Political Meaning and Significance of the Farmer’s Protests in India


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January 26, 2021

Political Meaning and Significance of the Farmer’s Protests in India

  • Democracy
  • india
  • Protest

The Kisan Andolan (farmers protests) in New Delhi started more than a month ago in response to three farm bills that were passed in September of 2020 amidst a raging pandemic. Farmers from the state of Punjab and Haryana had started protesting against the bills since September. Towards the end of November, however, farmers unions and associations decided to escalate their protests and started the “Dilli Chalo” (Go to Delhi) campaign. They have been occupying 5 major highways on the borders of New Delhi for over 50 days.

The purpose of the article is to elucidate the political meaning and significance of the Kisan Andolan

It is not to evaluate the contents of the new farm laws nor is it to assess the merits and demerits of the counter claims made by farmer unions and organisations. The article is not concerned with how things turn out, and it does not seek to speculate on what the ideal solutions to these problems are. All this is the job of farmer organisations, politicians, other stakeholders, and scholars who study India’s agricultural economy, the enduring agrarian crisis and rural society.

These protests follow in the footsteps of  the Shaheen Bagh protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019.  The importance of the anti-CAA protests and now the farmer protests, which are much larger in scale and are extraordinary in their organisational coherence, is that they concretize the horizon of democratic practice in Indian politics in the current moment. They demonstrate how the democratic political form of the assembly will likely be the avenue through which various groups and parts of Indian society opposed to the Modi regime will make their political presence felt. 

To get at this, it is imperative to begin with an account of certain aspects of the present political situation in India.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had a major influence on Indian politics since the early 90s, but the BJP under Narendra Modi has been authoritative in dictating the terms of political life in India. Putting aside the vast organisational network and resources of the BJP that give it an electoral edge, what makes the Modi-BJP distinctive is its populist dimension.

Now, populism is a fraught and controversial term and many have argued that it does not apply to the Indian context. Some also use it to refer to welfarist policies and schemes for the masses to secure electoral support. The theoretical understanding of this concept that I subscribe to, however, is different. Populism is principally concerned with how the “people” (most commonly of a nation) as a political subject gets constructed in relation to antagonistic adversaries or enemies, and is characterized by a leader who represents and embodies the will of this “people.” It is an attempt to determine and define who belongs to a particular political community and to mark its boundaries to keep others out.

The populism of Modi is clearly grounded in Hindu nationalism, where the “people” of the nation are marked by their cultural and ethno-religious “hinduness” or Hindutva. Its adversaries are most consistently the “foreigner” (which includes allegedly unassimilable Muslims), the ‘Left’ (which has historically been one of Hindutva’s arch enemies) and also an “elite” (which generally refers to cosmopolitan English-speaking secular liberals). 

Hindu nationalism’s “people” is characterized by its historical oppression during the Muslim and British rule over the subcontinent, and subsequently by the secular-liberal elite which, Hindu nationalists claim, in reality privileged the Muslim minority and flirted with Western “isms” that were corrosive and hostile towards Hindu culture. It should not be surprising then that the Modi regime takes seriously the task of undoing (in their view rectifying) Nehru’s legacy, of purging the cultural influence of Islam from public life, and fostering a Hindu national consciousness. 

With Modi at the helm, there is a promise for this “people” to recuperate a mythical past, and recover a lost dignity. There is a profoundly emotional content to populism since it is a source of identity and pride for those who belong. The key point is that this constructed “people” gets represented in the figure of the leader, who becomes the locus of emotional attachment. Modi’s centrality is hence absolutely fundamental: Modi is the representative of the nation’s “people”; Modi’s deeds are the will of the “people”; Modi’s speech is the voice of the “people.” A word against “Modi” then becomes a word against the “people” itself. 

It should be obvious that the empirical population inhabiting the territorial boundaries of the Indian state is heterogenous, always in flux, and cannot be concretely determined. By the time one reads this article this empirical population will change—some individuals will die and some will be born. But the “people” of the nation is stable because it is constructed and imagined. It cannot be entirely arbitrary and must have a referential relation to the empirical population and territory, but the latter will always overflow and escape any definitional closure. 

