Aditya Bahl

For the first time in the history of postcolonial India, two different parades marked the Republic Day 2021 celebrations in New Delhi. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s residence, the rightwing government organised a public spectacle of Hindu nationalism, parading tableaus of new temples and artilleries, and sanctifying them as emblems of the emergent ‘Hindu nation’. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the country’s capital, thousands of farmers and agrarian workers took out a ‘tractor parade’, protesting the new farm bills passed by the ruling government.

The contrasting political receptions accorded to the two parades epitomise the postcolonial condition, as enforced by the Indian state and as endured by its working people. While the political establishment openly applauded the new tableaus of Hindu nationalism, the police forces publicly brutalised the country’s farmers and agrarian workers, assailing them with a barrage of lathis and tear gas. Long after the official parade was over, the police violence continued unabated. And soon, the tableaus of bloodied farmers and workers suffocating in the plumes of tear gas became the unofficial postscript to the nationalist pomp of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Republic Day celebrations.

In capitalist societies, mass movements are, by their very nature, self-contradictory, and the masses who make up these movements know this all too well.

And yet, far from being a mere exception, this onslaught of state violence has long been the rule that governs everyday political life in India. Indeed, these tableaus of police brutality are only one part of a perpetual rightwing parade, a macabre succession of pogroms and lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, state-sponsored attacks on public universities, settler-colonial violence in Kashmir, a full-blown war against tribals in the mineral-rich forests of Central India, and regular arrests of activists, intellectuals and artists across the country.

A few hours after violently suppressing the tractor parade, the police forces commenced an extraordinary operation of fortifying the New Delhi borders: setting up multiple layers of metal barricades, barbed-wire trenches, six-foot-high walls draped in concertina wire and deploying heavily armed contingents of the Rapid Action Force and the Central Reserve Police Force. Indeed, it is as if a full-blown border has suddenly sprung up inside the bounds of the Indian state, decisively fracturing its body politic into two contrasting political visions.

Mass movements and contradictions

Currently, more than 500,000 farmers and agrarian workers have blocked and occupied three key highways that link the national capital to neighbouring states. They are protesting against the government’s decision to permit agribusiness corporations to take over the country’s farming sector. Over the past four months, the protestors have improvised their tractors and trolleys to construct a political commune on wheels. These cavalcades run up to 15 kilometres and have been furnished with makeshift libraries, 24/7 community kitchens, informal schools, open-air film screenings, and stages for political speeches and cultural performances. Even as the national media continues to caricature the protestors as either feudal illiterates or as outright terrorists, the protestors have continued to resolutely valorise their ad-hoc commune as an alternative people’s republic that tries to ensure egalitarian and communal access to basic human needs.

And yet, this ‘model republic’ is not without its own share of problems. Just like the society in which it has materialised, this mass movement remains riven with numerous class and caste-based contradictions. These contradictions are perhaps most clearly reflected in the popular slogan, “No Farmers No Food”, which has swiftly become an ideological lodestone for the emergent critiques of agribusiness corporations in the Indian public sphere. In fact, the slogan has gained immense political traction across the entire globe, as marches in Oakland, Toronto, and London resolutely echoed it while pledging their solidarity with this agrarian movement. But notwithstanding the seductive simplicity of the discourse of anti-corporatism that has cohered around this slogan, there are a few details that warrant our attention.

It is as if a full-blown border has suddenly sprung up inside the bounds of the Indian state, decisively fracturing its body politic into two contrasting political visions.

First, it is imperative to note that there are no ‘farmers’ as such and that the Indian peasantry is profoundly fractured along class and caste lines. Apart from the contradictions that separate the marginal and small farmers from the middle and large farmers, there also exists a more powerful political antagonism between the farmers and the agrarian workers. Given that 56 percent of India’s rural population is landless, it is surprising how popular slogans such as ‘No Farmers No Food’ conveniently ignore the vast proletarian majority of the country.

