Indian Farmers’ Organizations and State Elections
Lessons for the Left in the USA
In September 2000, the government of India enacted three pro-corporation laws. Protest began in the state of Punjab, where farmers occupied symbols of corporate power, such as toll plazas, Reliance gas stations, and shopping centers. For more than a year, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers protested in three encampments on the borders of New Delhi. Under pressure from the sustained protest, Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi on November 19, 2021, announced the repeal of the laws, which were formally repealed by the Parliament on December 1, 2021.
Elections for assemblies are being held in five states, including Punjab, which is the heart of the Indian farmers’ movement. Some farmers’ unions in Punjab are fielding candidates in the assembly elections, but the state’s largest farmers’ union, Bharti Kisan Union (Ekta Ugarahan), is not nominating or supporting a candidate in the Punjab assembly election.
The Geopolitical Economy Research Group sponsored on January 30 a Webinar on Indian Farmers’ Organizations and State Elections, in which Joginder Singh Ugrahan, leader of the BKU (Ekta Ugarahan), explained the political philosophy behind the union’s policy of not supporting candidates in elections. The Geopolitical Political Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada regularly sponsors webinars on governments striving to construction socialism and on anti-imperialist movements formed by the peoples of the world.
Radhika Desai, Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, welcomed the participants to the Webinar. She described the Indian farmers’ agitation as the world’s largest and most sustained non-violent movement, which, she noted, is supported by the Indian diaspora throughout North America. She reported that during the year-long protest, farmers faced and withstood brutally repressive police tactics, including water cannons, teargas, and barricades in near freezing temperatures; more than 700 farmers died during the protest.
Desai introduced Joginder Singh Ugrahan, whom she described as “the most uncompromising farm union leader and defender of farmers and the most influential union leader in Punjab.” She noted that, in addition to being leader of the BKU (Ekta Ugarahan), Ugrahan also is part of the nine-member committee that leads the more than 40 organizations of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front), which organized the Indian farmers’ protest. Under his leadership, she observed, the BKU (Ekta Ugarahan) has fought and won numerous struggles in Punjab, including struggles for better prices for farmers’ produce and against the forced acquisition of land by the state in defense of corporate interests. BKU (Ekta Ugarahan), she noted, has the largest participation of women members.
Ugrahan was also introduced by Daljeet Singh, who described him as the most influential personality of the farmers’ movement. Singh stated that Ugrahan has sought to form a united movement of workers and peasants that addresses in a comprehensive manner issues of concern to workers, farmers, and women. In addition to the issue of farm laws, Ugrahan has opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (which excludes Muslims from its path to citizenship), and he has called for the release of political prisoners, for policies in support of health care and education, and for attention to suicides by farmers and the consumption of drugs.
The agricultural crisis and the farmers’ struggle
Joginder Singh Ugrahan began his presentation by noting that eighty percent of the population of India works in agriculture or in occupations related to agriculture. But agriculture is in decline. The number of jobs is decreasing, as is the size of land and income. Most farmers, Ugrahan observed, have less than five acres of land, and they are compelled to take out loans to rent additional land. Their debt is growing, and their income is declining. Farming is not a profitable profession, Ugrahan declared, and some farmers under distress have committed suicide.
Ugrahan maintains that the government cannot save agriculture, because its political orientation is to serve the interests of corporations. The government is not addressing the reasons behind the agricultural crisis. Its policies are not oriented to farmers but to the corporations, as was illustrated with the three farm laws of 2020. State protections of farmers in the agricultural market are shrinking, and it wants to close those protections that remain. It wants to turn the market over to the corporations, as has been done with other sectors of the economy, like mining. And it wants to assure corporate control of health and education.
The government claims that its policies will double the income of farmers. But it cannot cite a single example in defense of this claim.
The government’s policies are imperialist and pro-corporation, Ugrahan maintains. The government passes laws that follow the guidelines of the IMF and the World Bank, which are organizations of the imperialist, capitalist countries. The parliament has approved WTO agreements, for privatization and corporate interests, without debate.
You cannot protest, because the government has passed laws against protesting. It does not want struggles against its pro-corporate policies.
Only the people can save agriculture, Ugrahan believes.
Our experience has shown that struggle is the only way out. Through struggle, we forced the government to repeal pro-corporate farm laws. Through struggle, we obtained the release of people arrested during the struggle, and the release of a leader arrested on false charges. Through struggle, we got increased compensation for farmers.
We have organized the people against the corporations, uniting the people against corporate control of all sectors. We began the protest outside corporate headquarters, indicating to the people who these corporations are and how much money they have. We closed their shopping malls. These strategies enabled the people to become aware.
Following the victory of the repeal of the farm laws, we suspended the protest, because the protest was organized against the farm laws, and the people had much desire to celebrate. But now we are resuming the struggle, addressing a number of issues.
