India’s Farmer Protests – A Lens of Social Movements in the Global South

The phenomenon of social movements has pervaded over centuries and continues to be constituted as an important contour of domestic politics of nation-states, across the globe. Early scholarship on social movements viewed this phenomenon as essentially being regressive in nature. This view particularly gained traction in the 1940s, as movements like Nazism and Stalinism gained grounds. However, a deeper scholarly dive into social movements, with western Europe and North America as the dominant contextual basis, identified disparate access to political, economic, and societal resources as the key factors motivating social movements. Hence, at the turn of the 21st century, the triumph of the western neo-liberal ideals of democracy and capitalism was expected to serve as a mitigatory response to social movements. However, ironically, social movements with varying contextual complexities, continue to shape the political dynamics of democratic, non-democratic and transitioning states, alike.

With industrial and post-industrial societies being largely at the locus of the study of social movements, the Global South has largely evaded scholarly attention. During the second half of the 20th century, nation-states across the Global South experienced social movements against either tyrannical colonial rules or despotic regimes. However, over the course, social movements in the South have evolved to reflect issues over a broader spectrum of socio-political and economic concerns. In recent decades, such movements have largely been mobilised by subaltern groups like peasants, workers, indigenous peoples, and dwellers of shanties, against inequalities and dispossessions as unwelcome attendants of neo-liberalism. In the 1990s, the Latin American states experienced a plethora of social movements against neo-liberalism and developmentalism.  The most recent wave of social movements in the Global South was characterised by the Arab Spring revolts, that quickly transpired into nation-wide demonstrations, ultimately overthrowing the ruling elites in several countries.

With countries like China making economic leaps and bounds, the very notion of neo-liberalism as the ultimate end of human equality and development is subject to contestations. Hence, social movements pressing for alternate models of socio-economic development and political governance can be expected to be in the reckoning.

Of more significance is the fact that social movements in the South are estimated to gain further traction and momentum. This idea is built on the premise that several states of the South have entered into reflux, with fascism advancing into countries like Brazil and India, for instance. It can also be argued that with countries like China making economic leaps and bounds, the very notion of neo-liberalism as the ultimate end of human equality and development is subject to contestations. Hence, social movements pressing for alternate models of socio-economic development and political governance can be expected to be in the reckoning.

Interestingly, research suggests that the primary referent object of social movements in the Global North is generally the society. This explains the activist movements like the LGBTQ or the environmental movement and others of the sort. However, in the Global South, the prime antagonist of social movements is usually the state apparatus. This delineates that the Southern movements are generally characterised as reactionary movements (for instance, the colour revolutions), that may resist and even question the very basis, functions, and decisions of the nation-state apparatus. Farmers’ protests in India can be considered a prominent social movement that has erupted against the government legislation, continuing for over two months now.

In the same vein, peasants’ protests also increasingly saw an upward trajectory, with farmers becoming an effective non-parliamentary force in India’s political infrastructure. Over the years, farmers have established organised bodies that struggle against state-intervention in an increasingly commoditised Indian agrarian infrastructure.

Social movements in India are characterised by “dual politics”. It delineates that in India, social movements are mobilised on the premise of India’s societal caste-based inequalities and geography-based uneven development. Within India, social movements categorically emerged in the late 1960s. While initially, after independence, the Indian state was mapped and executed as a developmental state, the fallouts of rapid industrialisation visibly came to the fore during the 1970s. Hence, Indian society evidently perceived a disconnect from the state. In the same vein, peasants’ protests also increasingly saw an upward trajectory, with farmers becoming an effective non-parliamentary force in India’s political infrastructure. Over the years, farmers have established organised bodies that struggle against state-intervention in an increasingly commoditised Indian agrarian infrastructure.

In post-independence India, the Naxalite movement, emerging in the late-1960s, became the most-defining peasants’ uprising. Led by the members of the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M), the movement spread widely across several Indian states, largely mobilising India’s rural class, and urban youth. Farmers’ protests in Tamil Nadu and Punjab in the 1970s were generally considered effective in nature. However, lately, such movements have lost ground, owing to the increasing state-led violence against the protestors.  Also, the CPI-M, which was India’s most dominant revolutionary and working-class-friendly political front, has considerably moved adrift, embracing electoral politics. Lack of organisation and coordination among the farmer unions remains another factor, undermining the fortitude of such movements.

The ongoing farmers’ protests are also of the same sort. Beginning in November 2020, the protests have involved around 41 farmer unions, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, protesting at the outskirts of New Delhi. These protests have erupted in response to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government-sponsored, three farm bills that were passed by the Indian parliament. The BJP government has pronounced the bills reformatory, aiming to enhance farmers’ direct outreach to the retailers. However, the ongoing farmers’ movement contests that the so-called reforms are not designed to ease and secure the agrarian policies for farmers but to serve the interests of India’s gigantic capitalist conglomerates. Such fear of the farmers is grounded in the eminent repeal of the government-offered “Minimum Support Price” (MSP), as associated with the newly-introduced laws. In the absence of an MSP for agricultural products, which acts as a safety net for the farmers, the affected farmers will be left with the monopoly of free market-determined prices for their produce.

As the stalemate continues, neither the government nor the farmers’ protests show any signs of flexibility. Apart from the Indian diaspora, around eleven Indian political parties, including the Indian National Congress, have also expressed their support to the movement. The Indian state apparatus has also displayed violence as a means to curb the protests. Most recently, on India’s Republic Day, a greater controversy emerged as the Indian state heavy-handedly countered the protestors as they stormed the New Delhi Red Fort. The protestors were condemned as “secessionists” as they hoisted the Nishan Sahib parallel to the Indian tri-colour flag.

So far, the BJP-led Indian government has largely remained unable to devise and implement a well-thought-out response, aiming to effectively address the demands of farmers’ movement. Moreover, the policies that the government has adopted have instead proved to be rather counter-productive. In order to mitigate the adverse effects of the ongoing farmer protests, as a first, the Indian state needs to display flexibility in terms of its interactions with the movement. Moreover, the government needs to develop an empathetic understanding of the societal-level underpinnings of the ongoing movement. A space for democratic participation for the aggrieved protestors needs to be established for ensuring greater and meaningful inclusion of the movement. Also, the Indian state should strictly refrain from using coercive measures against the protests. In the longer run, the Indian state must devise policies that lead to equitable distribution of resources, and taper down caste-based and geography-based uneven development. At the local level, the functioning of an impartial bureaucracy and public administration, if achieved, can also play a characteristic role. However, central to this remains the existence of a political will.

Social movements, if successful, are institutionalised into the state apparatus, however, even if they do not succeed in bringing up the desired outcomes, they leave an inevitable mark on the societal fabric of any state.  While India experiences the farmers’ movement as a manifestation of resistance against a post-colonial developmental state, other countries of the South must also take note.

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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