How Different Are the Ongoing Farmers' Protests From Those of Colonial Times?

There is a phenomenal difference between peasant movements 'then and now'.

For a month the most significant peasant mobilisation in postcolonial India has unfolded, revealing a deep crisis in agrarian life. Given the complacency of the “bullock capitalist” or the neo-rich peasantry, one had thought peasant movements were a thing of the past, despite the persistence of sporadic protests, peasant-pastoral and peasant-tribal mobilisations and the sustained insurgency of Central India.

It is critical then to reflect on the longue durée of village India to understand the continuing escalation of the recent unrest.

There is a phenomenal difference between peasant movements then and now. In colonial India, peasant movements were largely against the British Empire or the states under princely rule often involving often some combination of “zamindar, sahukar, sarkar (landlord, usurer and state)”. The protests would be against the rise in revenue rates and other kinds of obligations that elites might demand, such as begar or forced labour without remuneration in cash or kind, oppressive cesses and repayment of loans with high-interest rates.

Peasant mobilisations were not uncommon in Mughal India but they had greatly escalated in British India, particularly against the sophisticated colonial apparatus, including revenue settlement and forest reports and their respective bureaucracies.

The colonial bureaucracy was primarily a revenue bureaucracy, hence the appellation “collector” who was then tagged with other roles. The institution of the Indian railways facilitated the deep penetration of the state and market, the extraction and movement of agrarian produce would become a mode of colonial control over the “wild”.

Also read: Farmers’ Protests: An Opportune Moment to Review the Development Model of Land Grabbing

Having studied peasant, pastoral and Adivasi movements in history for some four decades, I have decided to stand in solidarity with the protests against the new farm laws. I had been following the Facebook Live reports of my former colleague, Yogendra Yadav, given the lack of empathy in the mainstream print and electronic media and so I decided to go to Shahjahanapur on the Rajasthan-Haryana border.

Ongoing peasant movement

The current peasant movements have three facets. First, the naked display of sovereignty.

It is not the peasants who have blocked one side of the National Highway 8, but the Haryana police, which controls entry into the protest site and gives permission only selectively. Shoulder-level high concrete boulders have been erected on the road followed by arrangements for tear gas and then water canons, which had already been used to drench early protestors on a cold winter night!

Farmers shout slogans at Singhu border during a protest against the new farm laws, in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. Photo: PTI

Sovereignty had also been displayed by both East India Company and the British Empire – conquest, military control, displacement, cutting down of huge tracts of forest, sedentarisation, impoverishment of mobile peoples, marginalisation and criminalisation of resistant peasantry. Ranajit Guha has detailed some 700 revolts in the early colonial period alone.

The revolt of 1857 was no mutiny, but the frontier speaking back in the very heartland of Delhi and its vicinity. The Gujars, the Mewatis were all in action, who rendered the “prose” of rebellion into “verse” calling the regime, “Angreji raj, kampani hukum” (English Rule in the name of the Company)!

The Now of sovereignty is subtle, nubile and chameleon-like. It is expressed in the freedom of the media to classify, try and deem guilty recalcitrant individuals and communities. Some are Pakistanis, others Khalistani! All dissent is anti-national. Truth is most often inverted and rendered accusatory.

The spectre of the liberal-secularist is everywhere including in instigating peasants, a replay of Euro-centric anthropology and history in which peasants were called “primitive rebels”. They lacked the class consciousness of labour that would constitute the proletariat. It was only when Marxism came to Asia that peasants began to be read otherwise.

Histories were reconfigured in the wake of Maoist China, certainly by the 1980s when peasant studies became a major field. In a course I studied on the political economy of China, Russia and India at the University of Chicago, Lloyd Rudolph taught a text by Theodore Schulz, celebrated Nobel Prize-winning economist who emphasised the rationality of the peasant.

The Indian state’s use of the intelligence apparatus is well known with the combined wherewithal of the Income Tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation. But there is also the petty role of the police. An agrarian activist belonging to one of the over 300 peasant organisations participating in the movement has told me of how she was put under house arrest by a guard of some 15 policemen and women merely in anticipation of her participation!

Also read: Farmers’ Protest: Despite Rightwing Propaganda, ‘Khalistani’ Angle Finds Little Traction

Second is the macabre dance between state and capital.

I had hitherto been somewhat sceptical of this blanket imputation and was influenced by a longstanding theoretical argument about the autonomy of the state and its capacity to fashion the political, social and economic.

Videos have been in circulation showing the huge godowns near Sonepat, Haryana, designed as the new warehouses for agrarian produce. Farm laws were drafted elsewhere, it is alleged, an ordinance issued and the three farm laws enacted subsequently by the parliament. Agriculture is a state subject but the principle of centralism rather than federalism had been operative in the making of these laws. Democracy has become an authoritarian ethnocracy, as has been pointed out.

A third difference relates to social capital. This was witnessed in premodern revolts as communities and villages mobilised entire regions such as Mewat. Much has been written about the present movement, but it is another matter to experience it.

Resolute protesters

An entire township has been set up at the site of the Sukhdev Dhaba billboard on National Highway 8, a tented city as peasants have been interrupted in the course of their march to Delhi!

Farmers take part in a protest against the newly passed farm laws on the outskirts of Delhi, India, December 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

Duggalji’s langar or free food service is the contribution of an old gurdwara from Kota that sent some 125 persons to provide food to the protestors. They arrived within days after the protests began and brought with them a machine to knead wheat flour for 50 persons at a time. Before that it was done manually, the labour cheerfully contributed by a woman sarpanch.

Tents and bedding have been provided, bathrooms and toilets kept as clean as possible by a voluntary group. There is hot water for bathing from old style boilers, machines to wash clothes, a clinic to look after the sick and even a mall to supply everyday needs free of cost.

Also read: A Month on, Farmers Remain Resolute Over Repeal of Farm Laws

Maybe it is these Sikhs, I thought, who should be put in charge of governance for the combination of selfless seva or service, organisation and contribution of (wo)man power and material. One Sikh has even supplied bags of oranges from his farm.

A combination of muscled sovereignty and the pandemic was able to prevail over the protests against the draft constitution amendment bill that it was feared would disenfranchise several Muslims as “alien”. Thus far, neither has defeated the Sikhs! Mere sovereignty sans democracy cannot prevail over the idea of shahadat or martyrdom that the Sikh faith took from Islam and that makes them such an indefatigable force!

Thus far the movement has expressed in Jim Scott’s terms the “moral economy” of the peasant. The protests have been about the retreat of state support to crop prices, the anticipated hegemony of corporate over rural India, the new “middlemen” in crop procurement.

When the dust settles it will be worthwhile to take the debate further from minimum support price (MSP) and to livelihood support as climate change is likely to wreak further havoc creating drought and flooding. Even as our lacklustre urban middle class criticises agricultural subsidy, it is capital that receives the largesse of state subsidy in the form of the infrastructure of roads and highways, railway stations, airports and ports!

Shail Mayaram is an historian and political anthropologist.