How the Farmers' Protest Affirmed the Potential of India's Grassroots Democracy 

The work of localised democratic institutions like the khap panchayats in Haryana and village panchayats in Punjab in amping up pressure to get these laws repealed signifies hope for democracy.

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On January 28, 2021, as the pictures of impending police action at the Ghazipur border flooded our television screens and mainstream media labelled the protesting farmers as ‘anti-nationals’, it seemed all but certain that the farmers’ protests were coming to an anti-climactic end. No one could have foreseen what followed.

After Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal, the protest became stronger than ever before. Overnight, thousands of farmers reached Delhi’s borders and in what can only be called an exemplary model of resilience, the farmers held their ground for the next 10 months, their ultimate victory coming on November 19, 2021.

While there will be much more to unravel and explore – and keep academics and observers of Indian politics busy for decades – this article focuses on some fundamental themes of the farmers’ protest which we hope will be useful for understanding the true tenacity and resilience of the movement.

We hope our analysis will throw light on some of the movement’s important aspects; specifically, how the farmers were able to mobilise in such significant numbers, sustain the movement over such a prolonged period of time and finally succeed, as well as the implications of this for Indian democracy. 

The role of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – the umbrella body of hundreds of regional and national farm unions – as the prime representative of the farmers and chief negotiator between them and the government shows the continuing importance of the decades-old left wing Kisan Unions and their emerging synergy with Tikait’s younger Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).

BKU leader Rakesh Tikait. Photo: PTI

However, the underlying strength of protest was provided also by the local institutional structures of the villages of North India, especially in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. Among them, notably, the Sikh Sangat and the Khap Panchayat made significant contributions. 

Many observers are struggling to find an idiom through which to understand and frame the rise and victory of the Kisan Movement. We believe this idiom can be found in the Sikh praxis of ‘Deg Teg Fateh’. ‘Deg’ (literally, cauldron) represents the institutional capacity for resource mobilisation essential for leading mass scale, self-sustained peoples’ movements. ‘Teg’ (literally, sword) represents the organisational capacity to cohesively and strategically act towards justice-driven goals. Together, these two elements will result in victory (‘Fateh’).

These two capacities were developed and strengthened over a long era of sangat building by the Sikh Gurus and their role in sustaining the protests was also highlighted numerous times by Tikait. While langars kept people going with food and logistics, the village-level Panchayats of Punjab and the Khaps of Haryana and Western UP mobilised thousands of people on one emotional call, showing the resilience of real socio-familial bonds.

The experienced, even grizzled, leadership of the farm unions at all levels, from local units to the SKM, provided a goal-driven structure and coherence to the movement.

Also read: India’s Farmers Have Shown the Way to the Long Democratic Pushback

In this synergy of traditional social and modern political structures, we observe a new kind of much-needed democratic upsurge which we believe is the most significant outcome of the movement for the present and future of democratic politics in the country at this stage.

In the lead up to and during the movement, the villages of Northern India became microcosms of democratic aspirations, especially when they felt that the laws passed unilaterally by the Union government were imposed without consultation with farmers and other stakeholders; violating a fundamental requirement of democratic legislation.

The annals of Indian history reveal that peasants have risen against such diktats and impositions in the past, no matter who was on the throne.

The fight against such impositions is often framed as one of dharma; as a principle of justice, explored by Amartya Sen in his book, The Idea of Justice. This principle is entrenched in the ethos of Indian civilisational politics. That unjust laws, even when imposed by otherwise legitimate kings, must be opposed also becomes a question of dharma; as righteous duty.

This is something that urban apologists of the present government failed to realise or understand when they repeatedly asked why the farmers were opposing laws made by an elected government, let alone the fact that government’s method of passing the laws was itself dubious and set a harmful precedent for a federal democracy. In the reversal of the laws, we thus see the prevention of further weakening of the democratic ethos in India

Interestingly, this bottom-up check on power is recognised by political theorists such as Francis Fukuyama as the natural operation of rule of law in Indian society, cultivated during early Vedic times. The farmers’ movement should thus also be given credit for upholding the civilisational ethos of the land and guarding it from its self-proclaimed guardians.

Farmers celebrate after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repealing of the three farm laws, at Tikri border in New Delhi, November 19, 2021. Photo: PTI

This natural understanding of the organic democratic ethos of the land also demonstrates the stark difference between the patriotism of the ‘sons of the soil’ as opposed to the worship of the false idol of pseudo-nationalism. This was also demonstrated repeatedly during the protests and the opposition to it from certain (predictable) sections of the political spectrum.

Many of the those protesting were veterans who had fought in multiple wars, some even bearing their medals on their chests. Even as they were being painted as anti-nationals by the bellicose media, many of their sons were, in fact, deployed at India’s borders.

It is worth mentioning that the parents of Sepoy Gurtej Singh, who died warding-off Chinese encroachment at Galwan Valley, had also been among the protestors at Singhu border. Another Sepoy, Gajjan Singh, who died in a gunfight with terrorists in Poonch in October, 2021, had carried the Kisan flag during his wedding last year in solidarity with the protesting farmers.

Also read: As Farmers Head Back Home, They’re Taking Unity and a Renewed Faith in Democracy With Them

It can be argued that one reason for the weakness of the democratic ethos in India is that Indian society is particularly weak in relation to the state. The nature of the relationship between state and the people is fluid, but if people are backed by strong local institutions and traditions, their bargaining power is strengthened.

While in certain Western societies this intermediary role is performed by civil society itself, in India, it could be argued, a universal civil society which extends across the polity does not exist. Exceptions to this assumption can, perhaps, be seen in places with strong rural social networks, as in our villages, which act as a bulwark against the whims of ‘rulers’ who seek to ruthlessly atomise society into easily-controlled, isolated individuals

Returning to January 28, we saw how these bonds can resiliently oppose the imposition of state power; we saw a demonstration of the social power of the Khap Panchayat. The Khap Panchayat, much maligned in the mass media for its patriarchal and casteist tendencies, is, in fact, a legacy institution which preserves the oldest expressions of the republican/democratic ethos of the Indian civilisation. Although it still has to reform in some areas, the protest has given it a new outlook as a mobilising force against injustice in a democracy.

In our times, the Panchayat continues to remain the most useful institution for operationalising bottom-up democracy, demonstrated by both the Khaps of Haryana and Western UP and the village panchayats of Punjab. This model can perhaps be adapted for urban and other forms of politics, including new urban and post-urban politics in the age of cyber-politics as well. The 73rd (related to Gram Sabhas) and 74th (related to Urban Local Bodies) constitutional amendments also aspired to put just such a democracy in action. 

Additionally, Tikait’s concerted efforts to highlight the message of religious harmony also strengthened the other crucial aspect of dharma: its inherent tolerance and acceptance of the various routes to the divine.

Further, that the government and the farmers reached a consensus will have a long-term effect and should be recognised as an important moment in India’s democratic history, bearing lessons for the world. International indices on democracy have not looked good for India in recent years but this decision of the government will perhaps help in reversing these trends , showing that the voice of the people – even though they must shout at the doors of the national capital to make it heard – does finally matter. 

We can only hope future regimes and civil society actors will learn from the movement.

Anmol Waraich is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU. G.S. Goraya is a PhD research scholar at Panjab University, Chandigarh.