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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021

Farmers on the March for Acquiring Political Power | Arun Srivastava

Friday 2 July 2021


by Arun Srivastava

June 30, 2021

On June 26, the day the farmers’ movement entered into its 8th month of survival it heralded the birth of a new class of farmers which has the audacity to question the character of the governance, has been increasing its political space and has been striving to emerge as a new political power.

These three aspects are entrenched in the memorandum submitted by the farmer unions to the governors to be forwarded to the President of India being the constitutional head of the country. After their earlier campaign of Kheti Bachao, Loktantra Bachao (protect farming, protect democracy) this is the most important step of the farmers and it symbolises the desire of the farmers to extricate the country out of the present mess that has been created by the rightist forces.

India farmers are generally perceived to be docile in character and prefer to keep away from the politics and political system of the country. Of course some of its leaders used to dabble in the political activities, by and large they kept aloof. This is for the first time that they have turned assertive and do not intend to allow the rightist forces to dictate their lives.

In the memorandum the SKM also tried to convey to the President; " through this memorandum being submitted to you, we bring to you the anguish and deep anger of crores of farming families of the country. We hope that you will direct the Union government to immediately accept the legitimate demands of the farmers’ movement — repeal the three anti-farmer laws and enact a law that will guarantee remunerative MSP at C2 50 per cent for all farmers".

This change in the farmers’ narrative has really scared the RSS-BJP combine. They nursed the view that farmers were the most gullible lot and could be used to serve their interest. This notion got strengthened after the Moradabad and Muzzafarnagar communal riots. The RSS goons and Hindu vigilantes succeeded in their mission to break the decade old fraternal relation between the Hindus and Muslims and conjure the Hindus to vote for their candidates. This is not an old story. But the farmers have come to understand the nature and character of the hegemonistic politics. It took only couple of year for the said gullible farmers to comprehend the dirty games the rightist forces have been playing.

Though only a day ahead Narendra Modi twitted to recollect the tyrannies “he had to face” during the Emergency days, he did not mention about his resolve to destroy democracy and smash the democratic institutions in the country. His recurrent reference to imposition of emergency however forcefully threw open a question that why he was averse to respect the democratic aspirations of the crores of farmer and sit across with them to listen to their arguments for scraping of the three black farm laws. Indira Gandhi used emergency not to listen to the democratic voices, while Modi in a shrewd manner used the state machinery to deny the farmers of their rights.

Modi who has been quite conscious of his public image, has even been talking to the Kashmiri leaders, who have been vilified as the Gupkar gang by the Modi’s yesmen, to persuade them to agree to his move of holding elections, obviously with the intention to send the message that he was a perfect democrat and strongly believes in democratic values and ethos, he has been maintaining a stubborn attitude towards farmers and refuting to meet them.

An insight into his reluctance would reveal that he does not intend to send the message that he was a weak prime minister and also at the same time does not project the farmers as a political class. If he listens to them or talks to them then it would imply that the farmers have attained the status of a political class or political coalition. A prime minister could ignore the farmers and not open a discourse with them till they are not recognised as a political class. In India the farmers were never perceived as an independent political class.

They were always treated as appendage or support base of any political party. The first major move in this direction to recognise the farmers as a political class was made by former prime minister V P Singh. He started the Kisan Manch, which organised meetings and gheraos across the country. He gave the call for “Safeguard the farmers, save India.” But his Mandal politics eclipsed his move. During those days the big and feudal landlord were usually recognised as farmers. V P Singh wanted to abolish the legacy of the company raj, which badly split the farming community and pit one section against another.

For the RSS and BJP listening to the farmers’ voice would imply losing their supporters, who does not enjoy the status of being more than subservient. The RSS never treats them as equals. The farmers are supposed to be flagbearers for the rightist RSS. Their prime duty is to perpetrate oppression and torture on the Dalits, harijans and agriculture labourers. It is an open secret that the feudal landlords provided the RSS with manpower, muscle power and money power. An insight into almost all the cases of violent conflicts in the rural India would unravel the truth that the rightist forces have performed the task of instigator and motivators to unleash the reign of terror on the Dalits and harijans.

