Loyal readers will recall that in the waning days of 2020, Veena Dubal interviewed Navyug Gill about the massive protests that were taking place in India against the privatization of the agricultural sector. In the wake of the farmers’ recent victory, Dubal and Gill reconvened to discuss the events that have unfolded over the past year, how to understand Modi’s capitulation, and what lessons other movements can draw from this victory.
After our previous conversation, the protests continued for another eleven months. Can you tell us a bit about what the protests looked like over the past year?
People in the West often have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea of a sustained protest. While there are important exceptions—like the First Nations’ blockades in different parts of North America, the “Moral Mondays” campaign in the US South a few years ago, or the occasional intransigent workplace strike—most protests here are short-lived. Once people feel that they have expressed their opposition, or the police harshly cracks-down, the protest usually ends.
What we witnessed in India was a sustained, indefinite protest. Right from the onset, there was an awareness that this was going to be a struggle that lasted many months or even years. Union leaders on the ground went about organizing a distinctive protest infrastructure—with communal kitchens, sleeping and living arrangements, and a stage, along with an elaborate relay system connecting people and supplies from villages to the frontlines. And even within the popular idioms and music that accompanied the protest, there was a sense that people were not going to back down no matter how long it took.
Over the past year, the movement displayed remarkable tenacity and resilience. Through the bitter cold, through a devastating COVID pandemic in the spring, and through the blistering summer, people remained at the three main protest sites of Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur on the outskirts of Delhi. All attempts to discredit and dislodge the protestors—by the corporate media, online Trolls, right wing goons, and by police—failed, and the movement managed to put in place a rotational system, so that people could return to their homes for a period of time, while others would come and take their place. Also, there were around 120 ongoing smaller protests throughout Panjab and Haryana that effectively shutdown various toll plazas, corporate gas stations, malls, grain silos, and refineries. State politicians from the BJP were even forced to cancel public appearances and barred from entering many localities. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this in recent years, in terms of a prolonged struggle to force the government to change its ways.
How were these laws discussed on the ground? For instance, did everyday conversations connect these specific laws to privatization and the growth of a broader neoliberal approach to the economy in India?
Yes, within the protest movement, there was striking clarity about what these laws would do to people’s lives. Remember that the work of political education had begun over the summer of 2020, when farmer and laborer unions started a grassroots campaign to inform people about the proposed bills. For the past several decades these groups had built up both their credibility and capacity by engaging in smaller local mobilizations. This is why the average person at a protest site could not only give a succinct critique of the laws, but also connect them to unscrupulous politicians, corporate greed and the nefarious designs of the WTO and IMF.
Yet in most mainstream Western reporting, you’ll find the narrative that the government was attempting to introduce much-needed “agricultural reforms” but was stymied by people wary of change. I wince every time I hear that on NPR. Presenting these laws as “reforms” reproduces the cunning of neoliberalism, where a certain policy or institution is decried as faulty in order to present the most conservative option as the only possible solution.
On the ground, people challenged this idea of “reform” immediately. And they were able to break the logic that opposition to these laws meant an endorsement of the status quo. Nobody in Panjab was content with the existing management of agriculture, from direct concerns about price remuneration, soil degradation, and water contamination to wider questions of equity and ecology. Indeed, all of the various options for genuinely reforming agriculture had been ignored by different parties for half a century. So when these laws were pushed through parliament by the BJP in September 2020, it was widely seen as nothing more than an attempt to privatize agriculture for the benefit of corporate interests and foreign powers.
The BJP is the far-right political party that is in power in India. How did other political parties in the country respond to the laws?
This is an important caveat. The desire to privatize ever more sectors of the economy is shared by most mainstream parties. While the BJP took the lead in this instance, the Indian National Congress [the other main party] has long favored deregulation, privatization, and financialization through and through. Being out of power gave them a degree of cover to voice opposition to these laws as the tide turned, but if they’d been in power, it’s doubtful they would have acted differently. Perhaps it would be akin to the Democrats feigning displeasure at Trump’s policy of drone strikes, deportations, or corporate profiteering. Beyond the nostalgia of some liberals and loyalists, the Congress does not represent anything hopeful.
In this sense, another major victory of the farmers’ movement has been to force a fracture—at least a publicly—in the political consensus. This has opened up a space for different kinds of contestations. The existing major parties in Panjab—the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, and to an extent the newer Aam Admi Party—are under severe pressure because they are not seen as having meaningful responses to the kinds of questions people are now asking. The BJP is almost universally reviled. At the same time, two groups of farmer unions have decided to create their own political formations—the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha and the Sanyukt Sangharsh Party—to field candidates in the state election scheduled for February 2022. However, other militant unions, namely the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), remain committed to mass mobilization and public confrontation rather than electoral politics. And, a new civil society organization called Jujhda Punjab has emerged, seeking to raise awareness and support popular initiatives. At the moment, then, the landscape for re-imaging the content of democracy is far more portentous in Panjab than it is in the US.
It will be so interesting to see how these political parties’ attempts at neoliberal reform in other sectors will be understood in light of this victory. Why do you think Modi reversed course?
The determination and coordination of the protest must be put at the center of any analysis of Modi’s reversal. For the capital city of a major country—proclaimed as the world’s largest democracy—to be besieged for over a year amid a pandemic is no ordinary feat. It was only the protestors’ adamant refusal to back down that forced the government to reach the point where tangible costs started to overtake potential benefits. This tenacity of the protesters’ struggle captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of people, especially in other agriculture-dependent regions. Also, the BJP had to contend with the upcoming state election in Uttar Pradesh in early 2022 after falling short of projections in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in the spring of 2021. Finally, relentless global scrutiny took a toll, with constant protests led by diaspora Sikhs in front of Indian embassies and consulates. Rather than an act of benevolence or grand strategy, Modi’s concession was compelled by the force of collective mobilization.
