This is a “backstory” and gives a wider context for understanding what could be considered one of the largest nonviolent protests the world has seen. After more than a year of sustained and concerted effort, the farmers have succeeded in getting the Modi government to give them what they asked for, the repeal of the three black farm laws, compensation for all those martyred and a review of the MSP to ascertain that it reaches to all farmers. The strike has been suspended for now but not called off until the government makes good on all its promises. This narrative recounts how a unified effort was made, showcasing how active non-violence can be an effective tool for effecting change.
The countryside in India has been boiling since November last year. In the agrarian sector, a strike was called that was seconded by more than 250 million farmers and farmworkers, who were also joined by other sectors. At the center of anger are the changes in the agrarian legislation passed by the Government. In addition to the blockades on access to the capital, a hunger strike in shifts by the main union leaders in the countryside continued. Negotiations or understanding between agrarian organizations and the Government remained stagnant.
This article will be published in three parts. Here is the delivery of the first one.
Where does the biggest strike in history come from?
Since November 2020, in India, more than 250 million farmworkers are on strike or in protest, even supported by some of the country’s large industrial unions. The figure deserves a second reading to understand where it comes from. Nothing so massive emerges only from the two agrarian regions closest to New Delhi, as would be seen in a hasty analysis. There is a process that explodes in conflict with protests of these dimensions.
The call was followed by at least 250 million workers, so it may be the largest in history. The origin of everything is the rejection of the reform of the field and the agrarian market championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the People’s Party of India. Salaried farmworkers and farmers believe they have good reason to fear that the reforms will stifle their living conditions, under the pretext of liberalizing and modernizing the countryside.
The protests culminated in a farmers’ march on New Delhi, with hundreds of thousands blocking the entrances to the city ( Dec 3, 2020 ). A good number are still camped on the outskirts of the city with their tractors and periodically cutting off traffic. The Indian government brutally suppressed the protests, using water cannons, tear gas and heavy police charges. This repression was condemned internationally, and the words of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in defense of the rights of workers to demonstrate peacefully stand out.
This started in November of last year: an outbreak of violence in which a minority faced stones against the police and law enforcement agencies resulted in one death and numerous injuries.
Meetings with government representatives have so far been sterile. The government does not give in, and the representatives of the field are not satisfied with the vague promises of Prime Minister Modi. Some of the actions planned by the strikers’ representatives for the beginning of February have been called off.
Where does the conflict come from?
In India, everything is large, populous, colorful and has a long history that must be contemplated, even if it is rough in all analyses.
Since 2014, India has been governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Indian People’s Party, with an absolute majority. Winning in the last elections of 2019 (303 of 542 seats), and what follows a harsh neoliberal, populist program, in which Hindu nationalism is exacerbated. It does so in many of its most controversial initiatives, without parliamentary debate, through what in Spain would be decree-laws. A way of legislating that barely passes through parliament, where laws can be modified or agreed upon.
In figures, India is a country with more than 1.36 billion inhabitants, where almost half of the population works in the field or subsists in it, and between 45% and 80% of the total workforce works in informal conditions, without the protection of labor law.
India is home to roughly a third of the world’s poor, although its GDP is the third-largest in the world, according to the IMF. However, it is no longer the nation with the highest percentage of people in extreme poverty, because that podium was handed over to Nigeria.
The agricultural sector is only one-fifth of GDP despite the amount of population that lives in and in what we call the countryside. India is in fact the fourth agricultural power in the world. The main crops are wheat, millet, rice, corn, sugar cane, tea, potatoes and cotton, some of these being the main producers. It is also the world’s second-largest producer of cattle, the third in sheep and the fourth in fish production. All these macroeconomic data and the 1.36 billion Indian consumers make India an interesting economic slice.
It is interesting to understand the agrarian world there and abroad. In India, it is interesting because they have a huge social challenge related to agriculture. The Modi government does not seem to approach the problem from majority interests, nor from an overriding logic. What the People’s Party of India legislates from behind is the spirit of liberalizing markets so that they allocate resources (benefits) to the most dynamic agents. But reality shows that this does not work that way. The influx of foreign capital and the existence of large and medium-sized companies only form circuits in which small and medium-sized farmers will be kidnapped. The script his experts dictate to him is that in the future, India’s food security cannot depend on smallholder or subsistence farming.
For this reason, the great neoliberal hegemon, in its form of financialization of all human activity on a planetary scale, long ago set its sights on India to impose on it its economic theory, its political and social creed and the minimization of public policies, under the mantra of ‘the virtues of the market and free competition’. Since the nineties, all reforms have this tendency by centrality and not the benefit of the population.
