The Postcolonial Autumn

Agrarian Capitalism and Resistance in India

January 29, 2021

Over the past two months, around 500,000 farmers and agrarian workers from different parts of India have descended upon New Delhi. They are demanding a repeal of the three farm laws recently passed by India’s BJP-led rightwing government. The protests first erupted in August of last year, when farmers and workers in Punjab started occupying and shutting down numerous railway stations and toll plazas on state highways, along with several corporate-owned thermal plants, petrol pumps, and malls. Then, a few months later, these protests scaled up, and several thousands of these farmers and workers started streaming towards the national capital. In late November, after days of pitched battles with different police and paramilitary forces, they managed to successfully occupy the highways linking the national capital to the northern states. Led by 32 farmers’ and workers’ unions, these historic occupations have quickly swelled into 10-mile-long cavalcades of 24/7 community kitchens and open libraries, film screenings and political meetings1The author thanks Jasdeep Singh and Amandeep Kaur for their comradeship. This essay is for them. The essay has benefitted from Zachary Levenson’s editorial expertise and Mitch Cram’s copyedits..

The laws in question intend to open up India’s agricultural sector to large domestic and foreign agribusiness corporations. More specifically, the BJP-led government intends to dismantle the state control of agricultural markets, first put in place during the mid-1960s, when the Congress Party initiated the Green Revolution in Punjab.

The first law encourages farmers to sell their produce outside of state-regulated markets, where their farm produce currently gets procured by the state at a guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP). The second law eases the existing restrictions on the stocking of grains by private merchants and traders, while the third institutes the legal framework for enabling contract farming.

The government claims that by streamlining the agrarian spheres of exchange and circulation, these bills will put the farmers in direct control of to whom they want to sell their produce and for how much. This would ostensibly free them from continued dependence on petty middlemen and commissioning agents, upon whom they rely for both the transport and sale of their produce at the state-regulated markets. The national media has resolutely valorized the BJP government for laying the foundations for a new cycle of agrarian growth in postcolonial India, while condemning the ongoing occupations as an “anti-national conspiracy” led by the leftist organizations.

A few weeks ago, on New Delhi’s Singhu border, a Punjabi student leader was seen outlining the grim realities of these farm laws with remarkable prescience. He argued that instead of empowering the farmers, these laws will make them even more dependent on the corporations that will soon start swarming the country’s agricultural sector. Contracts, he averred, will guarantee nothing, especially when the relationship between the sellers and the buyers is structurally unequal.

Farmers, particularly the smaller ones, lack adequate storage capacities, and as a result, they will be forced to sell their produce immediately—even if the price is not “right.” Otherwise, they risk starvation and penury. Meanwhile, for agribusiness, the decision to buy will be solely dictated by the capricious imperatives of supply and demand. More importantly, he suggested that the newly privatized markets will not simply serve as neutral outlets for farmers to sell their produce. Instead, the farmers’ dependence on these markets will soon take the form of compulsion, and increasingly, the farmers will find themselves being forced to produce for and through these big corporations exclusively. These firms, in turn, will end up monopolizing the entire market.

In order to illustrate how agrarian production will be subordinated by agribusiness, the student leader referred to the proletarianization of grape farmers in Maharashtra, where, following a “wine glut” in the market, the wine companies outright refused to either buy the grapes or pay the farmers their dues – even though these farmers had started growing grapes only after the wine industry offered them lucrative contracts. When the market went bust, the farmers, stuck on their newly created vineyards, were forced to sell the lands in order to survive. Concluding his astute analysis, the student leader declared that a specter of mass landlessness and indebtedness was looming large over Punjab, as well as the rest of the country.

Many months ago, when the occupations first bloomed across Punjab, an 8-year old boy arrived at a similar conclusion during an interview with a Punjabi journalist. Only, he went one step further, exhorting, with the disdain of a seasoned rank and file militant, that the farmers and workers will have to annihilate the BJP-led rightwing government, for there is no other way to stop the implementation of these laws.

Then, a few days later, driving a tractor towards New Delhi, an older female worker explained to yet another journalist how these laws will not only vitiate the existing system of Minimum Support Price (MSP), but will also permit the Ambani and the Adani families, the biggest domestic names in agribusiness, to set up large-scale supply chains. These, she insisted, will eventually orchestrate a sweeping dispossession of small and middle farmers, while further intensifying the already rampant exploitation of landless workers.

Capitalist violence has a unique way of turning ordinary working people into venerable critics of political economy, and remarkably lucid ones at that. For what else are these people collectively articulating but the different facets of this new-fangled agrarian regime, presciently described by Jairus Banaji as a variant of commercial capitalism and widely popularized by the rightwing propaganda machine as the “Green Revolution 2.o.”

