Tags: Farmers' Protest, India, Labor Rights
About a dozen people are standing atop a green John Deere tractor, hoisting signs and waving flags with pro-farmer slogans. Many of them are turbaned Sikhs while others wear different of head coverings. The tractor crawls through throngs of people, many of them dancing in celebration. Cheers ring out throughout the crowd, and, in the distance, a loudspeaker blares Punjabi music. An older man with a white beard and bright orange turban holds his arms open to the sky. A girl beats out a rhythm on a hand drum and chants “Jitinge, jitinge!” (We will win!), while the people around her cheer.
This was the scene at Singhu, a town on the northwest border of India’s capital city of New Delhi, on November 19 last year. The farmer’s movement, which has captured the world’s attention and filled the streets of India for the last year, had just won its biggest victory. Only moments before, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the annulment of the three controversial farming laws that his government had proposed over a year prior.
It would become the largest protest in human history, a strike action in which over 200 million people reportedly participated.
Last September, as American progressives were painstakingly mobilizing their communities in support of Joe Biden, India’s right-wing, Hindu fundamentalist-majority government passed legislation that planned to overhaul the nation’s agricultural industry. The three farming laws would have gutted important government safeguards and price floors for crops such as wheat and rice, allegedly to ensure that farmers could sell their products directly to buyers with less bureaucratic interference.
But in the absence of these government price guarantees, independent farmers would have been forced to negotiate directly with multinational corporations, thereby forfeiting what little bargaining leverage they had possessed. Millions of farmers would have been inevitably extorted at the hands of agribusiness giants, and the Indian agricultural sector, which employs nearly half of the nation’s workforce, would have suffered incalculable losses.
The response to these laws was swift: just one month after they were introduced in September, Indian farmers and laborers took to the streets. It would become the largest protest in human history, a strike action in which over 200 million people reportedly participated. The plight of Indian farmers, especially in Punjab, quickly grabbed international headlines after government forces shot water cannons and tear gas at protesters, including many elders, who had begun marching towards New Delhi — within weeks, the Indian diaspora, primarily led by its Sikh Punjabi communities, staged hundreds of solidarity actions across the world to raise awareness for the fight.
The protest movement garnered a flurry of endorsements from internationally prominent figures ranging from Rihanna to Greta Thunberg, and American sports stars such as Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster. And while the farmer’s protests had faded out of headlines for much of this last year, the farmers stayed on the streets — nearly 700 protesters died in the process.
American progressives have much to learn from the Indian farmer’s protest as they campaign for economic justice in the United States, against the dual threats of a rising tide of far-right corporate power, as well as the corporate-friendly elements embedded within the Biden presidency and Democratic Party. And that’s because, at its heart, the farmer’s protest movement is a deeply populist, anticapitalist crusade, rooted in preserving the economic rights and dignity of individuals against sprawling, transnational private interests. Organizers were brilliantly able to frame it as such, in clear, unambiguous language, and in doing so, they have been able to wield a sentiment of injustice that has virtually universal appeal.
But harnessing the popular support of anti-corporate politics was just one aspect of the Indian farmers’ strategy — they also channeled this mandate into a unified, specific set of demands and named the terms of a victory. From its outset, the protest movement’s target was explicitly clear: the three farming reform bills. And it wasn’t until two months after BJP-majority parliament passed them, that protest organizers in various north Indian states commenced their first major call to action, in the form of the Delhi Chalo (Let’s go to Delhi) march. And despite their November victory, many still promised to stay in the streets until the reform laws were formally repealed and farmers’ state-guaranteed economic safeguards are reinstated.
One of the most impressive feats of the farmer’s movement has been the way in which it has marshaled an incredibly diverse base in service towards a unified set of demands: it brought together hundreds of millions of Indians across the subcontinent, spanning different religious, caste, cultural, and linguistic groups. The protests were primarily led by Punjabi Sikhs, and, in general, the protests can’t be fully understood without considering the long tradition of Punjabi Sikh resistance to central state repression — most recently, there were thousands of Punjabis who were detained and disappeared at the hands of the Indian government throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But while Punjabis were the most visible and vocal leaders of the movement, they certainly weren’t the only ones driving action.