In a world where ultra-capitalist globalization has already put all the basic raw materials for life on the market, India is, therefore, a priority target. It is of interest as a producer market and as an import market. It is in their interest to overturn and embrace the prevailing single model of development, something that the Indian People’s Party perfectly represents.
The social impact of this global trend in such a complex and densely populated country is not easy to describe.
The first thing that stands out is that it is six thousand five hundred times bigger than Spain (6,500). Their society is highly fragmented by class, caste, religion, language, and geography, making it difficult for clear and shared progressive political discourses to emerge. It is as if all the main towns that, from the Neolithic until now, passed through the peninsula had survived in Spain. As if all their ethnic groups, creeds, languages and worldviews had also survived. That is the affordable mosaic in terms closest to us. Faced with such social fragmentation, there is no opposition that offers alternatives to the official program and channels solidarity with the most marginalized. Everything is fragmented, except fear.
Fear of the future – also there – fuels totemic or differentiating movements in those lands. Movements that see their own, as the only thing. In this sense, castes, religions, languages, etc., make it difficult to empathize with the sufferings of those who see themselves as “the others” (or not-me ). This is the ideal human landscape for a government like that of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Prime Minister Modi.
In the context of the commented strike, the legal and customary structures existing in India and which have supported the fragile social balance until now have hampered global agribusiness corporations and mercenary investment funds since the 1990s.
The macro figures for the country require caution given the size of the population and the social imbalances they hide.
Almost 600 million Indians depend on the countryside and, in turn, half of them depend on it directly for a daily food subsistence, in small personal or family farms. In these mini-farms, the surplus part ─if it exists─ reaches local markets for direct or informal commercialization (underground economy and black money). There, it is bartered or sold to the consumer to meet the other needs of the producers. It could not be otherwise because few people have a bank account, credit cards or electronic payment methods. In fact, the vast majority of workers ( 86% according to the World Bank ) receive their salaries informally and in cash.
Under the pretext of the fight against counterfeiting, tax fraud and the black economy, Prime Minister Mandi ordered in 2016 to demonetize the Indian economy, withdrawing the five hundred and one thousand rupees (approximately 7 and 14 dollars) bills overnight. ), replacing them with new ones and causing the poorest to be even more helpless. The human suffering was unspeakable. The cash shortage resulted in medical and personal emergencies. The newspapers covered it. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, called it “organized loot and legalized looting.”
According to a PWC report “in a massively informal economy, the most vulnerable people do not make digital payments. The demonetization was for them a badly thought out and cruel operation because of the damage caused to the people and the Indian economy. After two years, the benefits do not appear to have been worth the huge financial losses and human suffering. Despite the months of general distress in the population, there were no major disturbances or violent incidents. In short, even PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy that has been banned from doing accounting work in India for two years due to some of its scandals, comes to describe the failure of the measure or that the end does not justify the means.
In December 2019, in this kaleidoscope of religions, ethnicities, cultural nuances, and their internal and external conflicts, Modí enacted the Citizenship Amendment Law. In essence, it regulates the granting of Indian citizenship to people who suffer religious persecution in three neighboring countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh). Excluding specifically the 200 million Muslims in India and pointing to the fact that people who cannot prove their origin in the country are considered ‘illegal’.
There were deaths and many hundreds of wounded in the revolts against the controversial law that discriminates against the minority Muslim population in the country, and that felt in it a start of ethnic cleansing. But the Indian People’s Party, a Hindu nationalist, persevered in its exclusionary and racist impulse by promulgating a law, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which punishes with sentences of ten years in prison ” interreligious marriages whose intention is to change the religion of women.”. It intends to fight against the supposed ‘jihad of love’ of the Muslim minority. This paranoid conspiracy theory accuses Muslim men of deceiving and forcing Hindus to convert to Islam. A theory that has circulated for years among Hindu extremism, but that the Modi government gives a letter of reality fighting it in its delusional laws. The states of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana or Karnataka have already announced similar regulations.
How are things in India today, in 2021?
On January 12, 2021, the Indian Supreme Court suspended the laws that provoked the protests of the peasants.
The judges, with this resolution, try to unblock the country and the failed negotiations between protesters and the government. Some ask, without yielding, the total repeal of the three laws that they consider anti-peasant. In turn, the government has asked the Justice to declare illegal the protests that have blocked some of the entrances to the capital since November, and threaten to intensify the conflict by intervening more harshly by the public order forces. Very recently, the police have responded very harshly to the actions of those who come to New Delhi to demonstrate. On the other hand, they allege that they are no longer peaceful protests.