Therefore, once populism comes to power, as the Modi regime did in 2014, it becomes necessary to start disciplining and regulating the “people.” The populist discourse tries to ascribe various traits, characteristics, properties, capacities, and incapacities to the parts and constituent elements of the “people.” Whenever, those who are a part of the Indian population contest, challenge or subvert the construct of the “people,” they have to be denounced as “anti-national,” “urban Naxals,” “tukde-tukde gang,” “terrorists,” and so on. 

This is not limited to public declarations. One can use the repressive power of the state to arrest and silence the non-conforming elements. Using draconian laws to label individuals as “terrorists” and put them in preventive detention is an illustration of this disciplining and controlling imperative of populism in power. The important point is that these are not aberrant political practices of some tin pot dictator, but a necessary logical consequence of populism. 

Illiberalism, that is the upending of legal protections and regular violation of rule of law, is an in built tendency of populism. Of course tactics of repression have been used by governments since India’s inception, but with the Modi regime there is both a quantitative intensification and a qualitative transformation of such repression. 

The more stringent, homogenising and forceful the construct of the “people,” the greater the need to tame and contain the heterogeneous and plural elements of the population. Furthermore, the repression against recalcitrant elements is not simply for the base purpose of staying in power but for defending the purity of the “people” from contamination. If the Modi government passes a law, it must be the will of the “people,” and any challenge to it must be antithetical to the “people”; it must be coming from those parts opposed to the “people.” The very integrity and unity of the “people” thus comes under attack. 

Here we can start to grasp the significance of the farmer protests. Without taking a position on the virtues and limitations of the new farm laws, our interest is in unpacking the political and symbolic struggles at play. 

The Modi regime’s claim is that unbeknownst to the protesting farmers, the laws are good for them. After all, the “kisan” (farmer) along with the “jawan” (soldier) are glorified constituents of the “people.” A law passed by Modi must be willed by the “people” and cannot possibly be against the “kisan.” Any protesting farmer therefore is either not an authentic “kisan” or is being manipulated by middlemen and the opportunistic political opponents of the BJP, or worse, are stooges for conspiratorial groups. The farmers’ protests are being led almost exclusively by left peasant unions, and since, according to the government, their concerns are ill-founded, there must be some ulterior anti-“people” motive behind this movement. 

However, the staggering scale and radicalism of the farmers’ actions—their gherao (encirclement) of Delhi, blocking of highways, refusal to engage with pro-Modi media, barring politicians from hijacking the stage, hardline negotiations, and expanding national level mobilisations—pose a serious legitimacy challenge for the Modi BJP. The government has been extremely aggressive with marketing and positioning itself as pro-farmer. They have announced many welfarist policies in the past month alone. And since most of the protesting farmers are from Punjab, Modi is also demonstrating his fidelity to Sikh culture and identity. But these marketing tactics have been to no avail.

The farmers appear at present to be an entity the government cannot tame and domesticate through slogans and its numerous schemes. It is an unruly part that has claimed public space and is trying to secure the conditions of its own speech and actions. Its unruliness involves a rejection of common-sense and public understandings of the figure of the “kisan.” The farmer speaks for itself and cannot be disciplined from without.  Hence the complaint by the pro-Modi media that the protestors don’t “look like farmers”, “are too rich”, “speak English” etc.

This logic was apparent also in the anti-CAA protests, especially at Shaheen Bagh, where Muslim women, who in common-sense understanding were depoliticized persons relegated to the private sphere, came out in the open and asserted their political will. They defied the stereotypical construct of the “Muslim women” and asserted a political subjectivity. The figure of the Muslim citizen is always an impossibility for the Hindu nationalist “people” because while the Muslim has to demonstrate their allegiance to the nation, it is at the same time treated with pathological distrust. The Muslim women claiming the pluralistic values of the Indian constituion, therefore could not have been real for Modi’s populist regime. They were being paid, possibly from “foreign” (read terrorist) sources, to be there. 

The women of Shaheen bagh became political and appeared in public by rejecting their marginality and exclusion from the “people.” Given their excluded position, however, it was easier for the Modi regime to delegitimize them and maintain the integrity of the “people.”

Things are different with the Kisan Andolan. Owing to the incorporated presence and valorized position of “farmers” in the constructed “people”—after all, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” (“Hail the farmer, Hail the soldier”) is one of the most profusely asserted slogans in Indian politics—it is harder to dismiss and tackle their insurgent challenge. 