Still, despite its popular appeal, this discourse of anti-corporatism runs into some familiar limits. In particular, one detects a relative lack of clarity as to why the BJP is violently dismantling the state oversight of India’s agricultural markets, or even why the Congress Party decided to institute these state regulations in the first place. For the first half of this question, the popular left seems to have a ready explanation, precisely that the BJP is a party of degenerate fascists bent upon selling away the country’s public infrastructures to capitalist corporations. Fair enough. And yet, this single-minded focus on private corporations, along with the belief that the origins of the current crisis lie in BJP’s misguided policymaking, tells only half the story. Among other things, it ends up eliding the long-term linkages between the original Green Revolution and the so-called Green Revolution 2.0.

As of now, the occupations blooming on the peripheries of New Delhi remain precariously poised, teetering between the old and the new: between wanting to save the old regime and intending to fight agrarian capitalism, along with its volatile reproduction of caste-based and gendered hierarchies, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics. As this mass movement continues to grow, distilling its diverse political commitments into a broad anti-capitalist unity, this essay takes stock of the exhilarating, if fitful, progress it has made so far. First, it tracks the tactical improvisations made by farmers and agrarian workers, as they leap from their fields and into the circulatory churn of highways and railway stations, toll plazas and petrol pumps. And second, it examines how these improvisations remain actively mediated by the history of agrarian modernization in postcolonial India.

Like any other political struggle, this mass movement, too, is evolving within the folds of history, under the constraints of circumstances that are being transmitted from the past. These circumstances mediate everything about the ongoing protests, from the class and caste compositions of the occupations to the efficacy of the popular demand to revoke the three farm laws. Thus, traversing this interregnum between the past and the present—between the Green Revolution and the Green Revolution 2.0—becomes imperative, not least because this alone will help us comprehend why agrarian regimes rise and fall, why ruling governments become servile agents of capitalism, and finally, why we cannot depend on the postcolonial state to defend its people by taking the fight to capitalism.

 

1960s: The Other Revolution

 The Green Revolution was a US-sponsored package of High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds, chemical fertilizers, tractors, irrigation facilities, and new credit mechanisms. It was designed to resolve the chronic problem of hunger in the Third World by increasing its agrarian productivity, thus invalidating the popular socialist demand for land reforms and redistribution of other resources in the newly independent countries. The Congress Party implemented these new scientific and technological inputs in Punjab during the mid-1960s, in a desperate bid to achieve food sovereignty and thereby shake off India’s neocolonial dependence on USAID’s food assistance programs. Ironically enough, the postcolonial Indian state set out to defend its newly won political sovereignty by implementing a model of agrarian capitalism that had been designed and disseminated by the very global hegemon who was threatening its sovereignty in the first place2This historical irony is explained by the geopolitical exigencies of the day. The Congress Party’s continued reluctance to implement land reforms, compounded by the two deadly droughts during the early-1960s, had led to widespread food scarcity in India. When a series of food riots started erupting across the country, Lyndon Johnson’s administration began fearing the prospects of a large-scale communist insurrection in yet another Third World government. The US government promptly, and quite explicitly, turned its food-aid program into an instrument of neo-colonial hegemony. Already controlling one-third of the money-supply in the newly independent Indian state, the US government stopped its food aid, until India agreed to immediately devalue its rupee and pledged a long-term commitment to increasing its agrarian productivity by implementing the capitalist package of the Green Revolution..

Traversing this interregnum between the past and the present—between the Green Revolution and the Green Revolution 2.0—becomes imperative, not least because this alone will help us comprehend why agrarian regimes rise and fall, why ruling governments become servile agents of capitalism, and finally, why we cannot depend on the postcolonial state to defend its people by taking the fight to capitalism.

In order to incentivize the implementation of these new scientific and technological inputs, the Congress Party made a series of unprecedented interventions. It established a state-regulated network of mandis (market yards), where farmers could sell any amount of grains at a guaranteed Minimum Support Price. It improved the existing Public Distribution System, and established new seed farms and research laboratories, nationalized banks and co-operatives, and built new infrastructure for irrigation and transportation. However, these interventions were not so much driven by the much-fabled socialist pretensions to “welfare” as they were motivated by the need to engender the appropriate conditions under which a new, capital-intensive mode of agrarian production could immediately take root.