The judicial resolution orders the creation of a committee of experts in agrarian matters, in charge of settling differences on the scope of the legislation, and obliges itself to listen to the parties involved in order to guide the judges in their final decision on the controversial laws. But the representatives of the protesters refuse to participate for the moment because they reject the chosen experts and consider that everything is balanced in favor of the pro-government vision. They don’t expect anything good from that committee. That is why they do not interrupt their protests and persist in going on a hunger strike.
Many other issues should come to the Supreme of India. They exceed these lines to enumerate them. But it is evident that behind the great economic conflicts with social impact, there are the winds that dominate the financialization of life on the planet which only seeks to maximize profits and forge a tight control of everything vital in the hands of a few. A mental current that does not attend to human needs seen as a whole, to advance in the improvement of living conditions and not only from the economy. A procedure that does not eliminate imbalances – not even in India, as has been seen – but rather rampages like an elephant in a china shop, eliminating all obstacles to what they call ‘free trade’.
One does not want to make a black chronicle of India here. Things are better now than in the days of the English. India has oscillated between social growth and economic development for the past seventy years, although economic considerations have always won out over social ones.
Once independent, in 1947, the Nehru government imposed a social-democratic political script with strong central planning. India became a democratic country governed by strict economic rules, a rigid centralized government, a controlled market and distribution, and with barriers to the entry of foreign companies and capital. For some analysts, this was the line followed until just before the 1990s. This first period brought improvements in social aspects such as education, health and a small improvement in infrastructure. England until independence had only built infrastructures for the exploitation of its resources and the control of the colonial territory. Similar to what China does now in Africa and South America when it invests in those areas of the world.
From the eighties and nineties, everything changed a lot. The IMF and the other forces of international capital forced India to open up. Many industries that were no longer tolerable in the West, due to their environmental impact and human health, ended up in the Third World. Also in India eager to grow. The capitals returned to invest in infrastructures for the export and the transport of what India contributes to the world or needs from it.
It is necessary to remember here, regarding this type of developmentalism, the Bhopal disaster in 1984. Insufficient maintenance and cleaning caused by corruption in inspection and security agencies caused a large leak of methyl isocyanate in a proprietary pesticide plant. ─a media of the American Union Carbide and the government of India itself. Between 60,000 and 80,000 people died in the first week after the toxic leak. At least 12,000 others subsequently died as a direct consequence. In total, more than 600,000 people were affected, in addition to the thousands of heads of livestock and domestic animals that perished. The environment was seriously polluted by the toxic substances and heavy metals spilled, which will take many years to completely disappear. There is no way to cover such armageddon, even if it was an accident. This is the world of the merchants of death seen from India. We also see it now simmering in our oceans, air, land, and aquifers. Where is this great lie that the market regulates itself and favors the fittest and most efficient?
What is happening in the fields of India and its men and women can be summed up in one sentence: anguish because they see that the evolution that the government and the multinationals lavishly serve is going to leave them by the wayside. The first to feel the alarm are the people of the Punjab and Haryana regions, where the majority of the protesters who have mobilized are from.
The urban population still feels far from the problem. They who do not know whether to be with them or with the government. In New Delhi, farmers camped on the outskirts since November have been a discomfort. His tractors getting in the way will provoke the ire of many. But this indifference is reckless. What will happen if we see massive migrations within India? What will happen to life in the cities, if some two hundred million Indians from all eminently agricultural regions end up migrating en masse to the industrialized areas of the country? Will they be treated as invaders or undocumented and repatriated? But if they are already in their homeland, the only thing is that the richest Indians will have stolen is their lives. We too would emigrate to cities like them. In Spain, it happened in the sixties and seventies.
India is not that far away, nor is it alien to us. Our field and our industry have undergone a similar evolution. There was never a true industrial or agrarian reconversion in our country. Here, liberalization has brought about concentration and oligopolies that have not modernized us. Not even that, which is the main slogan of his supporters. The State is increasingly inoperative when it comes to defending strategic interests or the common good. The difficult thing when on the other side there are companies and funds with more economic power than our own State. We have become an exporter of farm products, services and sun and tourism. Nor does it seem likely that the Indian government will put the conflict on track in favor of its people.
A few days ago, the protesters of the largest strike in history called off the march to Parliament that they had planned for the first week of February. Violent incidents and clashes with the police of a minority split from the strikers left one person dead and hundreds injured. To make it clear that they reject violence and that it is not their way, they called off the march on Parliament, which was intended to be firm and massive, but peaceful.