An essential component to the farmers’ success has been their militant discipline and commitment to sustaining this fight until victory is secured.
Farmers and trade unionists across south Indian states — such as Karnataka, Kerala, and Telangana, which all speak different languages, largely practice different religions, and adhere to different cultural values than north Indians — poured out onto the streets in opposition to the farm bills as well. There were incredible scenes of interfaith solidarity on display throughout the movement: one poignant scene shows Sikhs encircling and protecting a group of Muslims gathered to pray namaz, another shows Muslims serving Sikhs langar. Other religious groups have voiced their support for the protest movement as well, including the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, which represents all of the nation’s Protestant and Catholic churches. And this has also been a rare occasion for some degree of caste solidarity — landless Punjabi Dalit laborers, who have had a contentious relationship with landowning castes over the years, still threw their support behind the protest movement.
Another essential component to the farmers’ success has been their militant discipline and commitment to sustaining this fight until victory is secured. Organizers invested in a long-term fight, standing up entire encampments along the outskirts of New Delhi, with some holding tens of thousands of protesters at a given time — at some sites, they created robust quasi-societies with supply stores, medical clinics, tented housing, libraries, and cultural spaces. In April, one of the major farmers’ union leaders suggested that the farmers would be willing to stay on the streets for upwards of five years, if needed. They had the capacity to carry out continuous protest for over a year — and promise sustained action for years to come — due to the deep investments made by dozens of farmers unions, trade unions, and other affiliated organizations. These groups have been building power and expanding their capacities for decades, and now it finally paid off.
Perhaps this is the most basic lesson we can take away from the Indian farmers — anti-corporate organizing has the potential to wield tremendous power and mobilize masses to take action. Americans’ skepticism in the influence of big business is at an all time high, and a supermajority of Americans support raising taxes on wealthy Americans. The pandemic has only exacerbated disparities between working families and corporate elites; during the last year-and-a-half, when over 750,000 Americans have died, millions have lost their jobs, and countless people have been evicted from their homes. All the while, corporate earnings have skyrocketed to the highest they’ve been in decades, and the richest 400 Americans have added $4.5 trillion in wealth since the start of the pandemic.
A critical mass of Americans seem to be primed to mobilize against growing corporate power. Even some opportunistic Republicans are sensing this, and have begun investing in the ascendent antitrust movement, a movement that seeks to challenge the monopoly status and unilateral power of Big Tech giants. Even American farmers across the country and across party loyalties are beginning to organize against the stranglehold of the agricultural industry on small, independent farmers. It’s clear that there is a visceral appeal of anti-corporate campaigning that transcends political partisanship. And every elected Democrat and liberal institution would do well to commit to working families over corporate interests, in order to wield the same affective power that the farmers have in framing their anti-corporate campaigning. But in order to do so, they must first disentangle and publicly distance themselves from big business and Wall Street interests, many of which continue to bankroll liberal candidates and organizations.
It’s important that American organizers also think more strategically about aligning a unified set of demands and desired outcomes for large-scale protest movements. Compared to the farmers movement, the three prominent liberal-left protest mobilizations of the last decade — the Occupy movement, the Women’s March, and last summer’s uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd — all were less clear in defining as the movement’s respective intended outcomes. This is not to say that these three movements were ineffective; they all played critical roles in shifting economic, gender, and racial justice attitudes of millions of Americans, and served a fundamentally different role than that of the farmer’s protest. But each of these movements also faced difficulties in marshaling their broad, diverse bases towards a unified set of demands.
There are American examples of movements that are valuable models to consider, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016-17, and the current ongoing mobilizations against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. These movements have managed to explicitly maintain their demands stay cohesive across their far-reaching, diverse bases.