As expected, once the postcolonial state subsidized the new scientific and technological inputs and guaranteed the farmers a definite return on their new investments, the farmers in Punjab started rapidly investing in the new inputs. By 1974-75, they had sown around 73 percent of the cultivated area in Punjab with the HYV seeds, and were using nearly 10 times more fertilizers and pesticides and 22 times more tractors per operational holding as compared to the rest of the country3Nirvikar Singh and Deepali Singhal Kohli, “The green revolution in Punjab, India: The economics of technological change,” Journal of Punjab Studies 12.2 (1997): 285-306..

The ensuing decades proved to be a veritable springtime for the new regime of agrarian capitalism, yielding a bounteous harvest of productivity rates and profits that remain unparalleled. By 1991, despite occupying less than 2 percent of India’s landed area, Punjab was contributing 60-70 per cent of wheat and 50-55 per cent of paddy to the India’s total grain production4Ranjit Singh, “The Green Revolution: An Analysis” in Social, Economic and Political Implications of Green Revolution, eds. B.S. Hama and A W Shukla (Classical Publishing, 1991), 12..

However, these burgeoning gains in agrarian productivity were premised on severe structural changes in Punjab’s agrarian life. Unable to afford the new scientific and technological inputs, marginal and small farmers began losing their land to increasing competition from middle and large farmers. Within a few years, thousands of marginal and tenant farmers were transformed into landless laborers, and by the mid-1970s, the number of landless laborers in Punjab had almost doubled, reaching up to 32 percent of the state’s agrarian workforce5Gopal Singh, “Socio-economic bases of the Punjab crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (1984): 42-47.. By 1975, more than 75 percent of all wealth in rural Punjab was owned by 10 percent of the richest households6Harish K. Puri, “Elections and after,” Economic and Political Weekly (1985): 1681-1683.. And by 1980, nearly 40 percent of the rural population in Punjab lived below the poverty line7Pritam Singh, Punjab Economy: The Emerging Pattern (Enkay Publishers, 1995), 435-6..

By 1995-96, the relationship between the ongoing expropriation of marginal farmers and the ongoing consolidation of lands by medium and large farmers had become all but self-evident, even acquiring a baleful symmetry of sorts. The number of marginal operational landholdings had decreased from 37 percent to 18 percent, while the latter swelled from 38 percent to 57 percent8Government of Punjab. Human Development Report 2004: Punjab, (Chandigarh, 2004), 41..

Even if the introduction of the Green Revolution had rapidly increased the production of food grains, it had also dramatically diminished the number of people who could afford to buy them, thus evidencing, in real time, Marx’s famous assertion that under capitalism, “accumulation of wealth at one pole is … at the same time accumulation of misery … at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.”9Karl Marx. Capital: Volume 1 (Penguin, 1980), 799. And this equation has since become only more appalling.

If the Green Revolution was first introduced with the express intention of achieving food sovereignty, then the postcolonial Indian state seems to have long overshot this objective.

Currently, it is the largest exporter of rice and the second-largest producer of wheat and rice in the world. As per its estimates in June, the Food Corporation of India had accumulated grain stocks of 97 million metric tons in the Central Pool, more than twice the amount normally stipulated as the “buffer stock.” And yet despite such staggering progress in productivity, 4 out of every 10 children are currently undernourished, more than half of the country’s female population between 15 and 49 years is anemic, 32 percent of the country’s population is food insecure, and India accounts for 22 percent of total global food insecurity.

A recent pamphlet jointly issued by Shramik Samvad (Nagpur) and Mazdoor Samanvay Kendra puts these damning numbers in perspective: “the overflow (in production) is not due to surplus production, but the godowns are full because a large section of the Indian population is stricken by hunger … The country has enough grain because the vast majority has been denied access to it.”

The capitalist spring of the Green Revolution was marked by increasing levels of agrarian productivity, which, in turn, were tied to increasing levels of agrarian mechanization. Over time, as the latter approached its upper limit, productivity gains also started to flatten out. Already by 1991, 96 percent of Punjab’s cultivable land had been successfully utilized, 95 percent of its total cropped area had been successfully irrigated, and the levels of cropping intensity—the fraction of the cultivated area that is harvested—had reached a staggering high of 176 percent10Pritam Singh, Federalism, Nationalism, and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (Routledge, 2008), 124.. Finally, in 2002-03, for the first time in the post-Green Revolution era, the growth of agriculture in Punjab actually declined at an annual rate of 2.38 percent. As the productivity and profitability of Punjabi agriculture plumbs newer depths of stagnation, the cascading crises of economic immiseration and ecological degradation become more conspicuous than ever.

