The farmers’ protest has been going on for more than four months now. Although it is very long in recent times, it is still geographically restricted to the northwestern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Although the demands made by the protesting peasant unions have found echo in the states, it has not yet acquired a national nature. This has happened despite large farmer protests in recent years in several agrarian key states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka.
The fragmented nature of peasant mobilization has been a feature of Indian agrarian politics for the past five decades. Unlike the first two decades before 1947 or independence, peasant unions became increasingly unified and led to large-scale protests over issues such as land reform. Unlike recent stages, where peasant associations have been organized on regional and identity lines, unions have again crossed such boundaries. This changing nature of land mobilization is somewhat due to the emergence of unions and leaders raising demands for narrow tillers that are tailored to their own interests.
Although leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait, Charan Singh and Devi Lal appeared to have mastered the farmers, they were mainly influential in their spheres of activity. Their demands for remunerative prices, subsidies and sugar mill arrears were provided to farmers in their own areas. Similarly, agrarian leaders in Maharashtra like Sharad Joshi were influential in their agricultural belts, but failed to build alliances with their peers in eastern or northwestern India. The left-leaning All India Kisan Sabha was primarily interested in land and rental reforms, which affected changes in West Bengal but failed to extend profits to other states.
This was not only an affiliation of identity or regional interests, but also the nature of the demands proposed by the peasant unions that excluded their politics. These groups generally represent the interests of specific crop growers rather than farmers. Farmer suicides in the cotton belt of Vidarbha did not provoke the same kind of response as seen in western UP, where the struggle to get sugarcane arrears took place. Andhra Pradesh saw the union of tobacco and chilli farmers, but they rarely joined hands with unions in other states. One consequence of this fragmented mobilization was that no protests arose when Bihar abolished its Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) market system (Mandis) in 2006. Since it is a state where the mandi system never works, it has contributed less to the center by pooling through the minimum support price (MSP) based collection, its abolition has not even created a murmur of protest in the last 15 years.
It is a different matter to retain the same APMC mandi structure where the current farmer protest is in most places. Most of the northwestern states that are central to the protest are areas with functional APMC systems, which are the beneficiaries of MSP-led collection activities. It also explains to some extent why there has been such a lukewarm response to farmer concern in the agriculturally dominant state of Bihar or in the eastern states where MSP collections are very low. The differences were not just about crop and region and led to a breakdown in the voices of different groups in the agricultural sector. For example, most farmer unions look very differently at the demands of farm workers for better wages, working conditions and social protection. Similarly big landlords and owner-cultivators are also in the case of tenant farmers who lose mostly from various schemes to get credit and other concessions.
India’s fragmented peasant politics not only weakened the agrarian movement, but also made room for governments to manipulate their interests. Governments have gone so far as to offer only stressful solutions to farmer problems, which are related to the inability of tedder driving tillers to take their own lives or market structure. Even a short-sighted approach to dealing with agricultural issues based on regional self-interests means that the bargaining power of farmer unions is weakened. Although the current concern is ultimately successful, a sustainable solution to the agricultural crisis requires a unified movement based on universal principles that have different interest groups. Only then can it get good income from agriculture and strong support from the government.
Himanshu is an Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Science Humans in New Delhi.