We have proposed a new law that would distribute uncultivated land to farmers, which would increase their standard of living and generate employment. We are proposing a suspension of the collection debts. We have proposed support for health care and for education, so that people can enter other occupations in the rural areas as the number of people employed directly in agriculture naturally declines as the economy develops. We have proposed the use of the Minimum Price Support to encourage the production of crops of lower-water consumption and low chemical use, countering the policies of the Green Revolution and the pro-corporate policies, which have depleted the water table and have contaminated the land in some zones, especially in Punjab.
On the question of the participation in elections
Ugrahan maintains that participation in elections does not result in benefits to the people, because elected officials do not support the people and their demands. He argues that the people exercise power through sustained, nonviolent protest focused on concrete demands, which elevates the consciousness of the people. He suggests that ultimately an alternative political party can be developed, but it must emerge from the process of struggle.
We have organized a secular national movement not associated with any region, religion, or caste, which was a key factor in the movement’s success in forcing the government to repeal the three pro-corporate farm laws. We organized the people and put forth clear demands, forcing the government to concede these demands. Struggle by the people in defense of themselves is the necessary means to the protections of the rights and needs of the people.
We say to the people that they will not attain their goals and protect their needs through elections. We demonstrate to them in practice that demands can be won through sustained mass struggle, and we bring to their attention the incapacity and unwillingness of elected politicians to defend them. Thus, we are raising their consciousness through struggle, teaching the people that sustained mass nonviolent protest is the way to accomplish change, not electoral politics. They can see that the organized power of the people was sufficient to repeal the pro-corporate farm laws, and that no elected politicians stood on the side of the reforms, regardless of what their campaign promises or party platform had been.
We maintain that elections create divisions, undermining the united struggle in support of popular demands. Elections create a situation in which the people fight among themselves, and the ruling class takes advantage of the disharmony. Contesting election is not the road to social change.
Therefore, in the upcoming elections for state assembly, we are not supporting any political party. Our members are free to vote for a candidate, or to select the None of The Above (Nota) option, but we say to them that such action will not produce any benefits for them. We do not encourage the Nota option, because we do not want to be blamed for its failure to produce results.
Sustained non-violent organized mass protest is the way. The people will ultimately see that elections do not benefit them; the unresponsiveness of electoral officials will become increasingly clear to the people as the struggle evolves.
Unfortunately, some farmers are contesting elections; they are separate from the united farmers’ movement. But the biggest organizations are not participating in elections. There are more than 40 organizations in Punjab and 375 organizations in India that are involved in the struggle.
We are expanding the struggle. The attack of the corporations must include farmers, workers, small businesspersons, students, and the unemployed. We are advancing the struggle, but not through participation in electoral processes.
An alternative power will emerge from the struggle of the people. Its characteristics will be defined in practice, as the awareness of the people increases during the struggle. An alternative political party will emerge from the struggle, which will have the capacity to transform the character of electoral politics.
We should carefully note the characteristics of the people’s movement in India. It makes concrete proposals that are integral to a vision of long-term fundamental economic and social transformation. It sees victories in the attainment of concessions as not only concrete steps in improving the living conditions of the people, but also as educating the people concerning the emancipatory power of their organized unity based in clear objectives. It sees the struggle as providing the foundation for the establishment of an alternative political party capable of transforming the political process itself.
We should take careful note of the fact that the people’s movement in India is a non-violent movement that includes all sectors of the people. It is rooted in reason and science, explaining to the people the structural sources of their discontent. It is based in critical political theory, delegitimating the political practice of representative democracy. It pressures the government to make concession with respect to concrete demands, in order to educate the people concerning the power of organized unity. It puts forth a platform that is both concrete and comprehensive, based in an alternative vision for the future of the nation.
The people’s movement in India sees that an alternative political party cannot be formed outside the context of struggle. It understands that an alternative political party must be formed from the process of sustained, non-violent struggle; and that struggle is the social and intellectual foundation to the taking of power by the people.
The people’s movement in India demonstrates the necessary unity of theory and practice.
In contrast to the people’s movement in India, in the United States we too often see action not connected to theory, and theory not connected to action. We too often see undisciplined conduct in the streets and the reckless shouting of slogans not well considered. The so-called Left in the United States would have much to learn through careful observation of the people’s movement in India, the land of Gandhi.
Sign the new socialist manifesto
The Geopolitical Economy Research Group supports the initiative of the International Manifesto Group, which has written a socialist manifesto, “Through Pluripolarity to Socialism.” The Group invites all who agree with its broad thrust to sign it, to encourage colleagues and comrades to sign, and to encourage progressive organizations to discuss it. You can find the manifesto here.
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