Ever heard of “moral economy of the peasant”? You must understand this awkward phrase if you wish to make sense of the farmers’ rebellion that has arrived at the doorsteps of the national capital. Policymakers must understand this to see why their argument has no purchase with the farmers. PM Narendra Modi must understand this to realise why his approach to handling this rebellion will not work, or why the government must give in, sooner than later.
The concept of “moral economy” is simple. First used by British historian E. P. Thompson to understand 18th-century food riots in England, the basic idea is that the poor operate with a moral vision, a sense of right and wrong, just and unjust, which refuses to obey the rationality of the market. The concept was extended by James Scott to explain peasant rebellions in South East Asia. He showed that the changes introduced by colonial authorities challenged the “subsistence ethics” of the peasants, leading them to rebel. Ranajit Guha’s classic book Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India deployed this to understand a series of peasant rebellions in the 19th century, including 1857. He showed that what appeared to the colonial masters as strange, irrational and spontaneous eruptions of violence by the natives were organised acts of resistance to the colonial authority. The new system of agriculture introduced by the colonial State violated the basic ethics of the peasant, their sense of dignity, their intuitive sense of what was their due. Hence the rage, the outrage and eruption of violence against every symbol of colonial authority.
Cut to Singhu border of Delhi in the last month of 2020. Sure, these farmers do not look like the peasant rebels of the 19th century. Their langars are sumptuous. You can get ladoos and even jalebi, if you are lucky. Their trollies and tents are warm, equipped with solar panels to charge their phones. Some of the tractors are fitted with hi-fi sound systems for entertainment. You can spot some SUVs as well. Their cousins at Shahjahanpur border live in more frugal conditions (I write this column from one of these basic tents at this morcha, a constant draft to remind me of 7°C outside). But these farmers are not the hungry rebels who joined food riots. There is no eruption of violence in the present case; it follows the grammar of modern democratic protest.
Yet there is something common between the current farmers’ upsurge and the 19th-century peasant rebellions. As in the case of their predecessors, the farmers today are outraged by an attempt to disrupt the existing agrarian arrangement. It is not that they are happy with the existing system. But they fear, with good reasons, that the new system could be worse. Farming is increasingly uncertain, unremunerative and undignified. If monsoon is bad, they lose their crop. If the monsoon is good, they lose on prices. The farmers’ children do not wish to take to farming. An average farmer carries a grudge against the system that he or she finds unfair and unjust. In this context, the three farm laws passed by the Modi government have become the symbol of all that is wrong with the way the system treats the farmers. The manner in which these laws were pushed without any consultation with the principal stakeholders reminds the farmers of the contempt with which they are treated by the authorities.
A 21st-century rebellion
Farmers do not read the fine print of these laws, but they can smell them. And they don’t like it. Farmers of Punjab, Haryana and some other regions can sense the gradual dismantling of the mandi system that has been their lifeline for the last few decades. Farmers from other regions, who do not yet benefit from the mandi-based state procurement, can also foresee diminishing chances of their benefitting from such a system. They are not happy with the government, but the prospects of the government leaving them at the mercy of market forces exacerbate their worst fears. This fear is passed on by word of mouth, which is trusted more than any media. The message takes many forms, including rumours, just as it did during the 19th-century peasant protests.
This moral outrage lies at the heart of the present upsurge. This is no longer about the calculus of gains and losses, about prospects of prices to be obtained outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), about the potential gains of contract farming. In a way, this is no longer about the three laws or this government. Now this is about the way farmers have been treated by successive regimes, about the systematic discrimination that they suffer in the system. It is now about the dignity of farmers, their very being or “hond” as they say in Punjabi. The ruling party — the Bharatiya Janata Party — and its formal and informal spokespersons have fuelled this fire by throwing indiscriminate allegations about the farmers being ‘Khalistanis’ or foreign agents. At least for Punjab and parts of Haryana, this is now an emotional issue.
Hence the community dimension of the current upsurge. Once a movement touches the moral nerve of society, community networks come into play. Gurudwaras and their resources are at the disposal of the farmers. Khap panchayats have jumped into the fray to support the cause, as have the NRIs. Boundaries between professionals and the community have been blurred. All kinds of local clubs and organisations have chipped in, from lawyers’ organisations to sports clubs. Those in uniform are privately with the farmers. This is not just a farmers’ protest or farmers’ movement anymore. This is the 21st-century version of farmers’ rebellion.
A bigger struggle
This is why the government’s handling of this upsurge is counter-productive. The Modi government is handling it as it would handle any trade union protest. The usual tricks of dodge, derail and divert have not worked. Attempts at dividing the movement by reportedly getting ‘non-existent’ farmer leaders and farmers’ organisations to meet the Modi government have met with the ridicule these deserved. Now the government is out to drown the movement with propaganda. It may work partly with the urban middle class, but it is not possible to demonise the farmers the way any other section can be. So, now it is down to a waiting game, as the government hopes to tire the farmers out or play some insidious game.
Meeting the protesting farmers over the last month, I can say for sure that this won’t work. Farmers know that this is their last battle, aar-paar ki ladai, as they say. With the passage of time, this upsurge is growing. All the morchas around Delhi are growing in numbers and moral strength. Farmers across the country now share a sense that the government is doing something big and bad. The longer the government takes to realise this, the higher the cost for it and the country.
The author is President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.