By Marty Goodman
Protesting Indian farmers were called “terrorists,” Sikh faith separatists, Maoists, and agents of Pakistan but their massive year-long mobilizations forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cancel its three pro-agribusiness laws first enacted in September 2020.
The largest mobilization in world history stunned India’s rulers and its parliamentary establishment when 250 million farmers, workers and students demonstrated on Nov. 26, 2020, many thousands riding on tractors.
Modi’s laws were formerly withdrawn on December 1, delivering a massive blow to his strongman persona and opening the way for even more resistance.
Adding to it’s panicked calculations the BJP is facing state elections in Utter Pradesh and Punjab in the coming months. These heavily agricultural northern states are large bases for protests and seen as another reason behind the government’s withdrawal of the farming laws.
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a platform of over 40 farm unions, said the repeal was proof of the success of its year-long struggle. It vowed to mobilize until all of its demands are won, proclaiming, “History has been made today. This is the first major victory of the farmers’ movement, while other important demands are still pending.”
On the agenda will be winning a Minimum Support Price government subsidy for the small farmers’ crops as security against agribusiness price gouging and hoarding. In addition, overturning Modi’s new law that undermines union organizing rights,
protester Jagdeep Singh, whose father was killed in October in a protest in Uttar Pradesh, stated “This is a win for all those farmers who laid down their lives to save hundreds of thousands of poor farmers of this country from corporate greed.”
Modi’s three laws favored agribusiness over small farmers and threatened the survival of India’s impoverished rural workforce. The laws undermined long-standing governmental measures that stabilized crop prices in the form of a Minimum Support Price, which limited corporate hording and price gouging. The changes, pitched as eliminating red-tape, were encouraged by the monopoly food export business in line with policies favored by the U.S.- dominated World Bank and U.S. imperialism.
India’s COVID-19 pandemic, second only to the U.S. in COVID deaths, resulted in tens of millions losing their jobs, which Modi saw as an “opportunity in crisis,” a ready excuse to enact a ruthless “disaster capitalism” free-market economic plan favorable to his personal friendships with billionaires.
Some 60 percent of India’s population work in the rural sector; nearly 86percent cultivate less than five acres of land. The rural Indian population lives in severe poverty and debt. In 2019 alone an astounding 10,281 in the farming sector committed suicide, averaging some 28 people per day.
The small farmer’s movement has electrified Indian politics, overcoming religious and caste differences stoked by Modi and his Hindu supremacist BJP. Women in particular have played a highly visible role during the protests.
The movement formed massive encampments of tens of thousands that still surround India’s capital of New Delhi. In January 2021, protesters briefly occupied the Red Fort, a massive holdover from British colonialism located in the capital. At least one farmer was killed in the melee.
“Look around, nobody’s gone home,” said Singara Singh Maan, after Modi’s concession announcement. Maan, a 60-year-old cotton grower from Punjab and a protest organizer added, “If anything, more people are coming. We’re going to stay until all our demands are met.”
Working class unity
Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress, helped labor and farmers fight together, both sectors agreeing to mutual support. Pacts were reached to block not only Modi’s farm laws but also his labor policies and the privatization of India’s electricity sector. Said Kaur, “Cementing the unity between the farmers and trade union movement is a great gain of this historic moment.”
During the year of protests, small farmers, striking workers and students faced severe repression, beatings, jail and even death at the hands of police and para-militaries. Moreover, the winter of 2020 was particularly harsh for those in the camps as COVID-19 ravaged the country. Over 700 protesters died during the year-long struggle, some by suicide. (See SA article, “India Strike Wave is Biggest in World History,” Jan. 2021)
Modi and the BJP
The BJP’s roots are in the extreme Hindu supremacist and fascistic ideology known as Hindutva. Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was linked to anti-Muslim mobs that raped and murdered some 1,000 in 2002. In 2019, the Modi/BJP government militarily annexed and crushed dissident in the majority Muslim Kashmir and also in Jammu.
In January 2020, Modi sponsored the bigoted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Under the CAA, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan could become citizens if they came to India before Dec. 31, 2014 – all except Muslims. Repression followed the strikes and the large demonstrations against the CAA, yet those mobilizations set the stage for the ethnic unity that later manifested itself in the farmer-led protests.
In Lakhimpur Kheri in the northern state of Utter Pradesh, a heavily Sikh region, the son of a BJP federal minister drove his car into protesters in October, killing eight. Protesters there faced police beatings and killings by BJP goons.
The World Bank and U.S. Imperialism
Developments in Indian agriculture mirror the international crisis of capitalist farming and the ever-encroaching takeover of small family holdings by giant agribusiness combines. An estimated 70 percent of all farmland around the world is controlled by only one percent of farms, the huge agri-business conglomerates. Modi’s agricultural “reforms” follow economic models favored by the U.S.-controlled World Bank which promotes neo-liberal, free-market capitalism based an agribusiness food export model, one that basically deprives populations of domestically produced nutritious foods and essentially feeds the West.
India’s “Green Revolution,” begun in the 1960’s, was based on imported U.S. concepts that bolstered capitalism and opposed government support mechanisms for small farmers put in place by the then social democratic Congress Party, led most prominently by independence leader, Mahatma Ghandi. The ideological intent of the “Green Revolution” was anti-communism.
With World Bank prodding India also began a trend toward the privatization of public utilities and institutions beginning in the 1990’s. This was massively accelerated under Modi, who sold India’s prime assets at fire-sale prices – a bonanza for foreign investors.
Under President Barack Obama U.S. policy underwent a “tilt toward Asia,” which included India in a power scramble to offset the growing economic and military influence of China. Today, provocative joint U.S. naval maneuvers in the Pacific include Indian navy vessels. In addition, U.S. arms sales to India have increased five-fold between 2013 and 2017. U.S. military training has been increased and, in May 2018, the U.S. announced that the Pacific Command was being re-named the “Indo-Pacific Command.” (See SA, “Book Reviews: India: Hotbed of Revolt,” June 2021).
The historic victory of the small farmers opens the door for more struggle, more victories against the still powerful Modi and his BJP, including critical openings for farmer-worker ethnic unity as well as the inclusion of the doubly oppressed women, the Dalit “untouchable” class, etc.
This historic struggle, if several reports are correct, left the parliamentary parties in the role of onlookers not its sparkplugs. The capitalist Congress Party and the traditional workers’ parties, including the reformist Stalinist Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the smaller reformist Communist Party of India, essentially function as an anti-Modi parliamentary bloc, with the two workers’ parties, acting as Congress’s captive subordinates.
A genuine defeat of the BJP, however, can only emerge in the course of ongoing and independent anti-capitalist struggles that demonstrate to the oppressed that it is in their self-interest to fight Modi and reaction to the bitter end, including the formation of independent working class organizations in the political arena to champion and advance the mass mobilizations that are demonstrating working class power.
India’s epic struggles reveal the need for the construction of a revolutionary party – a party capable of leading a sustained nationally coordinated strike to bring down Modi and replace the BJP with a workers’ government that fights for socialism. Ultimately, the misery of the Indian workers and farmers can only be ended by a revolutionary challenge to capitalism itself.