Bihar has earned notoriety in this matter. It had a number of senas (private armies) of the landlords. The leaders of these mercenaries owed their political allegiance to the saffron brigade. The case of Ranavir Sena, most dreaded private army, is an open secret. The leaders of the Ranavir Sena were attached to the BJP. Even a cabinet colleague of Narendra Modi pledged his moral support to the chief commander of the sena. He even described him as the modern day Gandhi. Sena mercenaries had carried out more than 20 massacres and killed around 400 dalits and harijans in Central Bihar.

The farmer community was split on class and caste line. The landless agricultural labourers already maintained antagonistic relations with the rich farmers who were represented by organisations like Shetkari Sanghthana. The small and middle farmers constituted a separate class. The people who were related to the agriculture and farming were not perceived as the part of the same class. Their needs and aspirations were quite different.

There is no ambiguity about the farmers’ mission. On June 26 while on the way to Raj Bhawans across the country for submitting memorandum the farmers, protesting against three farm laws, raised the twin flags of “Save Agriculture” and “Save Democracy”. The farmers indicated they would continue to campaign against the BJP during the upcoming polls in the states, including Uttar Pradesh and also protection of the democracy. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha’s decision to have farmers march to the Raj Bhavans in every state underlines the most mature political strategy to place their views and accomplish their mission. This strategy is quite noteworthy as the farmers for achieving their goal have lost 600 colleagues during the agitation.

June 26 has also been birth day of famous peasant leader Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. He fought against the machination of the Britishers and tried to bring the farming community closer to each other notwithstanding their contradictory economic approaches and needs. He formed the Kisan Sabha in 1936. Unfortunately he could not give a shape to his ideas.

In fact the political institution and the ruling elite of the country had realised that closing of ranks would endanger their class interest and they from the beginning have been resorting to the mechanism to pit them against each other. But agriculture gradually turning to be non-remunerative and the agrarian economic taking a nose dive, changed the thought process. The globalisation and neoliberalism played a major role though it did not strengthen the agrarian economy.

Bad policy and unsound agricultural models were the culprits for the falling prices and farm debt. The most unfortunate development was the Centre absolved its moral obligation to help Indian farmers. The entry of the corporate group in the agrarian scenario and their acquiring lands from farmers in Haryana and UP at hugely subsidised rate to set up a power plant made them conscious of the importance of their political power. For the first time in contemporary India, V P Singh had raised the issue of stop pauperisation of farmers by taking their lands and handing it over to corporate sector. For the first time the issue of sale of their land was seen in the perspective of the putting sovereignty at stake.

The farmers , agricultural labourers and middle peasants have come to realise that they cannot survive the machination of the corporate sector unless they join hands and strive to acquire their political stature. The RSS from the beginning has been stridently opposed to the concept of political empowerment of the farmers. We have seen how the RSS prompted the Jana Sangh and later BJP to identify with the interest of the rich and feudal landlords. They derided the agricultural labourers, the task that was being done by the Britishers in the pre-Independence period.

Modi’s reluctance to accept the demand of the farmers agitation primarily owes to the RSS’s stand. Modi cannot dare to antagonise the RSS and also the corporate sector. One thing is quite noticeable that he at no stage offered to talk to farmers except on couple of occasions suggesting that his government was willing to discuss the three laws with the farmers.

RSS and BJP nurse the view that emergence of farmers as a political class would endanger the political system and institution of the country. They are scared ofgetting marginalised. The farmers leaders have also come to realise this. Visits of the farmer leaders to the states where assembly elections were held in April and May this year and their emphasis on ensuring the defeat of the BJP ought to be seen as a major step towards assertion of the political power of the farmers. The farmers want their independent assertion rather than being dependent on the political parties and acting as their subservient.

It is the compulsion of survival for the political parties that they have been trying to identify themselves with the interest of the farmers. They know that it is the gathering strength of the farmers that would remove the BJP from power. There is no denying that RSS and farmers are engaged in the classical struggle for asserting their political power. The farmer leader Rakesh Tikait has made it explicit that the agitation would continue till 2024. It obviously implied that the farmers would perform the most proactive role during the election.

This stand of the farmers makes it explicit that for the leaders of the movement it is the politics which has gained primacy. It is not legal recourse. It is worth recalling that the farmer leaders had refused to accept the intervention of the Supreme Court and insisted on political solution. They knew that intervention of the Supreme Court cannot reverse the anti-people implications of the processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. These need political initiatives.