Moreover, the landless, too, occupy a variety of political-economic subject positions, thus resulting in a labyrinthine of class-based social relations: the waged labourers, who are often hired on seasonal basis only; the attached labourers, who are invariably kept in bondage by upper-caste landlords; and the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who are subject to diverse leasing arrangements by the landowners. Meanwhile, in highly developed agrarian states, especially Punjab and Haryana, the rise of ‘reversed tenancy’ confounds these social relations even further, as a class of entrepreneurial tenants, who are neither small nor poor, enter the leasing market to increase their unit of cultivation and optimise the use of their agricultural machinery.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to own land in India is extensively mediated by the caste system. For instance, in Punjab, Dalit communities constitute nearly 32 percent of the state’s population, and yet, only 3 percent of the Dalits own any agricultural land. In fact, as per the National Sample Survey of 2011-12, 86 percent of the agricultural labourers in the state are Dalits. Given the baleful sway of caste over the distribution of land and labour, it is hardly surprising that the class-based antagonisms between rich and poor Jats are often overshadowed by their caste-based Jat solidarity, which, as it turns out, is invariably directed against Dalit labourers.

Similarly, just like there are no ‘farmers’ as such, there is also no ‘food’ as such. It is imperative to note that these farmers and agrarian workers are part of a vast and intricate regime of agrarian capitalism, wherein they serve to produce commodities for agrarian markets, which, for now, remain primarily regulated by the Indian state. This state regulation of the farming sector can be traced back to the mid-1960s, when the Congress government first introduced the Green Revolution by heavily incentivising the new scientific and technological inputs, including tractors, High-Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, and new irrigation facilities.

One of the more critical incentives included the Minimum Support Price, a guaranteed procurement price that was, and still is, offered by the Indian state for any amount of grain that was to be sold in the state-regulated mandis. As the farmers were integrated into the project of postcolonial nation-building, their own subsistence became increasingly tied to this newfound regime of agrarian capitalism. If, in the beginning, they were incentivised to invest in new technologies and to produce for the market, then soon, the latest technologies became a necessity, and in the wake of increasing competition, the farmers found themselves increasingly compelled to produce for the market in order to survive. And before long, this capitalist regime of heavily mechanised and chemicalised agriculture ended up instigating a catastrophe of unbridled landlessness, indebtedness, and ecological degradation in several agrarian states, the foremost being Punjab.

Further still, even as the new science and technology rapidly increased the agrarian productivity of the country, it did not transform the ability of the workers to buy food. As of April 2021, the Food Corporation of India has amassed grain stocks of 56.4 million metric tonnes in the central pool. This is around 2.7 times the amount generally stipulated as the ‘buffer stock’. Despite this immense agrarian abundance, large swathes of the country’s population continue to suffer from chronic food insecurity. In fact, towards the end of 2015, 40 percent of the country’s children are undernourished, 50 percent of the women between 15 and 49 years are anaemic, and in the Global Hunger Index 2020, India ranks an abysmal 94th in a list of 107 countries. Could there be more damning evidence for the commoditised character of food?

Contradictions and critiques

As the mass movement enters its fifth month, the fraught entanglements of class and caste that are internal to it have started becoming sharper by the day. Over the past few weeks, several pamphlets and op-eds in the vernacular, especially in the Punjabi public sphere, have begun to scrutinise the contradictory rhetoric of anti-corporatism while posing important questions concerning its class and caste character. For instance, is this a movement being led by middle and large farmers? What is the role of landless labourers, especially the Dalits, in this struggle? Are we really witnessing an upsurge of the working people, or is this movement an expression of caste-based solidarities between the upper-caste Jats of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh? In turn, as the ongoing struggle spreads to other parts of the country, each marked by distinct agrarian economies and political groups, these questions have also continued to multiply.

While these inquiries play a crucial role in illuminating the political inconsistencies of this agrarian movement, they can, at times, also risk enabling some counterintuitive criticisms. In particular, an enduring obsession with the sociological make-up of the ongoing protests has given rise to multiple ‘purity tests’. For instance, ever since this mass movement first emerged, several political commentators in the mainstream media have regularly condemned it as a struggle led by middle and large farmers, who are only interested in safeguarding their private landholdings and preserving their existing political monopoly. It is hardly surprising that these misleading criticisms have primarily been made by neoliberal economists and agronomists who have openly supported new farm bills and have, in turn, continued to bemoan the ‘noisy democracy’ of the country that stands in the way of implementing economic reforms.

