Arguing on behalf of the Central government during a hearing in the Supreme Court on January 12 on the new farm laws and the farmers’ protests demanding their repeal, Attorney General KK Venugopal claimed that the demonstrators have been “infiltrated by elements that support the idea of Khalistan”.

This was not the first time that such an allegation had been made by the ruling establishment. Some senior ministers of the Central government and spokespersons of the ruling party have also repeatedly made such allegations. They have also taken issue with the fact that some of the participating farmers’ organszations are left-leaning and raise issues of human rights. Farmers ought to be speaking only about farming-related issues and nothing else, they insist.

However, if we look at it closely, the stated position of the farmers’ unions and their leaders is not very different. You just need to listen to the videos of the lectures they have been delivering at the protest sites, all easily available on YouTube.

This is not to suggest that farmers movements are “non-political” or “pre-political”. Social movements are always constituted by politics, often producing unintended consequences with far-reaching political implications. The reference point here is the party or electoral politics.

What has been the relationship of farmers’ movements with party politics in India?

‘New’ farmers’ movements

Present-day farmers are different from the older category of peasants. When their mobilisations first emerged in the 1980s, they were described as “new” farmers’ movements because they were different from their earlier variants, the peasant mobilisations. Peasant movements of the 20th century were often led by outsiders and were invariably part of larger political struggles.

One of the popular books on the subject by Eric R Wolf published in 1969 was Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Some of the best-known peasant movements produced “revolutionary” changes in prevailing political systems. From Russia and China to Vietnam, Algeria to Mexico, peasants actively participated in movements that were firmly political.

Even in India, peasants actively participated in the freedom struggle, mobilised by Gandhi. Similarly, left-wing political parties mobilised them around questions of land reforms and social equity.

Bharatiya Kisan Union members during a protest against the Centre's new farm laws, at Ghazipur border, New Delhi. Credit PTI

The farmers’ movements since the 1980s have had a different focus. Their demands are generally very specific. They organise themselves as “unions”, which are almost always led by farmers themselves. They emerged in response to the increasing integration of agriculture into the larger market economy that led to it being directly subjected to the vagaries of market. Post-Green Revolution agriculture could not be carried out without purchasing a large volume of inputs that were only available in the urban markets.

This implied their “compulsive market participation”, as John Hariss described. Even small cultivators, who produced very little surplus over their subsistence requirements, are compelled to take their produce to the market.

“Farm unions” came up to ensure a fair deal for the agricultural sector in an economy that was becoming increasingly “urban” dominated. From day one, their politics was, therefore, focussed around the “terms of trade”. They frequently appealed to the state and looked up to it as the negotiating agent, that would protect them from the uncertainties of the market through regulations and subsidies. The state is thus normally seen by them as a protector and a moral patriarch.

Range of orientations

Such a mobilisations of “unions” and pressure groups is not only a normal part of a modern market economy, but it is also essential for a democratic polity to function and flourish. The electoral process is not a substitute for such politics. Unions and the interests they represent could be electorally insignificant. But as citizens, small and large, they represent opinions and interests that are legitimate.

The citizens who join these “unions” do not carry singular identities, of being merely farmers or workers or teachers. Like everyone else, they too live with multiple identities, ascriptive and professional. They are bound to bring these into their unions as well. In a country like India, these identities could range from region, language and religion to a variety of “secular” political orientations.

Those leading the current farmers movements are acutely aware of these realities and have always worked with them. Speaking from the site the dharna to a YouTube television reporter, Ajit Anjum, Rakesh Takait, the Bharatiya Kisan Union leader from Uttar Pradesh, explained that theirs was not a movement for political power. Many of his supporters, he pointed out, had been voters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Though they were sitting on dharna with him on the current issue, many were likely to go back to the political space that they came from once the agitation ended. “We are not a political party and we are not competing with any political party,” he said. Similarly, a large majority of the Jat farmers from Haryana, who have been sitting on the dharna alongside the Punjab farmers, had in fact voted for Modi during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Farmers protest against the new agricultural laws. Credit: PTI

The union leader from Punjab, Balbir Singh Rajjewal, is similarly aware of the diversity of his constituency. A large section of Sikh farmers has traditionally been supporters of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), which until recently was a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, and many would have voted for its candidates in the last elections. Many Sikh farmers would have also voted for the Indian National Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party.

Speaking to his supporters at the Singhu border with Delhi, Rajjewal has been constantly reminding them about the need to stay focussed on the sole issue relating to agriculture, firmly and peacefully. He reiterated this again from the stage on January 13, when he said, “If some people wish to fight for Khalistan, they ought to go to America and create it there. Our struggle is different.”

The challenge for the democratic political establishment is to learn to engage with such social movements, recognising their value. They are not simply expressions of dissent. They also mobilise vast volumes of positive energy that revives social solidarities and democratic spirits.

Diversities of interests, cultures and opinions mark all nations of the world today. Targeting social movements as “enemies” to be defeated would only drain out the positive energy that such movements produce. They need to be engaged with.

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.