Let us have a look at the process of negotiations. The farmer leaders never abandoned the process of negotiation. They know this is the political process. The first round of talks with farmers was held on December 3, 2020. In the sixth round, the Centre agreed to exempt farmers from the stubble burning penalty and dropped changes notified in the Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020. The Modi government even offered to amend the fee structure notified in the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), and promised stricter provisions to safeguard farmers’ land rights, strengthening of notified markets and a guarantee on minimum support prices (MSPs). But farmers rejected these offers by a majority votes. They smelt the trap. “It is absolutely clear that the Narendra Modi government has not given up on its numerous tactics of escaping its responsibility towards farmers of the country” , observed Morcha.

The intensity of the desire to have political power could be gauged from the simple fact that farmers leaving behind their families in remote villages have been camping at the Delhi border for last seven months barving chilly winter and worst rains. What is really significant is the urge to have political power has even motivated the women folks of the farmers to take charge of their family responsibilities and allow their men to focus on the movement. Except Assam movement of 1989, no other parallel could be traced out across the country of any such movement.

The support the farmers’ movement has been getting could be gauged from the simple instance of Punjab government extending its support. For the first time Punjab government is supporting the farmers’ movement against the Central government. Not only this, the movement is being supported by retired and even serving civil servants, teachers, students, civil society activists, artists and professionals. In other words, the class which has ruled this state since the mid-’60s in the post-Green Revolution phase has joined this protest.

The current protest movement is different from earlier agrarian protests in terms of the economic demands, politico-cultural stakes and identity overtones. The earlier agitations revolved around the enhancement of support prices, institutionalised credit system, regular supply of inputs on subsidised rates, but this movement has its main mission of assertion of the political power of the farmers.

The BJP leaders allege that the farmer leaders have been prolonging the movement for electoral gains. This is factually wrong. Since Modi is not willing to resolve the crisis and rescind the three black laws, they have no other alternative but continue with their agitation. As the BJP leadership and especially Modi has been using the people’ verdict as the sign of existence of vibrant democracy and people endorsing the government stand, the farmers are determined to take advantage of the situation and use the election to convey its message. A defeat of the BJP in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2022 assembly elections would prove to be the moral booster.

An impression is being created by a section of the media and vested interest, that the farmers have been stretching the agitation to help the opposition parties in these two states. This is entirely a malicious propaganda. The fact is the opposition intends to use the situation to win the election. Certainly the farmedrs should not be blamed for creation of this situation. Modi could have ensure a grand victory for his party by announcing the withdrawal of the three laws. Under the federal functioning the state assembly has no powers to nullify the central Acts and introduce their own Acts to regulate agriculture trade. Obviously the Congress government of the state which supports the withdrawal has extended its support to the movement. Modi must realise that implementation oh his policies is fraught with danger and imperil the livesof crores of farmers.

The Modi government and its leaders have been spreading wrong information. BJP chief minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar has been repeatedly claiming that only “a handful of people” were supporting the ongoing farmer agitation. He also tries to create confusion by saying that farmers are getting all the benefits of government schemes — like that of direct payment in their accounts in lieu of selling their crops. He also claimed that “there are voices against the agitators from many places”.

In the past two years there has been a great deal of opposition to Modi’s ‘visionary leadership’. It was ordinary farmers who took to the streets to protest against the farm laws. The peasants marched to Raj Bhavans across the country, raising slogan of ‘Save Agriculture’ and ‘Save Democracy’

While the Union agriculture minister has been promising to start fresh round of talks with the farmers, Modi government had been gradually closing down government grain procurement centres (mandis). The fact of the matter is the Modi government started tormenting the farmers right after coming to power in 2014, but it crossed all limits of brutality in the last seven months. Nowhere in the world are the farmers treated in this manner like the Modi government has dealt with them during the last seven months. The intention was clear when they tried to kill the Land Acquisition Act in 2014. Then they filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that giving the promised 50 per cent profit on input cost is not possible.