Given that 56 percent of India’s rural population is landless, it is surprising how popular slogans such as ‘No Farmers No Food’ conveniently ignore the vast proletarian majority of the country.

But of late, sections of the left have also drawn attention to the sizable presence of the ‘rural bourgeoisie’ – the landlords, the capitalist tenants, and the usurious traders – in these protests. While emphasising the contradictory character of this agrarian movement, they have expressed caution against romanticising it as a truly ‘revolutionary struggle’. Indeed, these sprawling contradictions are a cause for concern, to say the least. And yet, while brandishing these critical barometers to highlight the not-so-radical character of this movement, we also risk overlooking a relatively simple point: in capitalist societies, mass movements are, by their very nature, self-contradictory, and the masses who make up these movements know this all too well.

And so, instead of simply condemning these contradictions, it would be more useful to trace how they have continued to engender unexpected class and caste-based alliances and antagonisms on the ground, and how the working people are navigating these fault lines, while trying to radicalise a popular discourse of anti-corporatism into a genuinely anti-capitalist praxis.

Similarly, this movement’s class and caste character cannot be directly reduced to the class and caste positions of its protagonists. Instead, in order to ascertain the former, we will have to patiently track the cascading slippages between who is participating in this struggle, what their political attachments and aspirations are, and finally, how their political commitments get borne out in the presence of other actors in real-time.

The landed and the landless

The protests first started in Punjab during August last year, shortly after the ruling government first publicised its plans to implement the three farm bills. As the spectre of domination by large agribusiness corporations began to loom large, the farmers and agrarian workers promptly took to the streets. Led by different unions and grassroots feminist and Dalit workers’ organisations, they began an unprecedented state-wide operation of picketing, occupying, and shutting down numerous railway stations, toll plazas, corporate-owned silos, thermal plants, petrol pumps, telecom towers, and even malls. Some of these blockades were so successful that the coal supply to the power plants was disrupted entirely, and for a short period, Punjab was thrust into an electricity crisis.

However, only a few months before these astonishing wildcat acts of protest started choking the arterial networks of capitalist circulation, Punjab’s political situation was utterly different. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the landless labourers, the majority of whom are Dalits, began protesting against the bigger farmers of Punjab, the majority of whom are upper-caste Jats, demanding an urgent wage hike to survive the pandemic. But the Jat farmers not only refused to increase the wages but also commenced a complete social boycott of the Dalit communities in the villages. In fact, over the past two decades, the Dalit struggle to access and lease out the shamlat (common lands) has been met with several such boycotts and often with outright physical violence by the bigger Jat farmers.

The ability to own land in India is extensively mediated by the caste system. For instance, in Punjab, Dalit communities constitute nearly 32 percent of the state’s population, and yet, only 3 percent of the Dalits own any agricultural land.

Despite these searing antagonisms, in recent months, the slogan, Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad (Long live the unity between farmers and workers), has become a significant ideological lodestone for these emergent protests. And yet, this newfound unity between farmers and workers remains highly precarious, not least because it has been largely inspired by the ‘external’ threat of agribusiness corporations, which have been legally permitted to take over the country’s agricultural sector. Put briefly, if the farmers, especially the small and marginal ones, stand to lose their landholdings, then the workers too risk becoming entirely surplus to the new capitalist regime’s requirements. Still, their newfound alliance does not, by any means, obliterate their longstanding antagonisms. Instead, the tensions between them continue to subsist and have begun to gradually shape the political trajectory of this emergent movement.

Speaking to Trolley Times, a multilingual newspaper operating on the New Delhi border, Bhagwant Singh Samaon, the state president of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, which is the Punjab chapter of the the All India Agricultural Labour Association, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation’s agricultural wing puts this precarious solidarity in perspective. While emphasising the increasing participation of landless labourers in the ongoing protests, Samaon suggests that a lot of work still needs to be done before the gaping lacuna between a popular political slogan and actual ground realities can be overcome.  