In this sense, the government’s reversal is a clear failure on several fronts. It is a defeat for the neoliberal agenda that makes a fetish of privatization and seeks to subordinate the public good to corporate interests; for right-wing Hindutva politics based on majoritarian supremacy and fomenting hatred between communities; for the centralizing Indian state that violates the jurisdictional limits of its own constitution; for an authoritarian style of governance that expects citizens to meekly follow decrees without dissent; and for the global economic order that demands countries like India remove protections and supports in order to uphold trade asymmetries. Of course, this does not mean the struggle is complete, or that these forces will not try to further such an agenda through alternative means. But it does show that they can be defeated.
What do you make of Modi’s extraordinarily obsequious language? For instance, in his speech announcing the reversal, he apologized and asked for a chance to “make a fresh start.” What do you make of that?
This was absolutely revelatory. If you look at Modi’s language, it captures how Indian leaders still act like colonial officials and treat their citizens like subjects. It brings to mind the historian Ranajit Guha’s critique of depictions of anti-colonial rebellions as un-thinking and naturalistic. “There was no way,” he states, “for the peasant to launch into such a project in a fit of absent-mindedness.” Modi, however, only expressed regret that the government was unable to explain to farmers the benefit of these laws. Their obstinacy, in other words, was a false consciousness, which resurrects the category “pre-political.” Indeed, right from the beginning, the government and corporate media repeatedly insinuated that farmers were too stupid to realize their own interests, misled by subversive elements or hijacked by foreign agents. Nowhere was there an acknowledgement that they might understand the situation perfectly well and yet still have a different set of priorities.
Modi might have symbolically chosen the Gurpurab of Guru Nanak Ji [the day Sikhs celebrate their birth of the founder of Sikhi] to announce the reversal, but it fooled no one.
What has the reaction been like as people are going home or having victory parades—what has it looked like to end this kind of sustained protest?
The mood at the front lines has been ecstatic. People throughout Panjab and Haryana are in rapture. To understand this reaction and the gravity of the situation, maybe we should try to contemplate what it might have looked like had they been defeated. Imagine if the numbers at the protest sites had started to decrease; imagine if the government had pried open one or two or three more lanes on the highways; imagine if there had been more concerted attacks by right-wing goons or the police; imagine if many thousands had fallen severely ill due to the pandemic or weather; or imagine if the union leadership had splintered and capitulated—imagine if, one way or another, the protestors had been forced to trudge back to their homes empty-handed. What would be the fate of society? To me, the despondency is almost too terrible to fathom. Who would risk raising their voice to oppose anything else? How would people gather the resolve to mobilize again? When would there ever be another strike? The forces of pessimism and quietism—those who declare that protest leads to nothing—would be immeasurably strengthened. The scenes of celebration thus reflect just how much hinged on this victory.
It’s also important to note that this struggle demonstrated to people across India and the world the possibility and practice of unity. While the protest was led by 34 major farmer and laborer unions from Panjab, they were in cooperation with dozens of civil society organizations, along with scores of other unions and groups from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and elsewhere. The Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) emerged as a country-wide coordinating body of the movement, to take collective decisions and conduct negotiations. All of the groups involved had different histories, constituencies, and political orientations, and therefore were not always in agreement. But they managed to retain their differences while working in close conjunction to achieve a common outcome. It is therefore possible to imagine meaningful united action from a divided if not disjoined political landscape.
To hear you articulate that is so moving; it feels so hopeful. What can other social and political movements in South Asia learn from the farmers’ movement? What are the paths forward from this victory?
This is a fraught question. It is quite difficult to make sense of what is portable or translatable from one context to another. We might say, pace Tolstoy, every happy success is actually successful in its own way. The coordinates of this struggle, the issues at hand, and the ways people achieved victory are obviously singular.
Nevertheless, it may be possible to hazard a few tentative observations. One of the most powerful aspects of this movement is that it was a societal mobilization. The core constituency comprised of farmers and rural workers, but huge numbers of people across Panjabi and Haryanvi society and elsewhere joined—from shopkeepers and transporters, to teachers and students, professionals and urban workers, government employees and religious figures, celebrities and athletes. Each could see the value in this struggle, and contributed in different ways both at the Delhi border and from afar.
Another point would be to recognize the power of a broad coalition. Pre-existing divisions within the unions, and between them and other civil or religious groups, did not need to be fully resolved in order for them to work alongside one another for a common goal. Such unity was a product not only of a mature leadership, but in fact imposed upon them by their members and the wider public participating in the protest. People politicized at the frontlines made clear they would not tolerate petty bickering any more than a backroom deal, which amplified the historical burden of staying together. This will become more important in the coming months, as the SKM negotiates with the government on the issue of an all-India MSP system [minimum support prices for select crops along with the requisite purchasing infrastructure] to ensure the wellbeing of farmers across the country.
Finally, perhaps the ultimate insight for other struggles is simply that governments are invincible until they’re not. It is no accident that every law appears inflexible, every leader implacable, and every system immutable. But while all sorts of worthy mass movements frequently suffer shortcomings and setbacks, that too is never a foregone conclusion. The deeper point is that Modi’s immense bluster, and its accompanying neoliberal logic, was instantly overturned after a courageous, bitter and protracted struggle. May cracks in this edifice grow.