India: “The farmers’ movement is a counter-blast in the face of the shift to the right of society, to the far right in power”

A protest starting from the Punjab in August 2020 and spreading throughout India reached a high point on 26 November 2020 when the farmers’ march on Delhi was accompanied by a 24-hour strike of 250 million people. The protest movement is continuing, farmers storming the Red Fort in Delhi on 26 January. Sushovan Dhar of CADTM and Radical Socialist India explains the background.

Can you tell us about the mobilizations of farmers in India?

Since the fascist BJP party won the elections in 2014, this is the largest mobilization in India. It surpasses all others in numerical terms and in terms of political impact. Tens of thousands of peasants have surrounded the Indian capital, New Delhi, and they plan to camp there for weeks or even months unril the anti-farmer laws are withdrawn.

Farmers are calling for the repeal of three government laws: The Agricultural Trade Promotion and Facilitation Act, the Price Guarantee Agreement and Agricultural Services Act, and the Essential Products Act. There is an amendment to the Essential Products Act - 14 commodities such as rice, wheat and sugar - which must be distributed with price control by the government.

The government bought the products from farmers at a guaranteed price. This minimum support price is supposed to help farmers sell their products at a price set by the government.

Protesters oppose the dismantling of this measure, particularly in the North, Punjab and Haryana, because the law is de facto dismantled in most regions, but has been maintained in these regions because they are the laboratory of the "green revolution" wanted by the World Bank, for the increase of agricultural production.

The dismantling of the mandi (rural, traditional market, where products are usually bought and sold) is also at issue.

But there has been a broader crisis in the agricultural sector since the imposition of neoliberal policies and economics in the early 1990s. A striking figure illustrates this: there have apparently been 400,000 suicides of peasants in the last 25 years, even though there is no verified figure, because of the severe indebtment of peasants. This indebtedness has been going on for thirty years. The various subsidies - on pesticides, fertilizers, water for irrigation, electricity - have been dismantled. 

Traditionally, farmers were in trouble when production was low, but today it is also the case when it is strong because the market and big capital bring prices down. In the region around Calcutta, potatoes are cultivated on a large scale. Over recent weeks, indications are that there will be a bumper crop, so farmers are afraid that there will be a huge drop in prices.

Committees set up by the government had voted for a guaranteed minimum price, the minimum support price, corresponding to the cost of production plus 50 per cent. But instead of implementing these recommendations, the government abolished the minimum support price. These are the reasons for the mobilization of peasants, in Delhi and throughout the country. The draft laws on agriculture as well as the new labour laws are attempts to implement a programme which enjoys broad support from within the big bourgeoisie. It is the right's answer to the agrarian crisis.


How do they organize themselves?

Four years ago, there was a coordinating committee of peasants, involving  two hundred peasant organizations. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee organized large marches in Delhi, Mumbai and throughout India in 2018. Now, it is this coordinating committee that organizes most of the actions, but there are also many spontaneous mobilizations, with the support of civil society and the middle classes, especially in the Punjab.

They brought together an impressive coalition of small and large farmers, and even some farm workers' organizations. They have also been very successful in spreading the movement.

What is the political significance of these mobilizations?

It's a challenge. There were mobilizations on citizenship, discriminatory laws, which had unified the anti-Modi camp, the left and Muslims but had also homogenized right-wing and far-right support for the government. Today, the mobilization of peasants is a challenge for the BJP. In fact, people who had voted for it are turning away from it. There are at present workers’ mobilizations, but they are too weak and too divided to face up to the government. The peasant movement can give confidence and encourage mobilizations of workers, especially women.

The movement is not revolutionary, but it has an anti-capitalist dimension, against large agro-industrial companies, contract farming, the control of large companies over land; companies like Pepsi, which have individual contracts with peasants and control the market.

Our hope must come from the fact that the neoloiberal agenda is still confronting challenges from the grassroots. The strength and the weakness of the movement and its chances of success depend on the unswerving determination of the Punjabi farmers, mostly led by by different organizations which consider themselves, politically speaking, as the most left-wing of the existing political parties.

What perspectives do the Radical Socialists and the activists of the Fourth International put forward?

This is not a mobilization for state power, as the Maoists claim, but it is also not a movement of rich peasants as others claim. It is a movement where the majority is fighting for its immediate and long-term survival and, for the left, it is necessary to take the initiative, to build a battle against neoliberalism and the far right in India.

Our orientation must be to deepen and strengthen the example of real democracy shown by the farmers' protests. In fact, even more than the subornation of the state by the BJP, it is the current weakness of the working class response to the farmers’ movement that is the most worrying sign in the firmament.

What differentiates these protests from other protests against the Modi regime is the dominant involvement of leftist forces. Many of these forces can be characterized as the non-parliamentary left. While this fact opens up possibilities not seen in previous protests, the ideological sectarianism of these forces also limits the potential of the current unrest.

Unfortunately, the institutional left is weak and the radical left very sectarian. This movement is also an opportunity to strengthen the opposition of farmers to the established order. It will last for several months; we must build the mobilization, in order to organize a counter-fire in the face of the shift to the right of society, to the far right in power. This mobilization gives us an opportunity to reflect and move forward in the building of a real left, a radical left, a new left.

Interview conducted by Antoine Larrache

Sushovan Dhar