But instead of abandoning this agrarian struggle altogether or simply condemning it as a movement of the bigger Jat farmers, the landless labourers of Punjab have continued to travel to the New Delhi borders from their native villages. Led by different workers’ unions and Dalit-led organisations, including the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh committee, Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, and Pendu Khet Mazdoor Union, they are trying to stake their claim in the ongoing protests. After all, theirs is a dual fight, directed against both external and internal capitalists: first, against the imminent catastrophe of corporatisation, and second, against the banal violence of everyday exploitation and caste-based oppression perpetuated by the bigger Jat farmers in Punjab.

One infers from Samaon’s remarks that, for now, the unity implied in the slogan ‘Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad’ remains a political imperative, at best, one that is yet to be realised. And in this regard, it is also important to note that landless labourers are not alone in their two-pronged fight. Over the past decade or so, several farmers’ unions, especially those working with marginal and small farmers, have emerged as willing allies in their struggle for better wages and access to the village commons. In recent years, these unions have also offered protection to the Dalit landless workers against threats of physical violence by the bigger Jat farmers and have started building mutual-aid networks between marginal and small farmers, landless labourers, and Dalits.

The unions and the khaps

Meanwhile, as this movement spreads to other parts of the country, it is worth noting that the tactics used by farmers and workers in Punjab have not been replicated with the same intensity. For instance, protestors in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan have only taken to picketing the highway toll plazas. We are yet to witness a systematic emergence of blockades, pickets, and occupations at corporate-owned silos, thermal plants, petrol pumps, and telecom towers. In part, this might be because protests in these states have galvanised around khaps, the traditional caste and clan-based councils that form the bastions of Jat political power in northern India. And consequently, here, the political resistance to the new farm bills is being articulated in terms of the distinctive political structure of the khap.

Perhaps, the most crucial divergence lies in the conflicting conceptualisations of ‘farmers’ by the khaps and the labour unions. While the former tends to grasp the farmers as a separate homogeneous class, united by their attachment to agrarian land as such, the latter seems to be more attuned to the class and caste-based stratifications that internally divide the farmers from each other. The contradictions between these competing political conceptualisations are especially palpable in western Uttar Pradesh. Here, the political influence of the khaps is so entrenched that even the leading farmers’ union in the region, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), has long remained beholden to it. Instead of challenging the widely prevalent class-neutral ideology of agrarianism, the BKU actively perpetuates it and is openly dependent on khaps for the purposes of political mobilisation.

In recent years, the all-male councils of the khaps have been regularly criticised in the Indian public sphere for perpetuating casteism and rape culture. And the dreadful implications of their longstanding repudiation of class politics became even more apparent in the lead up to the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. During this period, this agrarian traditionalism became easy prey to the Hindu rightwing, which infiltrated and manoeuvred the khaps in order to polarise the agrarian community along the religious lines of Hindus and Muslims. Spurred on by the Islamophobic propaganda disseminated by the khaps at multiple mahapanchayats, the Hindu Jats ended up killing 42 Muslims, most of them landless labourers, and forced 52,000 Muslims to flee their villages. Meanwhile, in retaliation, the Muslims killed 20 Hindu Jats.

This capitalist regime of heavily mechanised and chemicalised agriculture ended up instigating a catastrophe of unbridled landlessness, indebtedness, and ecological degradation in several agrarian states, the foremost being Punjab.

In January, shortly after the Delhi police started fortifying the New Delhi borders, the BKU called for a mahapanchayat, a gathering of 12 different khaps, in Muzaffarnagar. Around 10,000 farmers attended the event, where they collectively resolved to support the ongoing blockades on the New Delhi borders and commence an electoral boycott of the BJP government. Similar gatherings soon followed this in other parts of North India, each culminating in similar resolutions. The Jat communities that had previously allied with the Hindu rightwing are now beginning to openly withdraw their electoral support to the BJP government. It is striking, however, that unlike in Punjab, the tactical horizons of these gatherings are limited to electoral resolutions only, and that so far, the khaps have offered little room for engaging the logics of oppression and exploitation that are internal to these Jat communities, which remain viciously divided along the lines of caste, gender, and class.

