A new movement is born
IS the farmers’ movement in India entering a new phase? Six weeks is too short a window to answer this question with certainty. But the nature of farmers’ protest across the country since the beginning of farmers’ strike in Punjab shows signs of something new. This impression is confirmed in a two-week journey connecting farmers, organisations and movements across six states. This journey, Kisan Mukti Yatra, began on July 6 at Mandsaur, exactly a month after the police firing that killed six farmers. The yatra passed through six states before arriving at Delhi. This yatra was a good window into the new world of farmers’ movements, closer to the ground, I am now convinced that we are witnessing the beginnings of a tectonic shift in the history of farmers’ movements. The media has begun to notice some outward signs of this shift. There have been stories about jean-clad new-age farmer activists. The use of WhatsApp and smartphones has also drawn public attention. But such stories tend to miss the real point. Farmers’ movement is adjusting to the new realities of Indian agriculture and the changing nature of Indian politics. This is the third generation of farmers’ movements. The first generation comprised a series of peasant rebellions in colonial India. The Mappila peasant rebellion; Gandhian Satyagrah in Champaran, Khera and Bardoli; and Tebhaga struggle in Bengal were largely a reaction of the oppressed peasantry to the British colonial land tenure system. Indepedence brought hope to the peasantry; their movement subsided for a while. The second generation of farmers’ movements took place in the 1980s, led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, economists-turned-activist Sharad Joshi and maverick Majumdar Swami. This was a protest of the relatively better-off farmers, who faced marginalisation in modern, industrial economy. The struggle was waged principally on the issue of remunerative prices. On a parallel track were the struggles of landless labourers, led mostly by Naxalites, against oppression by big landlords. The third generation of farmer activists faces a new context. In the last generation, landholdings have fragmented. The farming sector, as a whole, has faced pauperisation. Farming is clearly an unviable activity. The economic and the ecological crisis of Indian farming is turning into an existential crisis for the Indian farmer. Today’s farmer movement has to face the reality of farmers’ suicides. This new movement is erasing the traditional distinctions of landlord, peasant, sharecropper or landless farmer. Impoverishment of rural India has forced farmers’ movements to bring all sections of farmers together. ‘Kisan mazdoor ekta’ has been a slogan of the Left for a long time, but it is only recently that the slogan has found resonance inside farmers’ movements.This expanded definition of farmer has encouraged the inclusion of various social segments. Dalits and Adivasis are predominantly engaged in farming activities. Yet they were not seen as farmers by mainstream farmers’ movements. This prejudice is beginning to change. As is the greater willingness among peasant movements to engage with Dalits and Adivasi issues. There is also a willingness to recognise women farmers who contribute about two-thirds of the labour. In ideological terms, the new farmers’ movement is moving away from older binaries. The earlier focus on landed versus landless has given way to a realisation that both of them are victims of the economic system. The urban-rural divide epitomised by the binary Bharat versus India has also undergone some rethinking. There is, after all, large chunk of Bharat within India, if not the other way round. There is also a growing realisation that the ecological crisis affects farmers as well as non-farmers and unhealthy farmer cannot but produce unhealthy food for the country. The move away from ideological rigidities has allowed for political unity and policy focus. In an unprecedented move, more than 150 farmer organisations have come together under the umbrella of All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee. This coalition includes organisations with very diverse political-ideological leanings. It brings together organisations from different parts of the country representing different crops. If this coalition holds, it has tremendous potential for decisive intervention on this issue. Perhaps for the first time, all the farmers’ organisations have agreed upon a common agenda. All organisation within AIKSCC, and even those outside, have agreed to focus their energies on the twin agenda of fair and remunerative prices and freedom from debt. In keeping with the broader definition of a farmer, both these demands have also been defined in a more comprehensive manner. Fair and remunerative price is not limited just to MSP and procurement which benefit less than 1/10th of the Indian farmers. Now the farmers’ movements are demanding actual delivery of the support price announced by the government for all crops and for all farmers. Alternatively, they want deficit payment to cover the gap between the price announced by the government and the price realised by the farmers. Similarly, the demand for freedom from debt is not confined to Kisan Credit Card loans or loans from rural cooperative banks. The demand now also includes freedom from the debt trap of private moneylenders. This basic shift is reflected in the changing leadership of the new farmers. At the middle rung, the leadership of farmers’ movement comprises leaders with rural roots and urban exposure. They are from farming families, but not always practicing farmers. They understand the pain of the farmers but also speak the language of policy makers. They lead struggles on the ground, but also use RTI and litigation as tools. This youth leadership is the backbone of the new farmers’ movements. Would this new generation of farmers’ movement be more effective than its predecessors? While the need for farmers’ struggle has become more acute than before, the conditions for their mobilisation are more difficult today. It would take an imaginative and uncompromising yet inclusive leadership. Herein lies the challenge for farmers’ movements.