At the farmers protest in Singhu border | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
At the farmers protest in Singhu border | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
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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.


Also read: Why the farmers’ protest is led by Sikhs of Punjab


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.


Also read: Farmers’ union agree to resume talks with Modi govt, add 4 riders to their agenda


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.

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43 COMMENTS

  1. Instead of encouraging farmers to diversify into different foodgrains (and other varieties of rice), pulses, and other produce which is in need in this country, why so many of Punjab and Haryana farmer wants to work with only paddy and wheat. Why is no one talking about this? Do farmers from the states understand that FCI & India is in the sinkhole of debt due to this?

  2. A second detailed comment is in order, considering the importance and implications of the issue.
    Disclaimer: We Indians want our farmers to get more than what is due to them. (the present system is obviously a proven failure). The importance of being self-sufficient in food is imperative for a growing Nation.
    The concern of the author for the farmers on the face of it is as sincere as mine. But are the arguments indicating that is the question. Like many who have jumped in for the “cause” of the farmer, is there an agenda beyond the farmers issue?
    A myopic approach is self defeating. In a large country as India looking at any single factor in isolation is short sightedness; an entire orchestra needs to be put together to create a symphony.

    The Indian Farmer enjoys the following
    1. Free electricity
    2. Free water
    3. Free /subsidised fertiliser
    4. No income tax from farm income
    5. Subsidised ration through PDS
    6. Direct income transfer
    7. Freedom to sell to anybody, anywhere, any time (new laws)
    8. Freedom from essential commodity tag
    9. Writing off of loans
    10. Easy loans
    11. Free / subsidized cooking gas
    The farmer is the only producer who is assured of a fixed price (MSP) for some of his produce. It is recorded that even then he does not get what is due to him as he does not have the freedom to directly and freely interact with the market. For instance gather is no MSP for eggs, milk, milk products, perishables (vegetables and fruits) et al.
    Hence for a common Indian it is beyond comprehension why he can’t get direct and free access to all markets anywhere.
    The comparison with 19th century uprising is at best ridiculous and misleading .Smelling the law and sumptuous food was not part of the rebellion then. It is aiming at nothing to Start protests based only on the prowess of the olfactory nerves. It affords great opportunity to activists and politicians, with a nose to smell an opportunity, to jump in with personal agendas.
    I expect those who are heard can be more mature and definitive in what they say.
    “Views are personal”

  3. I agree with the writer. In Ram Rajya Lord Rama will think about the peasants not just Corporates interest.

  4. In Democracy there will always be opposing views. Belittling opposition and undermining opposing voices is far away from Ram Rajya. In lord Rama’s Raj lord Rama will listen to the Peasant and the Pujipatis i.e. corporate not just corporate.

  5. Let me add Farmers are fighting for their livelihood. They rightly believe Farming is part of their heritage and culture.

    Government can’t just deprive Farmers of their belief and their culture via these 3 so called reform laws.

    This time Government is short sighted.

  6. How many lies will you go on telling? How long will you support vested interests and politically motivated agitators only to further your anti-bjp agenda? This is not a time to indulge in bad politics. You left Kejriwal’s party saying he is just like other politicians. But you are also trying to reap dividends out of a protest which can threaten India’s unity and integrity. Does India matter to people like you? Nearly every real economist, constitutional expert and journalist like Sekhar Gupta are saying the laws should not be repealed. But it suits your political agenda to smear the central govt which is trying to revive the economy. Why don’t you care to understand that the laws passed in due constitutional process should not be repealed because of protests by a motley crowd?

  7. The allegory with 19th century uprising is at best ridiculous and misleading.
    Smelling the law and sumptuous food was not part of the rebellion then. It is aiming at nothing to Start protests based only on the prowess of the olfactory nerves. It affords great opportunity to activists and politicians, with a nose to smell an opportunity, to jump in with personal agendas.
    I expect those who are heard can be more mature and definitive in what they say.
    “Views are personal”

  8. leftists think they will capture the seat of power in India by faking as warriors and proxy battle for them will be fought by others gullible groups of persons. Last year they raised a big cry against CAA and put a minority group against the Government. this year they brought the rich farmers from Punjab to oppose measures to reform Indian agriculture sector .Ironically , now face of another minority group has been chosen to be front face of their proxy battle. But they should remember they are again waging a losing battle. Government led by Modi is not anti-farmers and No government can afford to be anti farmer in policy formulation and implementation not only in India but any where in the world. once farmers and the Govt. will reach any compromising agreement, these leftist worthies will have to search for another issue to foment trouble in the life of society and nation. Anarchists can not tolerate peace and tranquility in the life of nation and people. They want to stop development by maligning industrial leaders, induction of new technologies , reform policies,and honest leaders. But be sure their nefarious goals will not succeed as their ugly face and bad intentions is not liked by majority of the vigilant citizens.