Currently, around 65.4 percent of the farm households in Punjab are indebted, and in the wake of this growing indebtedness, 90,000 farmers have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006. More importantly, the twinned cycle of landlessness and indebtedness is clearly stratified along lines of caste. Put bluntly, if the upper-caste Jats constitute the majority of landholders, then the Dalits constitute the majority of Punjab’s landless workforce. Despite forming around 32 percent of the state’s population, only 3.5 per cent of Dalits own any agricultural lands. On the other hand, according to the National Sample Survey of 2011-12, 86 percent of agricultural laborers in rural Punjab are Dalits. Moreover, despite rampant agrarian modernization, the notorious practice of siri—where the bigger Jat landlords force Dalit men to work as “bonded laborers” for life—remains widely prevalent. According to one estimate, around 500,000 Dalits are currently working as bonded laborers in rural Punjab.

This ongoing political-economic tumult has been further compounded by the slow destruction of Punjab’s ecology. Around 92 percent of its agricultural land is currently dominated by alternating cycles of HYV wheat and paddy, and the ecological diversity of the region appears to have been irrevocably hampered. Meanwhile, the rampant use of tubewells and submersible water pumps has depleted the groundwater to alarmingly low levels. In turn, widespread dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has caused record levels of water and soil pollution. As a result, a host of genetic diseases, not least among them cancer, have become endemic to specific parts of Punjab.

 

2020: The Autumn Is Here

That the cycle of the Green Revolution has reached its limit point is hardly surprising. Nor is the fact that agrarian Punjab is lurching towards an ever worsening economic and ecological disaster. Already in the early 1970s, critics had portended this coming catastrophe, and with remarkable acuity at that. Capitalism is what capitalism does. That is, it breaks down. Crisis is its enduring pathology. But then, crises do not just disclose the fundamental infeasibility of capitalism; they also constitute new opportunities for capitalism to recompose itself, often on a much larger scale. Just when a cycle of capitalist accumulation seems to have broken down for good, one discovers that another, more expansive one has already started to spiral outwards.

And so, if anything, what is surprising is the febrile ferocity with which the BJP-led rightwing has passed these laws. Its stark refusal to even adhere to the conventions of parliamentary democracy should be seen as a sign of its desperation to facilitate this capitalist recomposition. To put, then, the current conjuncture in perspective: the springtime of the Green Revolution—a cycle of rampant gains in productivity rates and profits founded on the introduction of capital-intensive agriculture—has long run into stagnation. We have known this for the past two decades, if not more.

And if these recent agrarian bills are anything to go by, we are now entering a quite different historical cycle, one that seeks to break free from the limits imposed on it by the state-sponsored regime of Green Revolution. Repurposing Fernand Braudel’s famous phrase, I propose that a postcolonial autumn is around the corner. However, if in Braudel’s case the “autumn” had signified the world-historical flight of capital from industries to finance, then, in our specific postcolonial context, the “autumn” announces the peculiar return of commercial capitalism—“return” because commercial capitalism was the mainstay of the colonial agrarian economy.

In his seminal study of the Deccan peasantry during the mid-to-late 19th century, Jairus Banaji explains how the colonial regime of revenue assessments spawned a vast capillary network of commercial capitalism, whereby a capillary network of merchants, bankers, and brokers came to dominate and control the sphere of agrarian production in the Deccan region. As Banaji details, the increasing demand for land revenues by the British colonial state thrust peasant households into increasing dependence on moneyed capitalists, who, in turn, lent this dependence a unique capitalist form. Although the peasants formally retained the ownership of their lands, they were essentially operating as wage laborers. As Banaji astutely notes, the loans advanced by the moneylenders acted as the peasants’ wages. In return, the moneylenders appropriated most of the season’s harvest as their interest, which, as Marx presciently pointed out, was “just another name for surplus value.”

As the productivity and profitability of Punjabi agriculture plumbs newer depths of stagnation, the cascading crises of economic immiseration and ecological degradation become more conspicuous than ever.

Over time, the peasant households were compelled to depend on the moneylenders, not just for paying the colonial revenues but also for meeting their daily subsistence and for renewing the entire seasonal cycle of agrarian production. As per Banaji, this dependence illustrates Marx’s concept of “formal subsumption,” where capitalism dominates the existing labor process without transforming it, giving rise to a form of capitalism that is without any of its distinct advantages, including the transformation of the mode of production and the consequent increase in labor productivity.