Meanwhile, the Islamophobic rifts that had violently erupted during the Muzaffarnagar riots have not been adequately addressed either. Although these gatherings and protests have registered sizable participation by Muslims, and some sporadic efforts have been made to redress the communal polarisation of everyday life in the region, thousands of displaced Muslims are yet to be repatriated. In fact, the members of the khaps and the BKU, especially those who were allegedly involved in the riots, have insisted that the Jats and the Muslims must forget the past and begin a new collective struggle against the three farm bills.

To be sure, however, these political resolutions, both to boycott the BJP and to renew the political alliance between the Jats and the Muslims, played a critical role in renewing this mass movement at a time when the brutal police repression on Republic Day had significantly jeopardised its future. Indeed, if the record turnout of women farmers in these khap mahapanchayats is anything to go by, it would seem that a radical political collectivity is on the horizon. And yet, one can hardly overlook how this emergent collectivity is, in the end, circumscribed by the political form of the khaps. In other words, Jat communities might collectively make different political resolutions, but it is unlikely that these resolutions will inspire a radical transformation of the everyday political life of marginalised communities, and abolish the ongoing subjugation of Muslims, Dalits, women, and landless labourers.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to this traditionalist alliance between the BKU and the khaps, the regional wings of the same union in Punjab are steadfastly building a vibrant everyday political culture, which is not only acutely attuned to the divisions of class, caste and gender, but which also actively seeks to overcome these divisions. In particular, the BKU (Ugrahan) has been resolutely engaged in supporting the struggles of the landless labourers and the Dalit communities while also building multiple networks of female and feminist solidarities in rural Punjab. As a result of these efforts, thousands of Punjabi women, wearing bright yellow chunnis, the trademark colour of the Ugrahan group, are now not just participating in these protests but they are now actively organising the movement: occupying the blockades, composing and singing new protest songs, driving tractors and tempos, managing the stages, running the community kitchens, and so on.

Even in Punjab, however, the efforts to build solidarities across class, caste, and gender have their obvious limits. Tactically speaking, these efforts are largely subordinated by the popular demand to roll back the three farm bills. Consequently, even though the protests have opened new horizons for building these solidarities, there has been little engagement with the political implications of this reformist demand for marginalised sections of the Indian agrarian society. For instance, if the ongoing movement can successfully resist the corporatisation of Indian agriculture, will the female farmworkers, the landless labourers, and the Dalit workers simply return to the agrarian fields where they will continue to be politically and economically subjugated by the bigger farmers and landlords? As of yet, there is little clarity as to how these political solidarities will operate when the ‘external’ threat of corporatisation dissipates, and the ‘internal’ antagonisms start flourishing once again.

Still, notwithstanding their obvious limits, one can scarcely ignore that the mere emergence of these political solidarities marks a decisive break in the recent agrarian history of postcolonial India. For instance, during the late-1980s, the last time when agrarian protests of a similar scale erupted across northern India, the enormous rallies and marches had conspicuously debarred women, landless labourers, and Dalit communities from participating in the protests.

In fact, at the time, several agrarian historians had trenchantly criticised these protests as organised by a coalition of ‘rural capitalists’, who were merely interested in securing a greater share of state subsidies and profits for themselves, at the expense of landless workers. Indeed, the regional wings of the BKU in Punjab had been vigorously campaigning for setting up private agro-processing plants, even supporting the establishment of a Pepsi agribusiness project in the region. When compared to the capitalist aspirations of these unions in the previous protests, the present struggle has, indeed, come a long way, notwithstanding the contradictions that still continue to riddle it.

Coda: All roads lead to the border

In the wake of the violent police repression on Republic Day, the khaps and the unions are intensifying their organising efforts, and have started sending thousands of new tractors and trolleys to the blockades at New Delhi. But these new cavalcades are not just transporting more personnel and provisions to support the ongoing blockades. Instead, they are also bringing thousands of new people with diverse, even disparate, sociopolitical identities and commitments to join the blockades. In the coming days, the contradictory character of this mass movement is likely to undergo several unpredictable transformations, as protestors continue to grapple with these swirling contingencies, trying to make sense of their newfound alliances and antagonisms, trying to distill them into a broader anti-capitalist unity.

