Farmers Movement and the Populist Authoritarianism in India

Ajay Gudavarthy

Counterstrategies need not merely emotionalise protest but to also revolutionise emotions. They need to dig deep into everyday ethics, their presence in common sense, and modes of normative evaluation. This is what happened during the Indian farmers’ protests. Three years after they erupted, Ajay Gudavarthy takes a look at the successful mobilisation that managed to make a dent in India’s authoritarian regime

Authoritarianism in the 21st century is spreading not in the form of dictatorships and military rule but through electoral mobilisation, consent, and representation. Growing consent and rhetoric surrounding authoritarianism invisibilizes violence and force. We no longer have the privilege of making a clear distinction between coercion and consent. Consent could come out of choice, autonomy, and rationalisation as much as it could be about “manufactured consent” as well as  coercion presented in consensual modes.

In India, methods of exceptionalism have become banal, routinised and a paradigm of governance. There has been a sustained attempt to collapse the ordinary and the extraordinary. Extraordinary laws have become part of the regular criminal justice system. These extraordinary laws no longer criminalize acts of violence but constructs of intention; they are based less on evidence and more on ‘collective conscience’. Most of the extraordinary laws, both past and more recent, such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967), the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act, 1987), and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002), criminalize the possibility of harbouring criminal intent.

Furthermore, contemporary authoritarianism mobilizes the affective dimension, including everyday ethics, emotions, and normativity. It communicates through local idioms, vernacular cultural forms, and extra-institutional modalities. They appropriate anti-elitist rhetoric and at times even the sensibilities of class struggle. Often, authoritarianism in current contexts spreads suspicion towards ideologies, organized politics, and institutions––making it difficult for progressive politics to generate a mass-alternative within the confines of ideological or institutional language.

It critiques the failures of law and institutions only to further undermine them. It critiques ideologies only to further regulate thought processes. It offers a culturalist rendering of modern politics as a professionalized avocation, only to further centralize power and block deliberation. In essence, authoritarianism appropriates both the available modes of democratic engagement and the critique of its limits of being formal and “merely procedural”, only to produce mammoth state-systems and an anti-politics machine at the same time.

Anti-authoritarian counterstrategies need to take all of these dimensions into account. They cannot reproduce methods used in the twentieth century, neither in terms of strategies nor ideological proclivities. Counterstrategies need to work in a manner that subverts from within, expanding the scope of what John Holloway refers to as “in-against-beyond”2. Counterstrategies need revolutionary appropriation of hegemonic tropes, not mere rejection and debunking. Counterstrategy is not a place, it is a process of resignifying and subverting received meanings. It cannot be suspicious of all of culture, equating it with conservatism. Alongside economic and political constructs of cultural hegemony, there is a need for a cultural reading of dominant economic and political structures.

Culture is a site, a medium, and a language for communication. It needs to be wrested out of hegemonic appropriation. Counterstrategies need not merely emotionalize protest but to also revolutionize emotions. They need to dig deep into everyday ethics, their presence in common sense, and modes of normative evaluation. Much of this will remain mostly fluid, pragmatic, and contextual, and will refuse to be easily domesticated into theory and ideology. Counterstrategies need to account for messiness of everyday social and political articulations with the normative ideals of radical transformation. Mere emphasis on abstract normative idealism, as history has shown us, is both prone to failure and can also assume anti-democratic propensity.

Farm Protests: Symbolism As Resistance

One such instance in the recent past has been the glorious success of the farmers’ protests that managed to make a dent in India’s authoritarian regime. They succeeded in preventing three farm laws that attempted to privatize the procurement process of produce. These laws included the (a) Farmer’s Produce, Trade and Commerce Act, (b) Farmer’s Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and (c) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. With the first law, the government stipulated that farmers could sell their produce to private actors and make more profit, while the farmers feared it would end the procurement system based on minimum support price (MSP) and open it to be exploited by corporates.

The second act provided the farmers with an opportunity to enter into agreements with agribusinesses on pre-agreed prices; the farmers argued that the playing field between the farmers and businesses is not level, and this law would lead to farmers needing to agree to sell at lower prices as a way to avert risk. Finally, the third law was meant to remove limits on hoarding commodities, such as cereals and pulses, which the government claimed would stabilize prices, while the farmers claimed it would lead to large scale hoarding and an unprecedented rise in their prices.