Nearly 150 years later, commercial capitalism has surfaced once again, but now on the far end of the historical continuum of subsumption. The distinct advantages associated with capitalism have already run their course, especially in places like Punjab, where, as noted above, capital-intensive agriculture seems to have more or less reached its upper limits, and agricultural growth can no longer be stimulated by simply introducing more mechanized farm inputs. If the Congress government instituted the state control of agricultural market in order to facilitate the introduction of capital-intensive agriculture, then the BJP has set out to dismantle this structure of state control in order to facilitate the domination of agrarian production by a slew of different agribusiness corporations.

So far, these corporations, such as the Adani, have played the limited role of “assisting” the state in fulfilling the responsibility of stocking and distributing the food grains. But now that the BJP-led rightwing has revoked the existing restrictions on the storage of essential agrarian commodities by private traders and retailers, and is seeking to establish a legal framework for contract farming, this is bound to change. Clearly, the new farm laws are designed to permit and facilitate the agribusiness corporations to take over the sphere of agrarian production. What is not clear, however, is the exact political-economic form that this taking over will take.

Will the new commercial capitalists repurpose the colonial form of commercial capitalism, whereby the existing farmers will, at least for the next few years, continue to formally retain the ownership of their land and means of production, while becoming increasingly indebted and dependent on the agribusiness corporations? Or will they instigate a sudden catastrophe of mass landlessness? If the latter, will the agribusiness corporations introduce bigger and more powerful farm machines on their newly consolidated and exceptionally large landholdings? And will this not instigate a dramatic escalation in the numbers of India’s already oversized surplus population?

If the Green Revolution instigated an uneven agrarian development in the country by privileging only a handful of states, such as Punjab, then what new forms of unevenness will be engendered by this new agrarian regime? Finally, will we witness a dramatic decline in the cultivation of cereals and a corresponding upsurge in the production of new cash crops, to be used only for industrial purposes, say, in starch mills or in ethanol production? Will this not further intensify the already chronic crises of hunger and malnutrition in the country?

It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to any of these questions. Beyond a point it is futile to try to predict the future trajectory of capitalism, not least because every capitalist juncture is charged with multiple possibilities. In the end, this trajectory is determined by the ongoing political struggle between capitalism’s drive for endless profitmaking and the working peoples’ determination to break free from their ongoing exploitation—the “open secret” of all profitmaking—and to transcend capitalism by constructing a world beyond the domination of the commodity-form.

This is true of our specific postcolonial juncture too. To repurpose the Gramscian chestnut, the old is dead while the new is waiting to be born. And in this interregnum, there has erupted a spectacular groundswell of farmers’ and workers’ resistance. If anything, it is this emergent mass movement, led by farmers and workers, that will determine the direction in which the arc of India’s postcolonial history will bend.

 

A New Border

Surfing the exultant waves of people massing on New Delhi’s Tikri border, a placard reads: “Ambani and Adani=East India Company.” It is remarkable how this fabled return of the colonial-era dynamic of commercial capitalism has acquired the aura of common sense in these occupations. The placard itself makes for a bravura summary of the colonial/postcolonial longue durée, bringing hundreds of different historical cogs into perfect alignment with one simple but resounding click.

Anyone who has ever pored over nationalist textbooks at school already knows how, under the domination of the East India Company, the Bengali peasants were bonded by debt peonage and forced to grow only cash crops, such as indigo, and how the planters, merchants, and the Company extorted massive profits in the form of rent, interest, and revenue.

Now, the farmers and agrarian workers have turned this popular lesson in nationalist history against the nation-state itself. The same lesson, now amended, reads— the Adani and the Ambani are to the postcolonial state what the East India Company was to the British empire, namely, perpetrators of the brutal exploitation of working people.

Still, the historic implications of this radical lesson have not quite manifested yet. This is not least because, often, the protestors appear to be too fixated on the politics of the BJP-led rightwing government. Time and again, criticisms of the new farm laws make it seem that the ruling government has chosen to script these laws, and that these laws emblematize its rightwing political ideology. To an extent, this is true. And yet, as I articulate above, the farm laws actually stem from the ongoing stagnation in the agricultural sector, and that instead of causing the current political tumult, the BJP’s policies are themselves a consequence of the above-noted exigences of capitalism in postcolonial India.