Already, some of these challenges are starting to acquire a definitive form. In the wake of the brutal police violence unleashed during the Republic Day celebrations, the mass movement currently finds itself in the midst of a tactical quandary. Hitherto, this movement had been sustained by constant political escalations. First, a series of militant direct actions by farmers’ and agrarian workers’ unions, which had clogged the arterial networks of capitalism in Punjab. Then, the decision of the protestors in Punjab to collectively start moving towards New Delhi, soon replicated by farmers and agrarian workers in numerous other states. Not unlike the direct actions in Punjab, these journeys, too, involved head-on confrontations with police forces who had set up numerous barricades along the highways leading to New Delhi.

But now, with the unprecedented fortification of the border at the national capital, such militant confrontations seem no longer feasible. Even as hundreds of new cavalcades of protestors continue to trudge towards New Delhi, there is a growing uncertainty around this one-sided flow of protestors, and how it might inadvertently lead to political stagnation. Indeed, these anxieties are not unfounded, especially when one notes how the political actions that first engendered this movement –blockades, pickets, and occupations – began to slowly wane once the New Delhi border became the singular site of struggle.

Naturally, then, in recent weeks, the unions have been forced to improvise new political tactics that look beyond the ongoing blockades at the New Delhi border. Beginning in March, several union leaders travelled to West Bengal, in order to campaign against BJP in the lead-up to the ongoing state elections. Meanwhile, the regional wings of BKU set out to renew and expand the ongoing agrarian struggles in Punjab. The BKU (Ugrahan) and Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union organised a ‘maha rally’ directed at building grassroot solidarities between the marginal and small farmers and the landless laborers.

We will have to patiently track the cascading slippages between who is participating in this struggle, what their political attachments and aspirations are, and finally, how their political commitments get borne out in the presence of other actors in real-time.

Simultaneously, they also laid siege to a dry port in the Ludhiana district, run by the Adani group, one of the biggest agribusiness corporations in India. Meanwhile, the BKU (Krantikari) commenced a blockade at the railway line outside a grain silo in the Moga district, owned again by the Adani group. Additionally, 25 national highway toll plazas have been freed for the past six months. Elsewhere, calls are being made for building solidarities with industrial workers employed in the informal industries that ring the periphery of New Delhi. And most recently, the farmers’ and agrarian workers’ unions have planned a collective march to the Indian parliament in the month of May.

The uncanny diversity of these tactics is exhilarating, to say the least. And yet, these improvisations also reflect, even perpetuate, the contradictory character of this mass movement. As of now, electoral parliamentarism appears to be inextricably enmeshed with militant blockades and pickets. Similarly, the popular discourse of anti-corporatism appears to be inescapably embroiled with a still-fledgling working-class politics, which intends to target more than just the three farm bills in question.

In the coming days, these disorderly entanglements will continue to confuse our critical barometers, flouting alike the political expectations of both secular nationalists and traditional Marxists. While disclosing the seeming inadequacy of existing political paradigms, these tactical experiments have stemmed from the need to find a political form that is adequate to the radical demand for complete emancipation from the ever-worsening violence of state and capitalism. And even if these experiments do not immediately fulfil this need, they at least make perceptible the myriad challenges that stand in our way.

In the meantime, one thing is clear: we cannot simply wish away the contradictions that riddle this mass movement. Instead, they form the incontrovertible reality of our times. The future of this movement, and the prospects of our collective emancipation, lie in the anxious churn of these very contradictions. After all, we are not just contending with this ongoing struggle against capitalism and state, but rather there is also a struggle within this struggle. Mass movements will be only as radical as we will make them be.

Aditya Bahl is a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins University. His essays on postcolonial politics and culture have appeared in Verso, The New Inquiry, Spectre, Trolley Times, and others. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry, including NAME/AMEN (Timglaset, Malmö, 2019) and Mukt (Organism for Poetic Research, NYC, forthcoming in 2021).

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