On November 29, 2021, when the government of India repealed its three controversial agricultural laws, it marked a triumphant culmination for the 40,000 farmers who had camped on the borders of India’s national capital, Delhi, for over 16 months. Through this period, the protesters were accused of being paid propagandists who were anti-farmer, anti-progress, and anti-national. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the protestors as “parjeevis,” or parasites, while his ministers averred that the “bhole bhale” (simple-minded) farmers were misled about the laws by vested interests. Popular media alleged that the movement was arranged for and led by large farmers even as social media trolls accused the protestors of being khalistanis or Punjabi separatists.
Yet, notwithstanding these insults and insinuations, the government ultimately acquiesced to the farmers’ demand and repealed the laws. How did these “simple-minded” farmers come up trumps against a government that is adept at using mass media, social media, and its own electoral majority to overcome opposition and push through even the most contentious policies without much discussion? And what are the implications of this movement beyond the realm of farming?
To find out the answers to these questions, we spoke at length to two of the architects of the anti-farm law movement, Dr. Ashok Dhawale and Ms. Kavita Kuruganti. Dhawale is the president of the All-India Kisan Sabha, the largest farmers’ union in India, which has over a million members, while Kuruganti has worked for over 25 years on sustainable farm livelihoods and farmers’ rights. Both are members of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM, United Farmers’ Front), a coalition of over 40 farmers’ unions that coordinated the anti-farm law movement.
Farm Laws vs Farmers
The immediate trigger for the anti-farm law (AFL) movement was the passage of three laws: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020; and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The first sought to liberalize agricultural commodity trading; the second allowed farmers to enter into contract farming arrangements directly with agri-business companies; and the third law removed limits on stocks of important commodities like rice, wheat, pulses, sugar, oil, etc., that private traders could hold. These laws sought to usher in a second green revolution that would revitalize India’s agriculture, boost agricultural research, strengthen the rural credit system, and realize India’s potential as a single large market.
Farmers, particularly those from the irrigated belts of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh (UP), and opposition political parties expressed concerns regarding the three laws. Yet the government passed the draft laws in both houses of Parliament without much discussion, in the middle of a raging pandemic. While in the lower house (Lok Sabha), it passed them using its majority, in the upper house (Rajya Sabha), where the governing coalition is in a minority, it passed two of the three bills using a voice vote instead of a full vote. Institutional provisions like the Parliamentary Standing Committee that would have allowed for wider deliberations on the bills were overlooked in favor of quick passage.
This undermining of legislative processes and democratic norms fueled farmers’ belief that the government was not keen on a serious discussion about the laws and that their voices would not be heard. Dhawale shared that the farmers, after perusing the bills, concluded that they would undermine farm incomes, stymie their ability to make decisions about what they produce on their lands, expose them to litigation against powerful companies, exacerbate out-migration from farming, and result in land grabbing.
Roots of the Farmers’ Angst
Even before the controversial laws, there had been simmering unrest among Indian farmers in recent years, manifesting in several mass demonstrations across the country. The same sentiments culminated in the months-long AFL movement in 2020-21. Specific economic, ecological, and social factors underpinned all of these protests.
First, farming does not earn enough for farmers. The rising costs of cultivation, partly due to cutbacks in government subsidies on key inputs like fertilizers and seeds, combined with falling farm incomes pushed millions of farmers, irrespective of their location, landholdings, or other socioeconomic markers, deeper into debt.
Second, the present intensive-cultivation model of agriculture has reached its ecological limits. Pursuit of higher agricultural yields through heavy use of inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and groundwater-based irrigation has resulted in severe soil degradation and plummeting water tables. This has forced farmers into a vicious cycle of having to invest ever-increasing sums of money into inputs to maintain their yields.
Third, there has been growing inequality both among farmers, and between farmers and other demographic segments. Large farmers, often from upper castes, are better positioned to marshal credit and other inputs needed for agriculture, relative to those with smaller land holdings, many of whom are from marginalized castes. At the same time, a general decline in farm incomes has meant that farmers across the landholding spectrum earn less than other demographic segments.
Fourth, as Kuruganti told us, even large farmers have little power to control the different aspects of agricultural production, whether they be weather, the cost of inputs, or the sale price of their produce. The combination of these factors undergirds the angst of the Indian farmer.
The AFL movement was launched in August 2020, with the goal of getting the Indian government to repeal the farm laws. Over time, the movement added other demands that sought to enhance farm incomes and sustain input support from the government.
Three strategies served the protesting farmers well. The first was to form a broad-based alliance of farmers’ unions. The SKM brought together unions from across the ideological spectrum, Marxists and centrists, socialists and free-market champions, advocates of commercial farming and those standing for sustainable agricultural practices, “progressives” and “conservatives.” This broad cooperation was something that, as Dhawale pointed out, had never happened in the history of independent India.
