Crucible of revolution: Book review of The Journey of the Farmer’s Rebellion

This book documents the rebirth of an anarchist consciousness in India’s masses.

Book

“The workers have begun to think that if people are given the opportunity and power to manage things on their own, they can do so better than the government. A lot of the workers have begun to ask, do we actually need a government at all?” – Nodeep Kaur, Labour Activist, Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan

While the year-long sit-in staged by farmers and workers—largely from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh but by no means limited to these three regions—at Delhi’s various borders might have taken a large part of urban India by surprise, this rebellion had been in the making for quite some time. The event was a high point in the farmer’s movement that has been brewing for decades and that is going to decide India’s future for quite some time to come. This book itself, which documents the rebellion through interviews with farmers, workers, intellectuals and activists who participated in it, is a product of the same political beliefs and an important and timely contribution to the larger movement.

Large sums of money have been spent by the government—and the corporations it is controlled by—to build a face-saving narrative after it had to accept defeat and repeal the three ‘black’ laws:

1) The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act which would have the effect of ending the regulated market system, MSP and state procurement;

2) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assure and Farm Services Act which would increase the hold of contract farming thus leading to depeasantisation of farmers due to companies gradually taking over their lands; and

3) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act (ECA) which would lead to a gradual dismantling of the Public Distribution System and a handover of both the input and output markets in the farm sector to corporates.

This definitive account of the rebellion from the viewpoints of leaders of various farmer unions, agricultural and rural workers unions, and the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, along with a smattering of journalists, economists, and political and cultural activists, was very much needed to set the record straight.

It is no secret that India is in the middle of a serious agrarian crisis brought on to a large extent by the Green Revolution and subsequent WTO and corporate meddling in India’s agricultural affairs. Every day, about 28 people engaged in agriculture in the capacity of worker or cultivator commit suicide and about 2,500 of them leave agriculture to join the swelling ranks of the precariously employed and unemployed proletariat. India’s underground water tables are alarmingly low, soil health is extremely poor and excessive use of chemicals and pesticides has made food not only difficult to grow but also cancerous to cultivate and eat. The rates of return on agriculture started dipping long ago, making agriculture an overall loss-making activity for almost all medium, small and marginal farmers engaged in it. Agricultural workers have to bear the worst of it as they find no work on farms and the non-agriculture sector is unable to absorb them in any shape or form. Add caste and gender fault lines to all this and you start getting a hazy picture of the full complexity of the beast that is in front of us.

All this the interviewees agree on. They also agree on a host of other issues, which is why they were able to come together on a common platform. All of them agree that it is not this or that party, or this or that government which is to be blamed for the quandary they are in. From WTO to the corporates to the state machinery controlled by the WTO and corporates, the rebels know very well who their enemies are and what it is they have to fight. Neoliberal capitalism and electoral democracy are mentioned as twin evils by almost all of them explicitly. In fact, one of the main gains from the movement, they argue, is that a large chunk of the population could be made aware of who their enemies are and what needs to be done to fight them. The movement was able to use its presence on the ground and in the media to make the general populace politically conscious.

All of them agree that it was absolutely necessary to repeal the three farm laws and that this is a major victory for them, even though the fight is still a long one. The next step is to make the government implement a nationwide MSP on all crops, which will reduce risk for farmers and allow them to grow a diversity of crops. “Freedom from indebtedness”, involving waiver of all current consumer debts and the wide availability of low-interest and interest-free loans, is also central to their vision of the future of India’s agriculture. It is accepted by farmers and workers across the board that the ecology and economy of agriculture need to be fixed, and that the two are completely intertwined in that they will either improve on each other’s backs and simultaneously or they won’t improve at all. This means at least two things. One that they all agree something is broken. Two, that they know the government has been unable and to a large extent unwilling to fix it, and that therefore they have to organise themselves in some way to figure out a solution and force the government to help them bring that solution into practice. In this consensus, right wing and left wing distinctions are erased.

While the presence of a common enemy did bring everyone together, it does not mean that contradictions do not exist within the movement. The central contradiction—that between the landed and the landless—straddles the divides of gender and caste. While the largely upper caste male leaders of both left wing and right wing farmers’ unions are landowners, Dalits and women form the bulk of the landless. While the landed want to use the landless as cheap labour and maintain socio-political power over them through control of their livelihoods, the landless want to get out of an exploitative system where they are at the constant mercy of landowners. They want the right to self-determination in their daily lives.

The Land Ceiling Act, 1976 has barely been implemented anywhere in India and major land reforms based on that act are long overdue. Wherever land reforms have happened even marginally, we can see a drastic improvement in the lives of the traditionally marginalized. Punjab has a total of 1.57 lakh acres of panchayat land out of which one-third or nearly 52 lakh acres is reserved for Dalits but even that they are not able to access as dominant castes capture these lands through a combination of bribery and violence.

If Dalits and women own land of their own, then they can get loans from government banks and cooperative societies; this in itself will lead to major improvements in their lives as this will empower them to escape the clutches of private moneylenders and microfinance companies which charge exorbitant rates of interest and have become infamous for fleecing the poorest of the poor in times of dire need. This is not to say that they want land only as an economic good. Ownership of land also enables them to live a dignified life; because, in India, as Dr Ambedkar also pointed out, land is a determinant of one’s social status. Caste and gender oppression, they argue, can only be annihilated if they own land.

While the landless never expected right wing farmers’ unions to take up their issues, there was some expectation from the left to do so. But the left also failed (and has failed historically) to address issues of gender and caste oppression. Dalits and women are largely kept away from leadership positions in left wing farmers’ unions as well and they were not even allowed to be part of the decision-making bodies of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) which spearheaded this rebellion. They not only have to fight the government and corporates, but also caste and gender discrimination being practiced in left spaces. This allows them to develop novel ways of organising and thinking, ways that are different both from the hierarchy of the government and the hierarchy of the establishment left.

