Hundreds of thousands of protesting farmers in India remain in a standoff with the government over new laws introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that would lift state controls on the pricing and marketing of their crops. Since the end of November, they’ve set up large, sprawling camp cities and blocked half a dozen highways leading into New Delhi, the capital.
The protesters are mainly from the northern farming states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The farmers, many of whom are Sikhs, include a large number of older people and growing numbers of women. They are defiant even as a bitter cold winter has caused some deaths in the encampments. Talks between farmer and government representatives remain stalemated.
“The new laws will end the minimum price farmers get for their crops and turn the farms over to the big corporations to make profits,” Lakhwinder Singh Kang told a Militant Labor Forum in Montreal Dec. 19. He and several others in the audience were active in solidarity protests Dec. 6 and 12.
The Modi government has offered to concede and keep some state price supports for now. But the protesting farmers “want the government to withdraw the laws completely,” Singh said.
Manufacturing and other industry has rapidly expanded in recent years, but more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people remain on the land. While a small minority are wealthy capitalist farmers using wage labor and machinery on larger, more productive acreage, the bulk of India’s 146 million farms are only a few acres. These farmers rely on family labor and many are weighed down by debts.
Modi said Dec. 18 that he was “humbly ready to talk on every issue.” But he also said sweeping changes are needed to dismantle the decades-old system of state-backed floor prices for grains like wheat and rice as well as government crop or loan insurance. They “cannot be delayed any longer,” he said.
More exploitation of farmers, workers
The new laws are backed by the country’s billionaire ruling families. Corporate buyers will be able to dictate terms, driving down prices for farm produce and taking over debt-laden small farms. Big companies such as Walmart and India’s Reliance Industries will be able to buy directly, and reduce small landowners to contract farming, increasing their dependency and exploitation.
This is the opposite of a land reform that would make land available to the landless workers and peasants — more than 144 million at last count. In the previous decade the number of landholdings decreased from 127 million to 118 million, as small farms were gobbled up by larger landholders.
And millions of rural toilers will be driven off the land and drawn into India’s expanding industrial production, swelling the ranks of the working class.
Solidarity grows among the rural poor
Earlier this year the Modi government imposed the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes religion the criterion by which immigrants can gain citizenship. Deadly rioting by chauvinist Hindu gangs targeting Muslims erupted. The Indian rulers hope to use the religious divisions and restrictions on Muslims to increase profits and weaken the working class.
Sectarian rivalry and violence is a historical legacy of British colonial rule, which used religious and caste divisions to retain power. These policies have been perpetuated by India’s capitalist rulers. Against this, the secular traditions of the Indian independence movement are being reinforced by growing solidarity among India’s rural poor.
A headline in the Feb. 26 India Times read, “As Delhi Burns, Gurdwaras Offer Help & Give Shelter to Muslim Families Fleeing Violence.” Gurdwaras are Sikh places of worship as well as community centers. Mixed community patrols were formed in Delhi to prevent attacks on the homes of Muslims.
In Seelampur, Dalits — derogatorily called untouchables — sheltered their Muslim neighbors. Dalits are the poorest, most exploited and ostracized layer under India’s caste system, which was legally abolished in 1950 but its discriminatory legacy still persists.
“The new laws will force Kisaans [farmers] to lose their land,” Gurmail Singh told the Militant at a Dec. 19 rally in Philadelphia. Solidarity demonstrations continue to be held by Indian immigrants in dozens of cities across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.
“We’re here to show our support,” Singh said, for the protests against “the Modi dictatorship” and for “uniting all of India’s farmers — those who are Hindu, Muslim and others.”