Farmers' Protest Once Again Brought to Fore the Power of Women in Mass Mobilisations

No movement in India’s history – including the movement for independence from British colonial rule – saw this degree of participation by women.

The decision by the Kisan Morcha leadership to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 is of huge significance and should be welcomed. Celebrations are to be held at the protest sites in Delhi, and the leadership has appealed for large-scale marches by women farmers (and other women) from the states surrounding Delhi to the protest sites on or before March 8. This might mean that this year’s gathering of women on the borders of Delhi is the largest such gathering on International Women’s Day anywhere in the world.

Due to global interest in such a gathering among women, as well as among progressive individuals and organisations supportive of gender equality, the programme on the day will be watched closely from all over the world. The format of the celebrations planned by the Kisan organisations also deserves special appreciation. The stage at various protest sites will be managed by women and the speakers on the day will be also primarily, if not solely, women.

Both the idea of the celebration and the manner of its announcement suggests that the Kisan Morcha leadership has realised the need to acknowledge the contribution women have played in this momentous struggle. No movement in India’s history – including the movement for independence from British colonial rule – had this degree of participation by women.

Also read: ‘We Have to Look After Our Homes as Well as the Movement’: Women at Farmers’ Protest

The highly visible participation of women in this movement has also attracted the attention of leading women activists in the world, such as singer Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, legal activist Meena Harris (the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris), the Hollywood film actress Susan Sarandon, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the UK Green Party member of parliament Caroline Lucas. They have all extended support to the farmers’ protests against the three farming laws brought in by the BJP government.

The aspect of women’s participation in this movement that has attracted special attention nationally and globally is that the women taking part are participating in issues of concern to the whole society rather than to women specifically.

The emergence of a new crop of women activists 

It is in this context that the contribution of two women activists in India – Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi – assumes particular significance. Nodeep Kaur has been organising male and female industrial workers to demand better working conditions, and assumed a leadership role in this organisation. She demonstrated a high level of political consciousness in recognising that there is a commonality between the struggles of farmers and workers and leading a rally of thousands of industrial workers – men and women – in support of the farmers’ movement.

Activists Nodeep Kaur (L) and Disha Ravi (R).

The BJP governments in Haryana and at the Centre were frightened by this development. There could be no bigger challenge and threat to the BJP than an alliance between Indian workers and peasants. It is this fear that led the government to arrest Nodeep Kaur. Meena Harris’s statement about Kaur galvanised international and national support, and the government was forced to release her comparatively quickly.

If we compare the government’s behaviour in this case with its very harsh treatment of other women activists in the past (such as the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj), it becomes quite clear that it is the power of the mass movement behind the farmers’ protest that has forced a difference of approach on the part of the government’s behaviour.

Disha Ravi’s case also demonstrates the emergence of a new generation of women activists who are aware of issues concerning women but who also link them to larger societal issues. She is an environmental activist and has been inspired by the activism of Greta Thunberg. The global environmental movement has seen the participation of women of all ages at a level and on a scale which no other movement before has seen.

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg

Before the global environmental movement, women participated most frequently in anti-war movements; in the UK, protests against nuclear weapons were almost entirely led by women. It remains a subject of further research and reflection to explain why movements for peace and ecological sustainability attract women more than other movements.

One widespread explanation is that since women give birth and take care of food and household work relating to food, they develop a greater sensitivity to nature and to life-supporting services related to nature.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd in Stuttgart.

This year’s celebration of International Women’s Day is of special significance, marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg, the greatest woman revolutionary of the 20th century and one of the greatest woman economist. She was born on March 5, 1871 in Poland but grew to be the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, at that time the largest Marxist party in the world.

Her book Accumulation of Capital (1913) extends Marx’s economic theory to the period of imperialism. She argued that capital accumulation requires the constant expansion of markets for its commodities and it was this search for markets that had created the inter-imperialist rivalries leading to the First World War.

She popularised the slogan ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ formulated earlier by Karl Kautsky, which meant that if socialism fails to replace capitalism, it will lead to global wars and threaten civilisation. Along with Lenin and Trotsky, she belonged to the group of revolutionaries who had argued that in time of war, revolutionaries should attempt to overthrow their country’s government instead of providing patriotic support.

Also read: One, Two, Many Rosa Luxemburgs

The socialist historian and journalist Franz Mehring once called her the “best brain after Marx”. She clashed with Lenin on theoretical and political issues, especially concerning some anti-democratic dimensions of the Bolshevik theory and practice and still commanded his respect to the extent that he called her the ‘eagle’ of the Communist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by proto-fascist thugs in January 1919. The 150th anniversary of her birth this year will be celebrated by women and socialist groups all over the world. A socialist feminist magazine Lux, which began in 2020, and named after Rosa Luxemburg, described her as “one of the most creative minds to remake the socialist tradition”.

I hope that Kisan Morcha will also remember her in their celebration of International Women’s Day. In this period of the rising threat of authoritarianism to democracy, let us conclude by remembering words of Luxemburg which should remain the motto of the movement of farmers and women:

“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of a party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.” 

Pritam Singh is professor emeritus at Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford UK.