“Lootne ki chhoot.” Permission to loot. Farmers’ leader Amra Ram was pronouncing his verdict on the three farm Bills passed by Parliament in September.

As the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill became law, they triggered widespread farmers’ protests across the country.

Taken together, the legislations loosen regulations on the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce. They allow farmers to sell outside mandis notified by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. They enable contract farming through deals with private sector companies. They take food items like cereals and pulses off the list of essential commodities, lifting stock limits on such produce.

The government tried to project the laws as a game changer, giving farmers the freedom to sell in the open market. Farmers disagree. They say the laws will weaken the minimum support price mechanism under which the government buys agricultural produce, leave farmers to the mercy of market forces, wreak havoc on small farmers who will not be able to compete and threaten food security.

“They don’t care about common people – this is to give national and international companies leave to loot,” said Ram, former president of the All India Kisan Sabha and legislator for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Rajasthan. “If farmers were selling onions for Rs 2, what will they get now? The government is saying this is for farmers. Which farmers demanded that you abolish mandis? Whose demand was this? Adani? Walmart? They don’t listen to farmers.”

An era of protests

Yet in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power at the Centre promising to double farm incomes by 2022, increase minimum support prices to ensure 50% profit over the cost of production and lower the price of inputs.

Cut to 2020 and farm incomes have fallen, the cost of inputs such as diesel and fertilisers have soared, government procurement of crops other than rice and wheat has been negligible. The National Crime Records Bureau counted 10,281 farmer suicides in 2019. When questioned about farmer suicides amid the lockdown and the migrant crisis triggered by the pandemic, the government said it had no data.

The years in between have seen protests fuelled by growing agrarian distress – between 2014 and 2016, farmer agitations increased by 700%. Early in the Modi government’s tenure, farmers marched against the Land Acquisition Bill, 2015, which sought to dilute the provisions of the 2013 law.

“There were massive protests,” said Inderjit Singh, Haryana state president of the All India Kisan Sabha, with quiet pride. “The attempt to amend the land acquisition act was stalled.”

Protests over the next few years were driven largely by the demand for remunerative prices – Mandsaur and Haryana 2017, Mumbai and Delhi 2018. They did not work. As prices crashed, farmers destroyed crops or left them to rot. “That prices will fall and rise like the sun’s rays – farmers were not able to accept that,” said Ram. “It is not like they are going to hoard until they get a better price. They don’t have that option. This is their livelihood.”

Mandsaur, 2017. Credit: PTI

In state elections since then, this anger showed. In Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, both BJP-ruled states, the party failed to win a majority – though it managed to come back to power later, after defections and resignations in the two state governments. It lost in Punjab and Maharashtra. It failed to win a clear majority in Haryana, a state it had previously swept. “The BJP lost elections in states where farmers’ movements were significant,” said Singh.

Among those protesting in Haryana now are Hindu upper-caste traders who were part of the old market networks and were also the BJP’s social base. The entry of multinational marketing chains could spell the death of mom-and-pop stores, run by small traders who have traditionally supported the BJP.

Why then was the Centre prepared to abandon its own agenda, risk its support base and push through laws widely denounced as anti-farmer?

A vote for Pulwama

The answer may lie in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where farmers voted overwhelmingly for the BJP. Why, despite the mounting distress? Both Singh and Ram point darkly to the Pulwama attack, which killed 40 Central Reserve Force Police personnel in February 2019 and prompted the government to conduct the Balakot air strikes.

“If they say the country will break up, there are attacks, infiltrators – farmers won’t want to vote for that, right?” reasoned Ram. “They think ‘more than my well-being, the nations’ borders and integrity should be protected.’”

Before the attack, there had been the Citizenship Amendment Act, which made non-Muslim undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship. It was the first Indian faith-based law. It drew widespread protest but also galvanised the Hindu Right. The vote in 2019, farm leaders say, was a vote on “sentiment”, a vote for a Hindu nationalist republic perceived to be under threat.

Sociologist Surinder S Jodhka felt larger political changes were at work, breaking down the old logic of democracy. “I think the narrative structure of Indian politics is changing,” he said. “It is not anymore in the democratic, developmental stage. The historical phase we are in is more about identities. People don’t really ask questions of government.”

Take Uttar Pradesh, for instance, where the BJP won big in the Lok Sabha polls. With the government cracking down on cow slaughter and illegal slaughterhouses as part of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, stray cows became a menace to crops. But, come election time, all such prosaic grievances were forgotten.

A Hindu nationalist identity, eclipsing every other compulsion, has been consolidated over six years of the BJP at the Centre. But farmers as a constituency in national politics had started breaking down long before, pulled in different directions by social and economic forces. The cries of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” have faded. The three farm laws passed last month suggest the government does not feel compelled to appeal to farmers even as a symbolic constituency.

Farmers on strike in Nasik in 2017 destroy their onion crop. Credit: IANS

The farmers’ moment

The current concerns of farmers – better prices, lower cost of inputs – echo those of the New Farmers’ Movement that took shape in the late 1970s and grew powerful over the next decade. It was a response to the Green Revolution, which had increased productivity but left farmers with surplus they could not sell at remunerative prices.

