When the ongoing farmers’ protest in India began last year in the states of Punjab and Haryana, nobody could predict that it would go on for so long and its resonance would be felt across the country. It’s been going on for nine months now and is the longest running protest by farmers in Indian history. The farmers have been facing agrarian crisis for a long time, which has contributed to low earnings and debt traps; and eventually driven many farmers to suicide. The three farm laws passed hastily by the government during the pandemic, were the last straw. These laws essentially mean corporatization of the farm sector. And in a matter of time they will destroy the government mandis(markets), on which the farmers depend to sell their produce. Marginal and small farmers, who constitute more than 80% of farming households will be the worst affected because they have no bargaining power over the big agribusiness firms. Also the middlemen and the labour they employ will lose their source of livelihood. The Public Distribution System(PDS) which relies on government procurement of food grains will eventually become dysfunctional. Unlike the farmer of yesteryear, the farmer of today is more aware and tech savvy. Thus, in no time the farm leaders and farmers decoded the farm laws and soon protests demanding scrapping of farm laws began. The states of Punjab and Haryana have been at the forefront of the protest because these states have strong presence of farm unions; along with being the bread basket of the country, it’s in these states only where maximum procurement of food grains is done on MSP (Minimum Support Price) and thus the privatization of the farm sector will hugely impact them. The ripples of the protest that began in these states soon reached other parts of the country.
The massive turnout of the farmers for the 26th November 2020, Delhi march call given by farm unions, was unexpected even for the farm leaders themselves. While the farmers had to battle water cannons and police barricades on their way to capital Delhi, the momentum the protest thus gained has been unprecedented. In the past nine months, the farmers have faced many challenges including a pandemic. More than six hundred protesting farmers have died and many have got injured in various police crackdowns. But despite all the obstacles, the farmers are more than ever resolved to get their demands met. More so because after the breakdown of the initial rounds of talks between the government and the farmers, seven months ago, negligible effort has been made by the government to restart the negotiation process. Quoting American writer Vivian Gornick, ‘Collectively speaking, if we chart the internal mood of every successful movement for social integration we find that ironically, with each advance made it is anger not hope, much less elation- that deepens in the petitioners at the gate. Ironic but not surprising: to petition repeatedly means that one is not wanted, never had been, never will be.’ This holds true for the farmers; they are angrier than hopeful. And this anger fuels the protest.
Gradually in these nine months the farmers protest movement has evolved into a social movement. They have been consistently campaigning their cause across India and the world, using various mediums. The farmers are effectively using social media to raise awareness about their issues. Another, important facet of this movement is that it is a leaderful movement. A leaderful movement may appear to be a chaotic one, but not this one. Farm unions from across the country together form Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM; United Front of Farmers) and they follow a collective vision. All decisions are collectively taken by SKM. Whatever discord appears amongst the different unions has always been amicably and democratically resolved. The farm leaders have been able to effectively inspire not only the farmers but also each other. Cultural, language, religious and state boundaries have got blurred. Repeated attempts to divide the farmers have failed. The true strength of this protest is the coming together of different farm unions under the umbrella of SKM. According to Greg Satell, author of the book, ‘Cascades: How to create a movement that drives transformational change’,” To truly change the world or even just your little corner of it, you don’t need a charismatic leader or a catchy slogan. What you need is a cascade: small groups that are loosely connected but united by a common purpose. As individual entities, these groups may seem inconsequential, but when they synchronize their collective behavior as networks, they become immensely powerful”. Thus the collective presence of farm unions representing farmers from almost every state of the country has emerged as a force to reckon with.
Another facet of the farmer’s movement is its non-violent nature. This makes it easier for farmers as well as common citizens to identify with it. In Mahatma Gandhi’s nation farmers are protesting using his trademark tools of non-violent Satyagraha. The past nine months have seen sustained and organized effort by the farmers. Various kinds of public and political action have been used. There have been public meetings, maha panchayats, processions, demonstrations, rallies, twitter hashtags, Farmers Parliament, National Convention of farmers etc. to further the cause. These nine months of farmer’s protest have showcased the unity, strength and organization of farmers.
Only time can tell which way the pendulum will swing in the coming months. But history tells us that protests have played a major role in securing many laws and policies we now take for granted. It can affect policy change even today. In retrospect, it seems the protest will persist till the desired goal is achieved. Giving up hope is no option for the farmers.
Livneet Shergill has a Ph.D. in Economics. She works as an Independent Researcher and chooses to be a free agent, for better or for worse.