The proposed farm laws were a continuation of the process of “primitive accumulation” and of dispossessing farmers from their land, eventually pushing them into precarious modes of labour and into the group of the urban poor. Neoliberal Hindutva3, which combines neoliberal dispossession of resources with majoritarian citizen disempowerment, has attained social hegemony and massive electoral success in the recent past.

Farmers were protesting against this dominant social hegemony and a popular “strongman” leader considered in vast sections of the educated middle class as impeccable and infallible, as Hindu Hriday Samrat (Ruling Hindu Hearts), and backed by a massive organizational machinery that included favourable presence in most of the mainstream media and strictly regulated social media. It was a regime that had successfully mobilized religious sensibilities, local cultural idiom, memory, cultural nationalism, and an anti-elitist rhetoric. In other words, it was an elaborate arrangement of social hegemony that was not dependent directly on force and violence.

“No Farmers No Food”

Farmers in India poured into the streets and occupied the Delhi city border in November 2020. They announced that they were there to stay as long as it would take for the proposed farms laws to be repealed. They were prepared to be on streets, if need be, till the next general election in 2024. They knew what it would take and had no illusions, neither about their strength nor about the character of the supreme leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The ruling party, BJP, through its IT cell and control over media, began to spread a narrative that they were, at best, rich farmers and, at worst, Khalistanis4 (terrorists) who are demanding the secession of the state of Punjab, where the majority of protesters were from. Furthermore, in what appeared to be a pre-mediated event, farmers were presented to be insulting the Indian national flag, in line with previous strategies of the Hindunational government to present critical voices as anti-national.

BJP’s discourse was a combination of nationalism and security concerns. Farmers did not merely retort or deny these allegations; they created a counter-narrative of “no farmers no food” with the slogan “we are farmers, not terrorists”. They argued that it’s their children who were at the borders securing India and they were toiling away to feed India. They claimed a large number of families, who were part of the protests, had lost their loved ones at the border at the hands of the military forces.

Nationalism was now about food sovereignty: it evoked images of rural India and the authenticity attached to land, much the way Gandhi had connected sovereignty to the production of salt. The claim that farming is closer to nature brought in its own variant of authenticity to counter the religion-based authenticity of right-wing populism. Further, they articulated their demands in local idioms, carrying with them cultural and religious symbols that countered and appropriated the right-wing’s anti-elitist stance. Farmers spoke in a language that was simple, open to deliberation, and that demonstrated uncanny organizational skills. For the first time, the social hegemony of the BJP-RSS5 was being seriously challenged.

BJP’s narrative then shifted to a class narrative whereby they claimed the farmers were rich, middle men, and NRIs6. They were presented as being against the development and inauguration of a “New India”7. This idea of the “Old India” that has remained stagnant and underdeveloped socially and economically, was being narrativized. The farm laws were meant to usher a “New India”. Farmers countered this through a concrete programme of including women in their protests, not just as participants, but also as leaders – giving talks, and raising slogans.

This transformed the image of the rural hinterlands into a socially inclusive and transformative space. Women were singing songs, cooking on the sidelines, and giving talks. In a daily news report a female protester commented: “We used to think Delhi was very far away. With the laws and the protests, it doesn’t feel so far away anymore. Usually only men from our village come to the site. This month we decided to come too.”

“I want Modi to beat me up and then repeal the laws”

Indian middle classes and urban rich had to sit up and take notice. Conceding space for women and the presence of families, including children, lent credibility to the farmers’ claims and belief in a non-violent protest. Farmers stuck to the narrative of non-violence throughout. In fact, in one of the interviews, one of the farmers was asked what he wanted. He replied: “I want Modi to beat me up and then repeal the laws”.

Subtly but surely, farmers were both exposing the character of the state and contrasting it with the social character of farmers, who were only focused on repealing the laws and were not interested in being militant or violent. This was significant for the urban classes disconnected from rural hinterlands, since the media was overplaying the inconvenience to urban commuters due to the blocking of the Delhi city borders. The onus now shifted onto the government.

The farmers’ protests then followed it up with a Mahapanchayat9 inMuzzafarnagara place where the same farmers in protest were active and at the forefront of “communal riots” against Muslims in 2013. Leaders of the farmers’ protests, in a performative style that reminded of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, apologized to the farmers for “getting waylaid” in a public gathering. They conceded their role in the riots and admitted that it was a blunder needing deep introspection on the part of the dominant castes and Hindus. 

The performative communication had the potential to neutralize the simmering and latent polarization along religious lines. Farmers’ protests also made efforts to draw Dalits and landless labourers into the protests. They organized Panchayats10 to discuss caste-based discrimination and modes of inclusion. The terms of social hegemony shifted from the exclusivist right-wing to the new inclusivist farm protests. Farmers mobilized cutting across the boundaries of caste, class, and gender.