Kuruganti saw this unity among farmers’ unions as one of the biggest accomplishments of the AFL movement. These unions developed an appreciation for and learned from each other; from their articulations about the challenges facing Indian agriculture; and from how different groups went about addressing these challenges. They learned to negotiate across their differences to find areas of convergence while placing their divergences on the backburner, and to craft a common narrative against the farm laws.
The second strategy that contributed to the AFL movement’s success was to consciously articulate the concerns of a broad spectrum of farmers, and not just of those who would have been directly impacted by the farm laws. The movement realized early on that it had a better chance of succeeding if it could go beyond the confines of the farm laws and represent the concerns of all farmers, including those from dryland regions. Thus, in addition to demanding that the farm laws be repealed, one of the core demands of the AFL movement was that the central government pass a law making minimum support price (MSP) a legal right for all farmers. MSP, a market intervention by the Indian government for select agricultural commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, etc., to insure farmers against any sudden fall in prices, is currently available only to a small sub-set of farmers, a significant number of them from states like Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh.
The third strategy was to reach out to seemingly incompatible groups. Kuruganti shared a fascinating anecdote about the AFL movement engaging with the Khap Panchayats. Khaps are community groups that set rules for social conduct for people in designated areas comprising several villages. These groups are very powerful, especially in parts of Haryana and UP, and have, over years, gained notoriety for their regressive positions on women and Dalits. However, there is another facet to these institutions: They take enormous pride in their identity as farmers, and the arguments made by the AFL movement had struck a chord with them. The movement set aside their reservations about khaps and engaged with them, without compromising on their inclusive ideals. This added considerable ballast to the movement.
Alongside these strategies, there are five operational aspects that stood the movement in good stead. First is the adherence to the Gandhian principles of satyagraha and non-violence. The movement made a conscious attempt to remain peaceful, despite any number of provocations. The movement signaled time and again, overtly and otherwise, that it was an inclusive space for all groups including women, religious minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis (indigenous groups).
The second aspect that proved to be a force-multiplier was the religious precepts of Sikhism. The Sikh teaching of Seva (service) and the practice of langar (community kitchen) were the propellants for the months-long movement. The sense of seva motivated people from all walks of life – including doctors, lawyers, academics, artists, cooks, IT professionals, and traders – to do their bit, whether it be providing medical care to the protesters, tweeting about the movement, writing op-eds, preparing legal briefs, or cleaning the protest sites.
The third operational aspect that strengthened the movement was intellectual deftness. The movement adroitly blended diverse intellectual strands including Marxism, Ambedkarite thought, Gandhism, feminism, ecological agriculture, and religious teachings to craft an eclectic idiom of protest.
Fourth, the AFL movement used space shrewdly. In an interesting anecdote shared by Dhawale, when the farmers reached the Delhi outskirts in their tractors and trolleys, they were prevented from entering the city. As they were deciding on a site for their protest, the Delhi state government offered a nearby maidan or ground. However, the farmers realized that if they opted for the maidan, their movement would gain no visibility whatsoever. Instead, they opted to camp right there on the highway. This ensured that they received daily coverage from the local, national, and international media.
Lastly, the farmers proved to be remarkably media savvy. Through a well-organized social media campaign comprising regular updates on Twitter and Facebook, blogs, and vlogs, they ensured that their views were widely disseminated. Spokespersons of the movement never shied away from talking to the mainstream media, despite the latter’s hostility toward them. The movement also published a well-curated newsletter called “Trolley Times” that combined poetry, visual art, and reportage to give readers insights into the farmers’ concerns.
“Beacon of Hope”
The success of the farmers’ movement has implications for Indian democracy and beyond. For the first time since the 1980s and 1990s, farmers have emerged as an important political constituency. As our interlocutors averred, by mobilizing farmers from different geographies, ideologies, and from across the socioeconomic spectrum, the movement proved that farmers as a constituency could assert themselves and make the political class and the wider public pay heed to them.
The movement also showed that with tenacity and creativity, it is possible to mount a credible opposition to a popular government led by a charismatic leader. Since 2014, the Modi-led government has been challenged politically only on a handful of occasions. Their innumerable electoral successes in this duration have created a perception that this government is politically invincible and that spaces for opposition do not exist. However, the AFL movement has demonstrated that the opposition can carve a space for itself, provided they are willing to dig in and fight.
Lastly, the AFL movement underscores the importance of combining multiple forms of protest to be an effective opposition in India’s democracy. A strong social media presence is indispensable for the success of the movement. But just as important, even in this digital age, is an on-the-ground presence. The farmers were successful because they had a strong presence on the street and on the internet alike.
The AFL movement has scripted a new manual for carrying out oppositional politics in the era of post-truth and democratically elected strongmen. As Noam Chomsky put it aptly, India’s farmers provided a “beacon of hope in dark times.”
The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Ashok Dhawale, president of the All-India Kisan Sabha and Ms. Kavita Kuruganti from the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture for their time and insights.