But in many cases, maintaining unity across differences proves to be a challenging task. The farmers protest organizers didn’t invisibilize the vast identity differences in their movement, nor did they attempt to neutralize or mute the public-facing expressions of these groups. In fact, cultural demonstrations had been a visible presence throughout the year on the streets and across the encampments. And instead of serving a divisive purpose, they actually strengthened the movement significantly by showing the common, shared commitment to the anti-corporatization of Indian agriculture across all segments of society. Of course, organizers ensured that the primary focus of the protests weren’t co-opted by other religious, cultural, or identitarian causes — their focus remained the unjust, exploitative farming laws that had brought the hundreds of millions of people together in the first place. And in one sense, this approach is reminiscent of a form of identity politics, though not the bastardized, neoliberal iteration that seeks to supplant material, systemic change with the hollow politics of diversity and representation. Rather, it evokes a more radical, authentic iteration of identity politics that identifies shared capitalist oppression across social groups to be a wellspring of solidarity.
This approach, wielded by the Indian farmers and laborers, cuts straight through the unproductive spiral of discourse litigating whether we should center race or class, a tedious debate familiar to those liberal and left circles. And as we build up a broad multiracial, multi-faith working class base against an oligarchic, corporate elite in the United States, the bonds of solidarity and shared experience across difference will only become more valuable with time. There is a crucial precedent in American history for such organizing, in the Civil Rights movement — organizers of the March on Washington in 1963 and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, united protesters across countless identity differences, in service of policies that secured economic dignity for millions of Americans.
Those hoping to mobilize for economic justice in the United States must similarly work to strengthen organized labor and other local base-building organizations to wield the kind of grassroots-driven power that delivered the farmers their victory. Only through institutions that interface with, politicize, and organize workers will we be able to mobilize in a meaningful way to break the corporate chokehold over our politics and policymaking. Major liberal institutions, such as foundations and large nonprofits, must also commit to supporting existing organizing and long-term mobilization efforts so that, as was the case with Indian farmers, American organizers can commit to sustained action until a demand is met.
By redirecting money from the bureaucratic abyss of the corporate nonprofit industry and into the hands of local, grassroots organizations and coalitions working on justice work, movements will finally be able to maintain levels of consistent action that led to the farmer’s victory. These investments would have been invaluable in continuing the momentum for meaningful reform on police violence, which seemed to fizzle out by the end of last summer — and now, the possibility for reform is dead at the federal policy level.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson from the farmers’ movement is one that activists have long known, but is always worth restating: collective action can and will defeat adversaries that seem invincible. The farmers vanquished a Modi regime whose unilateral power is difficult to overstate; Modi presides over the world’s largest right-wing party operation, and over the last seven years in office, his BJP government has engineered an alarming, authoritarian crackdown on civil society, and in the process, mainstreaming a modality of religious nationalism that has endangered hundreds of millions of minorities across the country.
On the economic front, Modi has been an ally to multinational corporations since his first run for prime minister in 2014, so his attempt to dismantle government support for the agricultural industry came as no surprise. His government had never relented on a major policy decision — even after massive, public outcry against blunders such as the demonetization disaster and his mismanagement of India’s COVID crisis, he had always held firm. But the farmers’ protest pierced through that, and now for the first time, the Modi government arguably appears to be in a more vulnerable position than it ever has.
For American progressives, the Indian farmers’ victory provides both a blueprint for success, as well as a much-needed source of inspiration during a time where numerous crises loom on the horizon, including, but not limited to, our economy, environment, and democracy. It may seem that the powers we are confronting are too entrenched, too insurmountable to be conquered. And critically, these powers aren’t just the corporate, private interests who have effectively taken over our democratic institutions. The threat of American state repression on our country’s protest movements is alive and real, as well. Last summer especially, we witnessed firsthand the ways in which federal, state, and local authorities can, and will, crack down on protesters, unleashing the insidious tools of unlawful subversion, surveillance, and detention under the guise of “safety.”
But the farmers will always serve as a living example of the power of strategic protest and collective action. They have reminded us that masses of people can be mobilized in the name of justice, and our movements can be cultivated in ways that are united and inclusive; awe-inspiring and sustainable; spontaneous and intentional. As long as we retain the indomitable persistence, creativity, and conviction of the Indian farmers, American progressives can win in the many battles that lie ahead.