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Lessons from the Farmers’ Protest: Mutual Aid, Decentralisation and Direct Democracy

The farmers of India won a historic battle against the government and forced it to repeal the three pro-capitalist farm laws which threatened their livelihoods. The procorporate laws were bulldozed through parliament urgently in the midst of the pandemic without any deliberations or consultations. All consultations were only done with big businesses and their motive was corporate profit. The hurried passage of laws during the pandemic was calculated, since the government expected the farmers to not be able to hit back due to being so severely affected by it.

The laws were designed to destroy the state procurement centers without offering a legal Minimum Support Price (MSP), and it also threatened a gradual reduction in procurement by the government. Most of the government procurement used to be used for the massive Public Distribution Systems (PDS) that feeds most of the Indian population. The whole idea was to destroy the public systems which were the backbones of the social security measures and open the farmers to corporate exploitation. These corporates would use their bargaining power to procure the produce at low prices, even below the MSP since it would now be an open market where the government would not interfere. The government would then buy the farm produce from the corporates at high prices, effectively siphoning off taxpayer money to corporate coffers. The farmers, who have been battered by decades of negligence from the government as well as suffering from agrarian crises, clearly identified the objectives of these laws and understood that it was time for them to act. They marched in thousands from many states to the national capital and started an occupation protest that would potentially change the history of democratic movements – not only in India, but around the world.

This was probably the longest and largest peaceful democratic protest that the country has witnessed since independence. The farmers were hounded by state and corporate sponsored media, were libelled as separationists and terrorists, had their intelligence questioned, and were brutally and repeatedly attacked by police using lathis and water cannons for a year. The government also tried to disband the protesters by cutting the supply of water, electricity, and internet connectivity in the area. Yet the farmers did not leave the sites no matter what was thrown at them by the government. They created the largest selforganized protest where hundreds of thousands participated. Massive mutual aid networks supported these farmers from their villages, who sent them everything they needed. They were joined by people living in the nearby areas who provided the protesters with food and water and other necessities. Little by little, the selforganization allowed for the setting up of other utilities including tents, solar-powered mobile charging points, laundry, libraries, medical stalls, and a dental camp. Farmers continued to occupy the sites even through harsh winter and summer months and the deadly Covid waves, and many succumbed to death due to cold, heat, and the virus.

Another important aspect of the protest was the decentralized leadership and massive participation of women. No single leader commanded the protests. Every decision was taken during meetings of all the farmer unions together. The participation of women and landless laborers, and discussions of their issues, helped foster a unified front which cut across the usual fault lines of gender and caste. They discussed not just farmer’s issues, but also deliberated and talked about every issue that was plaguing the country, including Abrogation of Article 370, demonetization, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), New Education Policy (NEP), Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), corporatization and privatization, inflation, debt crisis, unemployment and the state of the economy.

The struggle against the farm laws quickly emerged as a struggle against all the oppression that people face in India today and the protesters were becoming more aware of other social and political issues. The farmers eloquently argued against the policy decisions made by corporate backed “experts” and “economists” who have never stepped out of their air-conditioned offices and who have no clue about the nuances of Indian agricultural economy. They debunked the perception of rural farmers as being ignorant of the policies that are needed to revitalize Indian agriculture.

When the national media started spreading fake news to defame the protests, the farmers countered their propaganda by sending representatives directly to each village in each state. They organized huge gatherings of hundreds and thousands where they discussed the issues related to pro-corporate farm laws and how they would adversely affect their lives. People who attended these gatherings were tasked with communicating what they had learned to their villages and families. This grassroots communication was much stronger than any media slander and propaganda that the government, with all its organizational and corporate backed machinery, could use.

The government was completely caught off guard – they had underestimated the farmers, who kept on fighting and stood their ground. The protests and campaigning against the government by farmers led to massive losses for BJP in elections in multiple states. Leading up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, which could have decided the fate of BJP rule in India, the farmers planned intensification of the protests and massive gatherings in Uttar Pradesh. Despite eventually winning, at the time BJP feared a massive backlash in these elections from farmers and, after a momentous failure in managing the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic which wreaked havoc due to oxygen shortages, they feared a certain electoral defeat. This prompted the arrogant and pro-corporate government to give in to the farmers’ demands by repealing the three laws.

Repeal of the farm laws does not mean an end to the agrarian crisis that is currently worsening in the country. The push back from farmers resisted this set of laws that would have aggravated the crisis. But, the condition of farmers is still getting worse day by day due to delayed procurement, fertilizer crisis, water shortage, increase of stray cattle due to slaughter bans, debt, climate change, and bonded labour. The farmers realise that a legal Minimum Support Price for agricultural goods can offer them some relief and they are now campaigning for its implementation in parliament. Since the protest, farmers have come to understand the power they can hold to push the government if they organize and come together. Now workers, students, and civil society need to realise that only through such sustained protests can we push back against the oppressive laws this regime passes to privatize healthcare and education.

The government has now tried to go back to its age-old tactics of destroying the crossreligious and cross-community solidarity through inflaming communal issues and polarizing the country through Islamophobia. The best way to counter this blatant attack on the unity and diversity of the country is to form more communities of solidarity across caste, class, culture, religion, language and race. As the UP elections are nearing, communal tensions are at a high, vastly aided by the media propaganda machines which peddle out inciting articles and “news” to break down solidarity. But farmers are not affected, and they are still going to villages and campaigning against this divisive government which only serves corporate interests.

The principles of direct democratic decision making, decentralization of power, solidarity, mutual aid, and self-organization are clearly visible in the farmer protests and that is the reason for their robustness and success. This ability to form massive mutual aid networks and self-organize into such large communities which are self-sufficient enabled these protests to overcome serious adversity. The practice of direct democratic deliberations and discussions also sustained the large-scale organizing. It showed the world that massive and long-lasting decentralized protests can evolve and succeed when people decide to take decisions themselves and coordinate with each other to form communities by mutual aid. The success of the farmers' protest is something everyone around the world can learn from and implement in their struggles against oppressive authoritarian regimes. The lessons from the farmers' protest should be replicated elsewhere in the world to resist and push back against oppression and fight for a just future.

Pranav Jeevan P is a researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He has written for and CrimethInc. This article was featured in Issue 29.

Cover image: "'Faces of Protest'" by Aditya S Singh, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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