Numerous movements, speaking a similar language, sprouted across different regional contexts: Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra and MS Tikait’s Bharatiya Kisan Union in Uttar Pradesh, among others.

They were broadly anti-state. Apart from resentment about prices, they also articulated rural grievances against the urban. Joshi posited a rural, agricultural “Bharat” losing out to an urban “India”. They were also largely apolitical. But, according to political scientist Zoya Hasan, they were able to mount a serious challenge to the Congress in several states.

“The Shetkari Sangathana was credited with significantly reducing the margin of victory of many Congress candidates in the 1984 parliamentary elections in Maharashtra,” she writes. “The BKU backed the National Front, which won a decisive victory over the Congress in UP in 1989, and thus played a significant role in the overthrow of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989.”

But by the 1990s, the movements had faded. Leaders such as Tikait “seceded from the village, recognising that agriculture had no future”, explained Jodhka. Farmers politics was subsumed by mainstream politics. Besides, two factors would work sweeping changes in India: the liberalisation of 1991 and a new wave of identity politics.

A step beyond 1991

“They made promises of cheap fertilisers, cheap seeds in 1991,” said Ram. “They said there was no need for subsidies – farmers can go sell their goods straight to Paris, America. The steps they took in 1991, these laws take them forward.”

Jodhka describes “a sense of loss” among farmers as agriculture grew marginalised, a trend that might have started in the 1970s but sharpened with liberalisation. “The rise of the urban middle class and the urban trading castes meant they became visible as India’s valued people,” said Jodhka. “Farming was no longer a source of pride. The younger generation no longer wants to go into farming.”

With the economic imperatives of liberalisation, farmers faded from the popular imagination and the national agenda. “The moral high ground Punjab’s farmers occupied as producers of food for the nation was lost when they were told to diversify into non-foodgrain crops that could find markets, locally and globally, without any help from the state,” Jodhka writes in the essay, “Beyond ‘crises’”.

All of these changes have made farmers’ politics less effective. As one farm activist who did not want to be quoted said, “It is very difficult to build an identity based on a profession that you don’t want to do. It is not an identity you want to fight for.”

Besides, the old distinctions between urban and rural have grown blurred. According to National Sample Survey Office data, agriculture accounts for 44% of overall employment. Surveys also show about 55% of rural males are employed in agriculture. But only a fraction of this number is fully dependent on agriculture, Jodhka points out, most households have men who migrate to the cities for work. So most families have non-farm remittances and ties to the city.

The opening up of markets has also meant that farmers no longer grow their own food. “Farmers have become dependent on market forces for their own nutrition,” said the farm activist. “So if there’s inflation you also get impacted. That also eroded the identity of farmers as just being farmers.”

Karnataka State Farmers' Association in a rally against the farm laws on September 21.

Other identities

While liberalisation had weakened some identities, the Mandal Commission, which recommended 27% reservation in Central jobs for backward castes, and the BJP’s Ramjanmabhoomi movement led to the strengthening of others. Namely, caste, ethnicity and religion, which now divided the countryside and diluted the articulation of farmers’ interests.

In Uttar Pradesh, Zoya Hasan notes, the Bharatiya Kisan Union joined the anti-Mandal agitation. The spectacle of the Ram Temple movement soon replaced the farmers’ protests. The “totalising ideology” of Hindutva, she writes, “left little space for other types of confrontation with the state”. Meanwhile in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal joined the National Democratic Alliance.

With the rise of Modi and growing migration to the cities, a new politics of aspiration took shape at the national level. This may have helped uproot voters from the old regional politics so that they could identify themselves as Hindus first, Jodhka observed.

An apolitical agitation?

But do the current protests suggest the BJP read the tea leaves wrong, that farmers’ concerns are still a powerful factor in national politics? The new farm laws certainly led to dramatic developments.

The BJP lost its oldest ally in the National Democratic Alliance, the Shiromani Akali Dal, soon after its party member, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, resigned from the Modi cabinet over the proposals. The hurried passing of the bills also appears to have galvanised the Opposition to an extent – the Congress has already drafted a model law that will allow non-BJP ruled states to bypass the Central laws.

But it might be premature to read great political implications in the protests. First, the protests have fashioned themselves as being above party politics, adopting the old moral language of the 1980s movements. In Punjab, for instance, farm organisations refuse to share a platform with party leaders, even though many farmers may have political affiliations.

“This is an agitation by farmers because of the policies,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj. “There was simmering pent up frustration and distress and not having a consultation process has led to a larger trust deficit, which has now become more difficult to bridge. It is not a political movement but politics will add fuel to the fire.”

Second, while the protests were widespread at first, they are now concentrated largely in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, the belt that benefited the most from the Green Revolution and once had thriving farmers’ movements. These are also regions that depend heavily on government procurement at minimum support prices and are home to large farmers tied to the mandi system.

“Those who think they were getting something from the system, they feel they will lose - that’s why they are angry,” said Ram. “In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh they don’t get MSP so the anger is not so strong.” Farmers’ interests, he explained, differed from district to district, village to village.

Finally, mainstream political interest has already shifted away from the farmers’ protests, as agitations against the Hathras case gain ground. More protests have been planned but observers are sceptical that they will last long. In a couple of weeks, there will be paddy to harvest.