Protests and the Pandemic

In India, the protests against the economically liberal agrarian reform of the Hindu nationalist government are ongoing. Farmers fear losing their land to food companies.

At first glance, the expressway to Delhi in the Indian state of Haryana looks like a kilometer-wide picnic field. Farmers from all parts of the country sit between long lines of parked tractors, especially from the northeastern region of Punjab, the largest wheat-producing area of India. Every few hundred meters there is a food stall, distributing lentils, rice and bread, but also pizza. Protest started in the villages in the summer, but farmers moved to the capital to put more pressure on the government. This made their protests known around the world. Solidarity rallies were held in December in Hamburg and Berlin as well.

The ruling Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided in September to undergo a massive liberalization of the agricultural sector. The new law seeks to abolish the former price guarantee system for staple foods such as wheat and rice. Instead, large food companies are to negotiate the price directly with the farmers. The government has promised this will reduce corruption and make distribution more efficient.

Amol Singh from Patiala in southwest Punjab is one of the protesters. He and his father are among the leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a coalition of 32 farmers’ associations that have called for protests. He fears that large companies will bring prices down so much that the existence of many farmers will be threatened. “It’s not just about pricing policy, ”said Singh in an interview with Jungle World. “In the long term, this will give companies the opportunity to change local conditions of production.” Farmers could lose an immense part of their land to the corporations, who could gradually buy up the land. This not only threatens the livelihood of the rural population. “The state price guarantee system is directly linked with the national distribution system of subsidized food,” he explains. “What the government buys from the farmers at fixed prices, is then made available to the poorest as basic staples for food security.”

The agricultural reform is embeddeed in far-reaching economic and social changes which the BJP government has implemented since 2014. It severely restricted workers’ rights and profoundly changed notions of citizenship. This Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) de facto creates a two-tier immigration system – while it becomes more difficult for Muslims to apply for citizenship it gets easier for everyone else. Those who could not be included in the newly established Nationl Citizenship Register (NC) face deportation or internment.

According to the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Union, 41 people died in the protests by December 20, most of them from hypothermia and illness, and some committed suicide. Police also attacked the protesters in several states, even though the farmers’ demands are widely supported by the public. When the government tried to justify the police brutality and portrayed the protesting farmers as misguided and Pakistan-controlled terrorists, a storm of protest broke out on Twitter, not only in India but also in countries like Canada, where many Punjabi families have relatives. In the meantime, the government has moderated its propaganda.

“We all depend on getting something to eat, people know that they need the farmers,” Atif Jung said in an interview with Jungle World. His father works in agriculture and he is doing his doctorate on the political influence of farmers’ associations in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But he also points out that one must pay attention to the tensions among the peasantry. “If you look at who’s leading the movement, it’s mostly Sikhs from Punjab and Jats from Haryana. These regions are certainly most affected, but it is also noticeable that the Muslim rural population, for example, is hardly present in the movement.”

The Jats are a predominantly conservative, rural group of the population, most of whom were actually supporters of the government until recently. In addition, according to Jung, many moneylenders are also involved in the protests, who often charge horrendous interest rates and see their income at risk as a result of the reforms. In order to win back groups that the BJP counts among its voter goups, negotiations are currently underway between the government and the farmers ‘associations, which so far have remained unsuccessful.

International media in particular see the farmers’ protests as an uprising by the common people against neoliberal reforms and a continuation of the protests against the citizenship law. But it is not that easy. The current campaign, with its mainly male leaders, is fundamentally different from the protests of the previous year. Back then, crowds of people had resisted the wintry cold, blocking roads to draw attention to the government’s human rights violations. At the forefront were women, Muslims and Dalits. These groups are only marginally involved in the movement against agricultural reform at the moment. When the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) wanted to show solidarity with the detainees of the movement against the CAA, the other farmers’ associations very quickly distanced themselves from the protest movement. Representatives of these organizations told The Print platform that they wanted nothing to do with “separatists” and “anti-nationalists”. Apparently there is a great fear that the movement will be delegitimized like the previous movement for equal rights for Muslims as Indian citizens.

Almost everyone agrees that agriculture cannot go on as it has been up to now. Even if market liberalization could be prevented, a system of great inequalities remains. Access to land is still difficult, especially for women. Above all they are the ones who work in the fields – a large part of this is classified as “housework.” Seema Kulkarni is the head the Makaam organisation, which campaigns for the rights of women farmers. She demands that their demands should be taken up by the movement. “Although women were involved in all major agricultural protest movements, those in charge often ignored their concerns,” she says. A stronger focus on the distribution and use of resources could also lead to a more careful use of land resources and contribute a first step towards ecological agriculture. Leaders of the protest against the Citizenship Amendment are aligning with the farmers to form a common platform of struggle. “If we want others to show solidarity with us, then we have to start ourselves,” says Nasreen Syed, one of the women leaders of the protest in Bangalore. “This is the only way we can create a broader movement against the government. We have to form alliances.”

Photo credits: Bharatiya Kisan Union, Dakaunda

This article was originally published in German by Jungle World and in Italian by Global Project.

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