Let us put this distinction between cause and consequence in perspective. As with nation-states in general, the sovereignty of postcolonial India, too, depends upon successful capitalist accumulation. The postcolonial Indian state can thrive only for as long as the lifeblood of capital continues to circulate through its body politic. And “no government,” as Michael Heinrich bluntly avers, “can bypass this dependency.” If anything, the uncanny synchrony between the Congress Party’s Green Revolution and the BJP-led rightwing’s Green Revolution 2.0 serves to confirm this very dependency. Put briefly, then, the rightwing has not so much chosen as it has been compelled by this dependency to implement the new farm laws11This, as I explain elsewhere, is not to ignore the obvious, and quite profound, differences between the diverse political ideologies of ruling governments—say, the drastic contrast between the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and the Congress Party’s secular nationalism—much less elide the BJP’s dreaded project of constructing a Hindu nation. Instead, this is only to underscore how political ideologies are themselves mediated by the exigencies of capitalism, and how, despite patent ideological differences, successive ruling governments often work in tandem with each other..

As of now, the Indian public sphere is rife with contrasting accounts of the ongoing occupations. In recent weeks, numerous essays have valorized the massive mobilization of farmers and workers, but instead of closely engaging the political strategies and tactics of these occupations, the essays have merely echoed the much-bruited patter of democracy and dissent, the Republic and the Constitution, citizens and the sovereign. This is a world in which all roads to the Indian parliament are paved with protests, and where protests, including this ongoing mass movement, will serve to reform the functioning of the Indian democracy and thus guarantee better governance.

Meanwhile, there also exists another political undercurrent within the ongoing movement, one that intends to untether these popular accounts from their enduring attachment to postcolonial democracy, and to thus open our political horizons to new, actually democratic futures that lie beyond the cunning of capitalist compulsions. This is a world that is founded on the understanding that under existing conditions, new ruling governments will still be compelled to reproduce the same old realities of capitalism. In this world, the parliament is the place where all protests go to die.

Recently, in an online event hosted by Studio Safdar called “Songs of the Soil,” the two worlds came in close contact. Contextualizing the diverse cultures of Punjabi protest songs, one of the discussants revealed how people in Punjab refer to the ongoing occupations as “the border.” Often, friends can be heard asking each other, “When are you planning to go to the border?”

What better concept for the “untethering” that I just noted, than a border. But the discussant’s account made for a dialectical reversal of sorts. She argued that the border in question has been constructed by the Indian state, in order to bar its own citizens from entering the national capital. In fact, several other writers and intellectuals have made similar assertions. For instance, recounting her visit to the protests at Shahjahanpur, anthropologist and historian Shail Mayaram writes, “It is not the peasants who have blocked one side of the National Highway 8, but the Haryana police.”

While compelling and even partially true, these accounts end up situating, or rather confining, this working people’s movement within a nationalist framework of liberal democracy, casting the farmers and workers as citizens who have been wronged by the ruling government. And in doing so, they end up stripping away all political agency from the working people. Even though the border in question has, indeed, been erected by the state police and paramilitary forces, it is important to note that this was done in response to the resolute militancy of the farmers and the agrarian workers who broke numerous barricades and crossed several barbed trenches on their way to New Delhi. And now, even though the protestors are stationed on the outskirts of the national capital, this is not simply because they have been blocked by the forces of the Indian state.

 

To repurpose the Gramscian chestnut, the old is dead while the new is waiting to be born. And in this interregnum, there has erupted a spectacular groundswell of farmers’ and workers’ resistance. If anything, it is this emergent mass movement, led by farmers and workers, that will determine the direction in which the arc of India’s postcolonial history will bend.

Back in late November, the BJP-led government had actually permitted the protestors to enter the national capital and to resume their protest at a designated site. But the protestors refused to do this, and instead, chose to reclaim this border for themselves, precisely by occupying it. They promptly turned their congregations of tractors and trolleys into several different encampments, equipping them with 24/7 community kitchens and open libraries, while building a slew of different stages for hosting political and cultural programs. These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle.

More importantly, the setting up of this new border—fortified by the police and paramilitary forces and occupied by working people—has catalyzed a historic transformation in people’s lived experience of the postcolonial condition, as widely documented by the protestors themselves. Consider, for instance, Sukhjinder Mahesari’s short essay, published in the second issue of Trolley Times, a multilingual newspaper currently running at the occupation site on the Tikri border. Mahesari offers a particularly moving account of how his convoy of protestors, traveling to join the occupations at New Delhi, was repeatedly assaulted by the Haryana police, and how they were forced to seek refuge at a gurudwara in the small village of Habri.

Amidst the several poignant scenes of mutual-aid at the gurudwara, Mahesari discovers that his convoy had fortuitously arrived in the village of Kartar Singh Jhabbar, a famous anti-colonial revolutionary, condemned to life imprisonment by the British colonizers for politically organizing against the Rowlatt Act (1919). Uncannily enough, one hundred years later, the current ruling government is deploying the Rowlatt’s postcolonial version—the notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—to charge and incarcerate the protestors without trial or judicial review.