The government and farmer unions have held 11 rounds of talks so far, the last being on January 22, to break the deadlock and end the farmers’ protest. Talks have not resumed following widespread violence during a tractor rally by protesting farmers on January 26. The farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal Rajewal alleged that the central government intended to “hand over farming” to corporate houses. The farmers have also decided to educate fellow citizens and appeal to them to punish BJP. That is the only lesson that the government seems to be willing to listen to.

Darshan Pal of the Bharatiya Kisan Union claimed; “In the last seven months, farmer unions of India, led by Samyukt Kisan Morcha, organised one of the world’s largest and longest continuous protests. Thousands have joined in from different parts of the country. We plan to intensify our stir as well.” Yet another senior leader Rakesh Tikait announced that farmers will hold more rallies in the coming days;. “A tractor rally will be held on July 9 in which people from Shamli and Bhagpat will be present. It will reach Singhu border on July 10.”

He said; “Another rally will be held on July 24, in which farmers from Bijnor and Meerut will participate. On the night of July 24, they will halt at Meerut toll and on 25th July the rally will reach the Delhi-Ghazipur border. Thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November, demanding that the central government repeal the three laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies. Apparently the farmers fear the policies will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the minimum support price regime. According to him "The historical farmers’ movement being led by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha is not only a movement to save farming and farmers of the country but also the democracy of our country." The SKM said it hoped that it would get the president’s support as he had taken an oath to save the Constitution of India.

Farmers believe that “the outcome of their agitation is deeply connected with the political strength of BJP in the country as only the ruling party can take a call on the fate of three farm laws”. So, farmers link the results of polls with the fate of their agitation. Political observers say, protesters will try to make efforts “to impact the poll scenario” in future too if the agitation continues for long.

Meanwhile some bureaucrats close to Modi and Amit Shah have started the basic issue of existence of farmers. It is argued that government welfare schemes are aimed at poverty alleviation and uplifting those at the bottom of the pyramid. There’s no policy for those in the “middle” and in danger of slipping to the bottom. It is also said that the demand for making MSP a legal right is basically a demand for price parity that gives agricultural commodities sufficient purchasing power with respect to things bought by farmers.

Questions are being raised about how many farmers does India really have? The Agriculture Ministry’s last Input Survey for 2016-17 pegged the total operational holdings at 146.19 million. The NABARD All India Rural Financial Inclusion Survey of the same year estimated the country’s “agricultural households” at 100.7 million. The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan) has around 111.5 million enrolled beneficiaries, with an average of 102 million-plus getting payments during 2020-21.

India’s official farmer population, in other words, is anywhere between 100 million and 150 million. But how much of this comprises actual farmers? Agricultural households, as per NABARD’s definition, cover any household whose value of produce from farming activities is more than Rs 5,000 during a year. That obviously is too little to qualify as living income.

A “real” farmer is someone who would derive a significant part of his/her income from agriculture. This, one can reasonably assume, requires growing at least two crops in a year. The 2016-17 Input Survey report shows that out of the total 157.21 million hectares (mh) of farmland with 146.19 million holdings, only 140 mh was cultivated. And even out of this net sown area, a mere 50.48 mh was cropped two times or more, which includes 40.76 mh of irrigated and 9.72 mh of un-irrigated land. Taking the average holding size of 1.08 hectares for 2016-17, the number of “serious full-time farmers” cultivating a minimum of two crops a year — typically one in the post-monsoon kharif and the other in the winter-spring rabi seasons — would be hardly 47 million. Or, say, 50 million.

An impression is being created that the real number of the farmers is quite less and it is middlemen who benefit are spearheading the movement. It is said the current agriculture crisis is largely about 50-75 million farm households. At the heart of this is the absence of price parity. The absence of farm price parity didn’t hurt much initially when crop productivity was rising.

An annual transfer of Rs 6,000 under PM-Kisan is a pittance for the full-time agriculturist who spends Rs 14,000-15,000 on cultivating just one acre of wheat and, likewise, Rs 24,000-25,000 on paddy, Rs 39,000-40,000 on onion and Rs 75,000-76,000 on sugarcane. When crop prices fail to keep pace with escalating costs — of not only inputs, but everything the farmer buys — the impact is on the 50-75 million surplus producers. Any “agriculture policy” has to first and foremost address the problem of price parity. The government has to ensure that farmers’ interest are protected.

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