This is the true significance of the Kisan Andolan. The farmers have made an appearance on the political stage by occupying public spaces and representing themselves. This by itself is not new —there have been farmer protests before. What makes it salient is precisely its subversion of the populist construction; a part of the “people” inserts itself in the public eye and shows that it disagrees with the will of the “people” as embodied in the leader, in effect disrupting and destabilizing the construct of the “people.” 

The part’s self-representation shows that it is no longer docile and compliant with the constructedness of the “people.” It escapes the populist control and attempts to represent itself. The Kisan Andolan is hence a democratic politics that is both fugitive—it reneges its position within the “people”—and insurgent—it appears on its own terms and disputes the integrity of the constructed “people.” 

This is not to say that the part’s self-representation is without problems. The Kisan Andolan claims to be a protest of farmers, but in positing the identity of “farmers,” they have to devise argumentational strategies to circumvent contradictions between, for example, the left union leaders and the protestors who are of various ideological persuasions, between arthiyas (middle men) and farmers, between land owning farmers and landless farm labourers, and between farmers in the wheat belt and farmers in other parts of the country. 

The part’s self-representation is precarious and unstable both because of its internal contradictions, and also because its antagonist is the state whose resources it cannot match. Hence, the insurgent quality of this movement. The Modi regime will ultimately be able to use the apparatus of the state and its resources to pacify, foster division, delegitmize, and undermine this momentary interruption. 

So what do these two cases—Shaheen Bagh and more so the Kisan Andolan—tell us about the possibilities of democratic practice in the present? 

Both Shaheen Bagh and the Kisan Andolan have a democratic content. They are attempts by a collective to assert their subjectivity, and engage in political life. The political form of both is the assembly, that is, a congregation where bodies gather together to demonstrate their power. The assembly is public, based on occupying a common space and fostering forms of collective material and cultural life. 

At the Kisan Andolan, which is spread across five border locations on highways entering New Delhi, there is a main stage where announcements and speeches are made. But as one goes deeper into the assembly, one sees a colorful collective life. A Sikh ethic of care pervades each protest site with langars (community kitchen) that are open to not only the protesting farmers but the informal street vendors who have carried their roadside stalls into the assemblies, and the urban and homeless poor who have settled within the space and are finding ways of meeting their needs. In addition to food, various organisations like Khalsa Aid are providing medicines,and take measures, albeit limited, to maintain hygiene. 

There are spaces for deliberation and learning—makeshift libraries have been established where farmers come to discuss various matters, and the children of the urban poor are offered education. Various student groups have set up libraries and distribute political literature. The aesthetic of the Andolan—with political posters, art work, young men riding tractors blasting the latest Punjabi pro-farmer protest songs—shapes the cultural life of the assembly. Shaheen Bagh was much smaller, but it too had similar features of the political form of the assembly.

The collection of bodies occupying the commons, developing modes of life and determining their conditions of life while struggling with the state is unmediated democracy at its purest. But the assembly form is obviously impermanent. Both political movements were restricted to specific predefined goals—to revert CAA or to revert the farm bills. Irrespective of whether they were or will be successful, the movements were and are self-limited in scope. 

Although many individual actors might use such protest as a springboard for their personal ambitions, the assemblies by themselves will only have a spectral presence. This observation is not meant to be a negative value judgement by any means, but it is meant to temper fetishism of such mobilisations from below with a dose of, perhaps cynical, realism. 

These assemblies might ultimately be failed experiments, and more importantly, they cannot decimate the populism of the Modi-BJP but only pose momentary challenges to its actions at the national level.

The insurgent democratic politics of the assemblies, although they can be used and instrumentalized by other political parties, do not automatically translate into electoral politics. As such, they are transient and momentary interruptions to the fundamentally unchallenged dominance of the BJP at the national level. In other words, capturing state power and forming governments is beyond the scope of such democratic practices. 

What the kisan andolan, a year after Shaheen Bagh, concretizes is the present horizon of democratic practice in India. A central political dynamic in the near future will be the tussles and struggles between two forces: the continued dominance of Hindu nationalist populism under the Modi BJP at the center and momentary interruptions to its legitimacy by insurgent democratic assemblies of excluded or fugitive parts of Indian society.

Udeepta Chakravarty is a sociology PhD student at NSSR who studies democracy and populism.

Photo: “Main stage at Ghazipur border” – courtesy of the author.


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