  9. Originally Modi thought this was a genuine farmer protest and gave too much space. Now govt is realizing its a a new Shaheen Bagh tiger in mask. Same urban naxals now calling themselves farmers. Wonder why Modi is giving so much space to these naxals destroying entrepreneurial Punjab the way they destroyed Bengal Kerala

  10. Yadav, the fake socialist, shows his true class. He represents rich landed farmer. He does not care about landless farm labour exploited-underpaid by rich farmers. Rich farmers take benefits including fertilizer, power, water, seeds subsidies and loan waivers, and then don’t pay tax. Rich farmers exploit ground water table, and pollute air.
    Manual scavengers live much more undignified life, Yadav use your fame todo so.ething for them or other people who really suffer. Use your gift of storytelling in a dignified way, not as a lobbyist.

  11. Mr. Yogendra yadav we knows the poor and farmer are the earning source of people like you and all the leftist & congress lobbyist, you guys few days in year doing vacation trip to some village or with farmer and the rest of the seating in big bungalow enjoy a lavish life. can anyone tell in this country that in their life time they have been well treated govt office and their work have been done without bribe, only couple of decade back if one wanted to get phone connection BSNL they need to pay bribe the corrupt govt employee ruined and pulled back the country for long and guys like you are the agent and middle man whose basic profession is earn by selling poor and their story so never wanted a developed nation. corporatization word made a abusive words so no one can talk about that.

  12. When educated people do not want to accept that farming is a business and will always have to live with market and climatic variations it is because of their vested interest. They are interested in solutions but just want to grab power and leadership.
    A sustainable solution can only be to best insulate the farmers from the variations of such market and climatic forces. But then over years echo systems have developed in every walk of life of middlemen making money in the existing systems hence the opposition. if a solution of that kind is arrived at all these people will be out in the cold so keep the pot boiling by opposing everything.
    We have to accept that MODI has an eye and courage to identify and destroy the middlemen culture be it in politics or business so the worst affected is that lot. Call them brokers, middlemen or adtiyas they all make disproportionate profits at the cost of someone else. All of them project themselves as the protectors of some kind, mostly failed politicians looking for space and recognition.

  13. Famous Psephologist who went bust has started to dig manure as he has no other occupation. Verbal diarrhea is contributing to his views on “farmers” of the Mercedes kind. What a loser.

  14. This urban Naxalite Yogendra Yadav and other Leftists want to create some kind of violence, last December they supported Muslims in Delhi , now supporting Khalistanis , first these Naxals and Jihadists should be punished.

  15. Ignore this guy…all he cares about his political ambition.
    Typical “jholawala” , who enjoys all the best things in world in private but acts like an aam admi in public and keeps fooling people.

  16. Is this the bubble which some people reside in and then come crashing down? hands down one of the funniest opinion pieces I have read this year.

  17. Farmers are ‘annadatas’… Farmers are backbone of Indian economy… are the buzz lines of every political party for the past 70+ years… Nothing has changed the way we farm or grow.. This guy has leftist ideology… the same guys opposed nuclear programs and deals. History and farmers from other parts of the country won’t forgive… If he is successful in turning off these laws!!

  18. from the horses mouth , one of the the chief architect cum facililtator of the farmer protests… the true middleman btw farmer and govt. trying to gain political hold of punjab.
    also it was punjab one of the reasons he left AAP

  19. This guy thinks of himself as ultra democrat. Hasn’t managed to win a single seat or build a large organisation. He doesn’t have expertise in this field. Those who do (Dr Gulati etc) are in support of these reforms.
    I just wish people like him understand the harm they are causing India and its image abroad.
    Hatred for Modi is now translating into hatred for India.

  20. This agitation is by the rich farmers of Punjab and Haryana, who have benefited from an irrational MSP, free electricity, etc. Farmers in rest of the country care two hoots about this. If Shri Yadav things that he can revive his non existent political career by aligning with this motley crew, he is welcome to his dreams.

  21. Ultra left wing radicals have been infiltrated by a jihadi who supported anti CAA protestors and rioters .

    He enjoyed immense POWER under congrass regime as a propagandist and is upset that his agenda has been interrupted.

  22. democratically elected government implements policies that it promised and also promised by all other parties. now, few people show up and threaten to block access to capital unless laws are withdrawn. no country can be governed like this. it’s time these leftist jnu who messed up Indian economy for decades that kept poor, poor backward retire. no country has progressed following policies that these leftist jnu types promote. its time they learn something from China

  23. Sorry, Sir, I respected you very much but seeing how you are supporting this protest I am saddened, I know in past you only said Farmers must be free of any restrictions, etc. now you are the one who is not supporting its very bad. Yogendra Ji, I am not telling you these reforms are enough but a good start. NOW YOU GUYS UNDERSTAND WHY DO DON’T LISTEN TO YOU GUYS.

  24. Leave these protesters with their old system. Let others move with new system. These protesters ardo not represent farmers of other parts of india. This author has never done anything constructive but criticized others and spread negativity.

  25. Ah yeah, you’re absolutely right. Peasant rebellion of 19th century were definitely about ‘moral’ issues. Failure of revenue collection system, rampant famines, exploitation by Zamindars, unsustainable cropping pattern and sky high taxes were only of secondary consequences. Such an enlightening world view you’ve Sir!

  26. In democracy aar ya par ke ladaye is through ballot. Moral economy was when there was no universal vote. Increasingly keep or repeal both ways it will benefit BJP.

Comments are closed.