Alternative Imagination to Subvert the Far Right

The farmers’ protest began with specific demands to repeal three farm laws but over time, they began to articulate more far-reaching demands. They began to question the overall economic model of development and its accompanying social character of political leadership. Farmers articulated issues of “freedom of speech” and the need for the autonomy of intellectuals and social activists. They condemned the crackdown on students, social activists, and intellectuals –and framing them in trumped up cases such as that of Bhima Korgaon11.

They began to raise serious questions on the new monetization policy of the government that had plans to privatize nationalized assets, such as the railways, banks, mines, among others, and drew equivalence between farm laws and the larger agenda of privatization. They included a greater number of social groups within their ambit. It gradually turned into a movement beyond agrarian issues but against the model of neoliberal growth and its authoritarian political manifestation.

It combined a new class language that was symbolically appropriated by the “right-wing” and combined it with inter-religious, inter-caste, inter-gender, and inter-regional alliances. It was unraveling an alternative imagination by subverting the claims of the right-wing. Social hegemony of the right-wing was based on universal claims implicit in slogans such as “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (collective effort, inclusive growth).

During the final days, a car owned by a BJP minister drove into the farmers’ protest in Uttar Pradesh. The state finally took to explicit violence and intimidation. It was both a strategy to create fear and to look for possibilities to frame and implicate the farmers’ protests as being violent. It is also possible that the spectacle of violence was a necessary precursor for the withdrawal of the farm laws, to avoid denting Modi’s strongman image. Farmers were steadfast in maintaining calm, yet demanded the resignation of the minister and his son responsible for the violence.

They argued that sacrifice is a necessary pain to secure the future for the generations to come. Peace, unity, and trans-cultural community bonds created an image of invincibility that had earlier been afforded to the “Teflon image” of the Prime Minister. In the public’s imagination, it was clear that the farmers would neither relent nor militarize. Opposition parties began to articulate this aspect of the farm protests to further change public opinion, beyond the core constituency of the ruling regime. With elections in the states that were directly impacted by the farm laws coming up, the laws were repealed without a discussion in Parliament.

To conclude, the counterstrategies used in the farm protests are even more impressive when compared with another major protest that took place in India exactly a year prior. The protests against the new legislation on citizenship amendment, popularly referred to as the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), had similar visibility but much less impact. NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA were being proposed to check the citizenship status and relevant documents, and also grant citizenship to  immigrants, but declare Muslim immigrants and refugees as illegal immigrants to be sent to detention centres. The proposed laws created the possibility of arbitrarily stripping Muslims of citizenship, and the anti-CAA protesters began street protests in various parts of the country.

Anti-CAA protests, too, began by laying claims that were universalist and framed demands in the language of rights and citizenship. They invoked common symbols of the Constitution and carried portraits of B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi at the protest sites.12 They expressed concerns for the future of democracy in India. They began with protest marches that attracted citizens of all religious denominations. At the anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi there were dadis (old Muslim women) and even children. In contrast to the usually male-dominated protests, the anti-CAA movement produced the symbolism of family and the need for a dialogue.

However, they did not succeed in avoiding the label of a protest by Muslims. The protests, therefore, unwittingly helped to perpetuate a certain polarized imagination that the BJP wished for. The anti-CAA protests were making demands on the State in the name of Constitutional values and speaking to the current political regime. They did not show the resolve, courage, or conviction to hold a dialogue with the majority religious community.

They thus did not step outside their given environment, which made it easy for the government-controlled media to depict the protest as an instance of Muslim aggression. Some flippant remarks by young protesters, who happened to be Muslims, made things easy for the regime to narrativize toxic masculinity as the essence of these protests.In contrast, the farmers were in dialogue with broader society. They were producing symbolism that had the potential of a cross-class, -caste, -religion, and -regional alliance. They were alert to the strategies of the regime and understood the need to produce workable counterstrategies.

The article was first published in IRGAC (International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies) as How The Farmers in India Countered the Populist Authoritarianism of the Right on August 9, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more by the author: How India’s New ‘Mezzanine Elite’ Classes Enable Majoritarian Politics

This article was posted by Sundaram Balasubramanian, a research intern at IMPRI.

Authors

  • IMPRI Desk
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Dr Ajay Gudavarthy

    Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, (JNU), New Delhi.

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