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OP-ED: Farmers shake the corridors of power

  • Published at 11:07 pm December 8th, 2020
India Farmers
Farmers hold placards during a protest against the central government’s recent agricultural reforms at the Delhi-Haryana state border, in Singhu on December 4, 2020 AFP

Will the Indian farmer protests snowball into something bigger and more significant?

Politics and society in diverse India are quite multifaceted, and it is often difficult for a person outside a particular Indian region to grasp the intricacies of these two matters of that part of the country.

For the last several days, farmers of the Indian “green belt” ie Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh have been protesting against the three farm bills that the BJP government passed. Hundreds of thousands of farmers with their tractors and lorries converged in the northern gateways of the national capital Delhi, where they were prevented by the police from entering the city. They started massive sit-in protests in those spots, blocking the highways and cutting off communication from Delhi to Punjab and Haryana.

Indian opposition parties and many liberal commentators are describing it as a failure of the government in preserving the interest of a core economic community of the country -- the farmers. The government is reiterating that there is nothing against the farmers in the bills and they are just adding more freedom to how the produce is dealt with. In fact, at face value, nothing too harmful can be found in the bills, and the government appears to have made some provisions to facilitate corporate purchase of the produce, including free inter-state movement of the grains.

But the protesting farmers don’t trust the Modi government and are sceptical that eventually the government might scrap the Minimum Support Price (MSP) through which the government purchases the produce.

In the 1960s, India almost had a famine with food shortages and it had to resort to US food aid, which was quite awkward for India’s prestige. With the advice of American economists, India introduced a minimum support price guarantee and subsidies in electricity for water pumps, etc to encourage production.

The measures were particularly effective in the northern fertile states of Punjab, Haryana, and the western part of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). These areas constituted what came to be known as India’s “green belt” that made up for the food shortages of India. In a few years’ time, agricultural production in these areas doubled.

Since then, the farmers of this belt had been in a privileged situation. Now that India has a food surplus, the government thinks providing perpetual privileges and subsidies is not of much use, although they haven’t yet acted on that much. On some occasions, surplus grain rotted in government store houses.

Surprisingly, in other parts of India, there is not much protest and it seems that farmers of other areas are less apprehensive about the farm bills. They are almost indifferent. But why is that so? To find the answer, one has to delve into the details of different kinds of farming in different parts of India, and also the social composition of the farming class. 

In Punjab and Haryana, land holdings are bigger and owned mostly by people of the Sikh and Hindu Jat caste. Some protesting Sikh Jat farmers had been saying on television news channels that they hold 10-30 acres of land. Jats are traditionally a powerful caste of middle peasants. Sikh and Hindu Dalits eg Balmiki/Mahzabi Sikhs work in these farms as agricultural labourers.

Jats are also influential through their significant participation in government services and entrepreneurship. There is a prosperous Sikh and Hindu Jat diaspora across the globe, especially in the Western world. A sizeable Hindu Jat population can also be found in the Western part of Uttar Pradesh, but the overall percentage isn’t too significant in the big state of UP. 

There is already a political fallout of these farm bills. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a major party from Punjab consisting mostly of the Sikhs, have pulled out of Modi’s NDA government and also left the alliance for this reason. Alongside the ruling Congress, it’s one of the two major parties in Punjab. Jat Sikhs, who form around a quarter of Punjab’s population, lead the party.

Modi has a clear majority now in Lok Sabha, and the BJP leadership is considering the support of SAD as less important now. But it may affect the Saffron in the long term. The support base of Congress in Punjab is mostly among the Dalits who compose about a third of the population. Sikh Dalits are about a fifth of the state’s population, and Ravidassia Dalits around 12%. SAD also has some support in the Balmiki/Mazhabi Sikhs, although there is a perpetual strife between Jats and Mazhabi Sikhs.

However, for the interest of the state and to get more support of the Jat Sikhs, the Congress government of Punjab is on the side of the protesting farmers. Jats are powerful in neighbouring Haryana, too. But in the state, major Jat leaders are in Congress and hence the BJP government in the state relies on its non-Jat support base. These facts appear to have emboldened the central Modi government to take the shot to appease the corporate lobbies, many of whom are their political financers.

Despite all these complex dynamics, the rise of the farmers in northern India in the last few days, against the otherwise oppressive Modi government, has been spectacular. At least the brave farmers have shaken the corridors of power in Delhi, which have increasingly been turning suppressive and dictatorial.

The question now is can it snowball into something bigger and bring about bigger change in India in the coming months and years?

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.

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