous measures to deregulate agriculture, which increased agrarian distress. The often-cited cautionary tale is of Bihar state, in eastern India, where the liberalising reforms of the farm sector in 2005 eventually crashed prices, forcing small-scale farmers to sell their produce for paltry sums. Faced with debt and dispossession, many farmers became farm labourers in other states where regulated agricultural markets were still intact. Fear of dispossession is fuelling the protests, though their expansion to other sections of society, including journalists, activists and other workers, reflects a wider, growing disenchantment with Modi’s “New India”: an illiberal state locked in an embrace with “liberal”, free-market capitalism.   

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The erection of a heavily policed border on the outskirts of the capital exposes the fractious logic of the great transformation of India into an enclosure of capital. The very idea of enclosure plays out here in a double sense: the real-life enclosure – the physical confinement and digital suppression of the protesters – is designed to quell any opposition to the economic enclosure – the retreat of the regulatory state from ever-more sectors of the economy. The logic of this transformation involves framing the Indian nation as an “investment destination” in the global economy, a vast pool of “untapped” resources, a zone of unlimited exchange and growth.

This is where the current iteration of economic liberalisation in India departs from the past three decades. The war-like fortification outside Delhi reveals how crucial the interests of capital, together with unabashed Hindu nationalism, are to the scaffolding upon which the Modi government is erected. Its power base requires the country’s capitalist growth engine to be continuously fuelled by a supply of previously cordoned off sectors of the economy.

In policy terms, this means an unending cycle of structural adjustments, privatisation and disinvestment from the public sector, a complex process facilitated by a strong state that “means business” in more ways than one. This is why the capital-owning classes often root for a strong leader who can “get things done” – if not through the political art of persuasion, then through coercive measures to forcibly “liberalise” resources.

This authoritarian streak has shaped the pandemic policies of the Indian government, which not only rushed through the farm laws but also promptly acceded to industrialists’ demand for labour reforms that weaken the rights of workers in both the formal and informal sectors. The changes include looser hire and fire policies, longer working hours, reduced social protection and restrictions on the right to strike.

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This powerful alliance between the state and capital explains why the Modi government neither brooks dissent nor hesitates to take harsh measures against critics, including cracking down on activists and journalists. The severity of the government’s response despite its political strength – it has full control of the state apparatus and faces almost no meaningful political competition – is evidence that the anti-farm law mobilisation poses the most sustained and direct challenge to this alliance yet. That the movement emerged and continues to expand during a relentless pandemic indicates the desperation of the protesters. 

To the drumbeats of hyper-nationalism, the ruling party and its supporters have tried to delegitimise the protests in various ways, including smearing Sikh protesters as Khalistani separatists, posing as “locals” to demand the removal of the protest camps, and consistently casting the protesters as “rich farmers”, even though this is unsupported by facts.

[see also: The accelerating rise of a dangerous new nationalism in India]

Yet these attacks have failed to dent the movement. Far from petering out, it continues to grow, building new solidarities across caste, class, religion and region. One probable reason for the continued popular support is widespread disillusionment with the free-market formula; instead of spreading prosperity, liberalising reforms have produced high unemployment and increased income inequality. Equally alarming for many is the majoritarian impulse of Hindu nationalism and the aggressive marginalisation of minority groups.

Thus, it is hardly a surprise that the language of love and solidarity has been key to the vocabulary of the protesters, the very opposite of the hyper-nationalist rhetoric that thrives on social division and exclusion. Everyday life in the tent cities at Delhi’s periphery offers a vision of a shared community built on voluntary labour that strives to be inclusive. These protest cities did not emerge from a pre-existing solidarity but have, through the protest itself, created the opportunity to forge new solidarities.

Half a year on, the original farmers’ protest has evolved into perhaps the largest mass mobilisation in post-colonial India’s history, one that spans rural and urban populations, and conjoins the revolt against deregulated capitalism to the struggle for civil liberties. The widespread sense of vulnerability, the fear of exploitation at the hands of an overweening state and large corporations are the common experiences continuing to drive the protest. As one farmer said of the new reforms, “It won’t be a market for farmers, it will be a stock market.”

Ravinder Kaur is Associate Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and the author of “Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India (Stanford University Press, 2020).