So, we are back to square one, aren’t we? What have we achieved?” This was a sharp question from a young farm activist, miffed at the celebrations on the repeal of three farm laws. His logic was simple: Farmers were in a bad shape, prior to the introduction of these three laws. We managed to ward off the fresh disaster, but what about the pre-existing issues? Have we moved an inch forward after a year-long historic struggle? Aren’t we back to where we were on 4 June 2020, before the farm laws were brought in as ordinances? What have we achieved?
“You should read Gandhiji — not his words, but his life” was my response to this young colleague. If there was one andolanjeevi in this country, it must be him. He created mass movements out of nowhere, crafted their issues, coined their slogans and choreographed the action programmes. Most of the movements he launched did not achieve their immediate objectives: Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India did not achieve their stated goals. Yet we remember these struggles as models of movements, as they set Indians free, much before the country secured freedom.
Shrewd as he was, Gandhi understood something deep: In the business of movements, by-product is the real thing. The real achievement of a movement is not measured by how far it secures its immediate demands, but by how it empowers and transforms its constituency.
In terms of securing immediate demands, the farmers movement has already achieved more than any comparable movement in post-independence India. The Railway strike of 1974 was crushed. The JP movement in Bihar could not get the state government to resign. The Anna Hazare movement did get Parliament to pass a resolution but the Lokpal Act had to wait another two years. Getting the Union government to repeal laws on which it had staked its prestige is unprecedented. To do so under the Narendra Modi dispensation is unbelievable.
Yet this is not the most enduring achievement of this movement. What makes this movement truly historic are its by-products, provided we value and build on these.
The first enduring achievement of this movement is the recovery of farmers’ self-esteem. Earlier, every meeting of the farmers, big or small, would involve some leader ruefully recalling the good old days of “Uttam kheti, maddham vyapar, nikrisht chakari”. [Farming is first rate, business is second and service is third rate.] Farmers had reconciled to their marginal existence as a residue of modern development. This movement got them a symbolic recognition as annadatas. “No Farmers, No Food, No Future” became a badge of honour. Urban middle class scratched the surface of generational memories to rediscover their farming roots. This symbolic shift is no mean achievement: A recovery of self is the first step towards freedom. Farmers have asserted that they do not belong to the past, they are very much the present and future of India.
Will this prove a flash in the pan or lead to enduring gains for farmers? It depends on the way the farmers’ organisations take this victory forward. This historic victory can be used to go back to business as usual, only to face a dead-end sooner than later. The model of agriculture inaugurated by the Green Revolution already faces an economic, ecological and existential crisis. There is no way it can be extended to the rest of the country. So, a recovery of self must be accompanied by a re-envisioning of farming. A new vision would involve making small farms viable, ensuring a just deal for landless and tenant farmers, promoting cooperative agriculture, shifting to ecologically sustainable practices that save us from water depletion, soil degradation and chemically contaminated food. With this historic victory in their stride, farmers must write a new manifesto for the future of Indian agriculture.
A historic unity
The second big achievement of this movement is attaining an unprecedented unity of India’s farmers. Ever since the beginning of peasant movements in the first half of the twentieth century, mobilisation of farmers has been marred by multiple, deep divisions based on climate, crops and class besides the usual divisions based on language, religion and caste. This movement did not entirely transcend these divisions; the mobilisation was uneven across the regional, class and caste divides. Yet, at least at the level of emotions, this movement united the farmers like never before. It did cut across existing divisions – Punjab/Haryana, Hindu/Muslim, Jat/non-Jat – in a way that we have rarely seen. Women farmers made an appearance on the national stage like never before. And it produced a platform – the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – that is the largest united front ever of the Indian farmers.
The challenge now is to build on and deepen this unity. Although the SKM was born as a one-time front to lead the struggle against three anti-farm laws, it cannot and must not fade away. The SKM now carries the historic responsibility of becoming the voice of all farmers of India. The SKM has already decided to create its state and district chapters, which would overcome the regional unevenness. It must carry forward the pending demands from the charter of the current movement. Its future programmes of action must also address the issues of farmers at the bottom of the heap: Landless, tenant, adivasi and women farmers. That is the way to cement the historic unity of the farmers.
The third and final victory of the farmers is that they and everyone else have discovered their political heft. Indian farmers have always been like Lord Hanuman in Hindu mythology: Supremely powerful yet unable to use their prowess to their own ends. This movement changed it all. It sent an unmistakable message to the political class: Don’t take panga with farmers. Just as the BJP’s defeat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018 had put farmers on the centre-state of politics for a few months, this movement has secured an enduring position for the farmers on the national political radar. This should yield long-term dividends.
The real issue is: What would the farmers use their newly acquired clout for? It would be a pity if this resource gets spent in pushing petty and personal electoral ambitions. Farmers must harness this energy for something big — for putting farmers’ agenda on the top of electoral contestation, for converting electoral promises into government policies and for getting the policies to work for the benefit of the farmers. There is a bigger purpose at hand. Farmers’ movement has emerged as the strongest bulwark against rising authoritarianism in India. The historic responsibility for farmers’ politics is not just to secure economic gains for the farming class but to save democracy, federalism and the country’s unity.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.