Concluding his essay, Mahesari writes that the arrival of this convoy in the village of Habri has brought history full circle. The brutal violence being perpetrated by the Indian state is a sign that the anticolonial struggle of the previous century has remained incomplete. And, if anything, the current protests are an attempt to, once again, recommence this same struggle.

This border has become a revolutionary lodestone for hundreds of other similar convoys of farmers and agrarian workers, traveling here from across the country. While encountering and resisting the brutal assaults of police and paramilitary forces, they, too, are starting to realize that the postcolonial state has turned out to be no more than a servile agent of domestic and foreign capitalists.

It must be noted, however, that the scale and intensity of protests in other agrarian states of the country are mediated by their specific political-economic conditions. If so far Punjab has turned out to be the protagonist of these protests, then this is because it is here that the crises of the Green Revolution are at their most concentrated. In many parts of the country, the state regulations of the agrarian market have already been revoked, while in some other parts, contract farming has already become a lived reality. This has, in turn, affected the scale of protests in different regions, the intensity of state violence that farmers and agrarian workers have encountered, and the media coverage that that they have received.

 

Circulation Struggles

This border is a tactical response to the current political-economic exigencies. The emergence of the new border around New Delhi has been accompanied by the emergence of several other, smaller borders across Punjab. If the leading agribusiness corporations have started expanding their operations by covertly acquiring bigger godowns, buying bigger lands, and building private railway lines, then the working people in Punjab have responded to these developments by occupying numerous railway stations and toll plazas on highways, by picketing and shutting down the thermal plants, the petrol pumps, the malls, the silos, and the telecom towers that are owned by these corporations.

Much has already been written about the occupations as a site of struggle: its vast networks of mutual aid, the role played by the union leaders, the presence of women on the frontlines, the culture of protest music, the significance of libraries in these occupations, the visions of an egalitarian future availed by Sikhism to the protestors, and so on. But very little, in comparison, has been written about the occupations as a tactic.

The ongoing occupations can be classified as “circulation struggles,” to borrow a concept from Joshua Clover. Clover argues that following the secular collapse in the profitability of industrial sector in the US, capital has shifted its locus to the sphere of circulation. Finance, insurance, real estate, and the global logistics of supply chains: these are the new portals to profit. Further still, Clover contends that in the wake of these world-historical shifts, class struggle, too, has followed suit. Occupations, blockades, and riots: these, per Clover, are the privileged tactics of the new circulation struggles12For critiques of Clover’s thesis and his response, see Viewpoint’s “The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot.Strike.Riot.

This seems to resonate rather well with our specific postcolonial juncture, marked as it is by the twinned ascent of commercial capitalism, on the one hand, and blockades and occupations, on the other.

But the similarities end here. For one, if circulation struggles in the US have predominantly featured the racialized surplus populations, who have been temporarily or permanently expelled from the sphere of capitalist production, then their counterpart in postcolonial India comprises farmers and agrarian workers who are driven by the fear that they will berendered surplus by the new farm laws. To this end, these postcolonial occupations have evolved around a specific political demand directed towards the Indian state. Roll back the farm laws, or else. As of now, everything hinges on this or else.

Hitherto sequestered in agricultural fields, the famers and workers of India have been suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar territory. This is the “space” of circulation: highways and railway lines, toll plazas and petrol pumps. Marching through their new surroundings, these farmers and workers have improvised an array of new political tactics: leaving heaps of broken barricades here and constructing scores of blockades and occupations there. And for the past two months, their struggle has electrified the Indian public sphere and, for the first time in 7 years, forced the rightwing government on the backfoot. More importantly, it has also halted the workings of capital. Back in October, the farmers and workers had blocked the movements of several goods trains supplying coal to numerous thermal plants in Punjab. As these plants started shutting down, the state was pushed to the verge of a major electricity crisis.

And yet, just like other tactical improvisations, these occupations, too, leave a few questions unanswered. For instance, even though the sphere of circulation has been rapidly transformed into a hotbed of occupations and blockades, their relationship to the capitalist crisis that is internal to the sphere of agrarian production remains unclear. Similarly, much remains to be said about the divisions of class and caste that currently subtend the popular demand to roll back the new farm laws.

When the protests first began, several political analysts promptly dismissed them as a struggle of “rich farmers” only. In recent weeks, however, other writers have challenged this narrative, and have, instead, affirmed that the unity of protestors cuts across the divides of class and caste. If anything, each of these narratives ends up mirroring the excesses of the other. If the former erases the robust involvement of landless Dalits and Jats in this struggle, then the latter elides the rather obvious point, namely, that solidarity in a political struggle does not by itself annihilate the structural workings of caste and class.