As early as Periyar, anarchist consciousness and organizational principles had become a significant alternative for India’s masses; and they seem to be becoming so again. Whether it be Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Samiti which is waging struggles in villages across Punjab to secure land for Dalits or Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan which is fighting corporate malpractice in areas which have effectively become company fiefdoms, they are increasingly organizing anarchically.

In the popular imagination—as Bhagat Singh, one of the few Indian revolutionaries with explicit anarchist leanings, pointed out long ago—anarchism is often associated with terror, chaos and indiscipline. Even saying some people are “organizing anarchically” sounds contradictory. The questions are invariably asked—How can anarchists organize? Aren’t they against all organization? This is, as Jean Dreze repeatedly points out, due to an incorrect understanding of anarchism. Anarchism is merely the rejection of arbitrary rule, not the rejection of the principle of organization itself. It is, as John Dewey would put it, free association of human beings in terms of equality. It is what the workers managed to do during the farmer’s rebellion, as the quote by Nodeep at the beginning shows.

When I use the word anarchism here to define this movement led by landless workers and agricultural labourers, I don’t mean to say that they explicitly identify with anarchism as a political identity or make organizations which do—Periyar never called himself an anarchist and the word has not been used even once in the present book. I am talking about anarchism that has developed globally as a form of praxis, “an ethical system that rejects the seizure of state power, and, to the extent possible, any appeal to or entanglement in institutions of state power”, while advocating “​planned administration of things in the interest of the community”, and beyond that, “wide-ranging federations of self-governing communities and workplaces.” (David Graeber, Noam Chomsky and Rudolf Rocker)

The most important thing about these anarchic movements is that they are willing to experiment with different ways of organising struggles, collective farming, associated living, etc. They have an open mind about how to do things and are not directed by received dogma but only by the application of their core principles of individual liberty and participatory democracy in all aspects of social and political interactions.

In that spirit, they reject electoral politics as a game of the elites and believe true change in society can only be brought through mass movements, even if the mass movements sometimes have to put pressure on electorally elected government and force them to accede to their demands; they reject majoritarian decision making by elected representatives in favour of direct consensus-based decision making in small groups; they don’t indulge in making hierarchical structures with clear chains of command in their own organizations where some people give orders while others follow them; they believe collective farming and living are necessary for a sustainable future; they believe that communities are created by people working on each other and taking care of each other, which is also the primary task of human beings, in short they believe in mutual aid; they believe that one must conduct movements in the same manner in which one would like to live after the movement, that is, they believe in creating ‘prefigurative’ institutions—institutions that provide a foretaste of what a truly democratic society might be like and that gradually replace the existing social order; finally, they are not afraid to challenge centralization of power in all its forms and of taking all the oppressive elements of society head on.

In a sense it is no surprise that to fight the global onslaught of imperialist-corporate forces, they have chosen—whether consciously or subconsciously—distinctly global practices of anarchism inspired by the People’s Global Action against WTO and IMF in the early 2000s, which in turn owed its origins to the famous International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, which took place in the Zapatista-held village of La Realidad in Chiapas, in August 1996.

These interviews provide ready primary data for someone wishing to study how anarchist forms of organizing and anarchist consciousness are growing in India within the most marginalized sections of society. Dalit women like Paramjit Kaur and Nodeep Kaur, being the most oppressed by all form of centralization of power, are also the most motivated to lead this anarchist revolution among the masses. Theorization of these new voices and struggles from an anarchist understanding would be of immense value as the movement spreads and more people in other places look for examples and inspiration. Any social movement today can only be successful by assimilating the ideas of personal liberty and self-respect and rejecting all authoritarian impulses. The example of the anarchists interviewed in this book can go a long way in teaching how to build and sustain such social movements.

With and without contradictions and disagreements, the movement must go on. For as Manjit Singh Dhaner of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Dakaunda) puts it, “If there were no unions and no struggle, the conditions would have been far worse, and even the struggle against the pro-corporate farm laws would not have been this strong.” A continuous struggle is necessary so that the required forces can be brought to bear when actual incidences of war do break out. Years of patient work culminated in these protests. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) had been active since 2017. In 2018 itself AIKSCC had drafted a final statute with widespread consultations across India for “farmers’ legal right to freedom from indebtedness and for guaranteed remunerative prices.” That laid the groundwork for SKM and this particular political action at such a large scale at such short notice, that too during the Covid-induced national lockdowns.

Like the past struggles prepared people for this rebellion, this rebellion has also contributed to increasing the political consciousness of people which will enable them to participate in future struggles. As the documentary filmmaker Randeep Maddoke says, “Farmers’ and workers’ education happens in the furnace of struggle.”

That is the thing about movements under conditions of capitalism, they must also constantly keep expanding their scope to take in ever larger areas of society. In a system that is expansionary by nature, struggle also must be expansionary. Just like industries whose existence is predicated on their ability to keep expanding the sphere of money and profit, the existence of movements is also dependent upon their ability to keep expanding the sphere of mutual aid and freedom. Like capitalism socializes for subservience, movements must socialize for rebellion. As all the interviewees say in one form or another, one battle against corporate-imperialist forces was won in November 2021 but the war is still on and subsequent battles must be prepared for. The farmers’ rebellion can be the crucible of a larger revolution in India. And this book is an important resource to make full sense of it.

Akshat Jain is a writer currently residing in India. He uses the debate methodology of Syādvāda to piss people off. Like a good Syādvādist, he claims that all his claims fall within the ambit of falsifiability.

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