Consider, for instance, how the political participation of landless workers—the majority of whom are Dalits—has been severely restricted by the compulsion to earn their daily wages in the fields, or else lose their jobs. This fact alone should suffice to show how the objective structure of caste-based division of labor (and laborers) operates in excess of the political commitments of specific individuals and organizations.

This is not to criticize the ongoing struggle, but rather to signal the objective conditions under which it is evolving, and to elucidate how these conditions—mass landlessness and indebtedness, on the one hand, and the ascendency of medium and large farmers, on the other—have been engendered by the previous cycle of capital accumulation. In other words, this is to point out that the struggle against the implementation of the Green Revolution 2.0 is historically mediated by the crises engendered during the implementation of the Green Revolution in the 1960s.

Like all political struggles, this one, too, is evolving under circumstances which, in Marx’s words, are being “transmitted from the past.” And, sooner or later, these ongoing occupations will have to grapple with this nervous dialectics of the past and the present. That is, even though the occupations have continued to fearlessly choke the flows and swirls of circulation, they will have to eventually take up the question that secretly haunts them.

What does the popular demand to roll back the new farm laws mean for the landless laborers? On the one hand, the specter of mass landlessness has spurred an existential identification with those who are already landless. And yet, on the other hand, if fulfilled, this demand will merely serve to restore business as usual, where the Dalit and the landless Jats will, once again, find themselves thrust back into a life of endless exploitation and oppression by the bigger Jat farmers.

In a recent interview with Workers’ Unity, Randeep Maddoke, director of the much-acclaimed documentary, Landless, throws down a memorable gauntlet. Sure, Maddoke concedes, this is primarily a movement of the landed. But the new farm laws impact the landless too, who are likely to be made surplus to the requirements of the new agrarian regime. And so, it is hardly surprising that there has been a significant participation by landless laborers in these occupations. In fact, he points out that there are several villages in Punjab where the farmers’ unions do not even exist, and where the mobilization of people and resources is being single-handedly undertaken by the unions of landless laborers.

If anything, this latest wave of state-sanctioned violence should teach us, once and for all, that it is not the fabled democratic traditions of dissent and protest that are integral to workings of the postcolonial Indian state. Instead, the sovereignty of this nation-state is founded on the compulsion of ceaseless capital accumulation, and that alone.

Responding to “intellectuals” criticizing the movement from outside, Maddoke suggests that the current success of the movement cannot be determined by whether it has been able to immediately grasp and resolve the nuances of these internal divisions. Instead, the success of the ongoing struggle lies in the fact that it has created an unprecedented mass movement. And in the immediate present, this movement, despite its internal divisions, will act as a “shield” against the brutal violence being perpetrated by the Hindu fascists against religious minorities, especially Muslims, and the Dalits. And then, with the wryest of smiles, Maddoke concludes that when the government starts suppressing those “intellectuals” who are currently denigrating the protestors as “rich farmers,” this very “shield” will protect them.

 

In recent years, the burgeoning popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)13The RSS is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization. It is also widely regarded as the parent organization of the BJP. In the past two decades, its numbers have swelled rather dramatically. It currently operates over 57,000 shakhas (branches) across the country, and boasts of an armed militia of over 600,000 “volunteers,” responsible for regularly perpetrating numerous attacks on minorities., and the gruesome violence perpetrated by its foot soldiers, have made political organizing increasingly difficult, if not entirely impossible, in India. But this current struggle teaches us that grassroots labor organizing is not only possible, but that it is the only way that we can ensure our survival in the current climate of relentless fear and persecution, where pogroms and cow-lynchings transpire in lockstep with increasingly militarized attacks on public universities and widespread incarcerations of minorities, intellectuals, and activists.

Maddoke hopes that eventually these ongoing occupations will also have some positive repercussions in the sphere of agrarian production. Towards the end, he leaves his listeners with a slew of open-ended questions. Will the Punjabi farmers continue to grow water-intensive crops like paddy? Or will they shift too more ecologically sustainable crops? And will the marginal and small farmers continue to farm their ever-diminishing and unprofitable individual landholdings? Or will they consolidate these holdings and take up the model of “co-operative farming,” first put in place by the landless Dalit workers, who are collectively farming the commons land in certain Punjabi villages?

There are other, more difficult, questions, too. But Maddoke does not pose them. This is only understandable. The ongoing struggle is still evolving, and, as a philosopher of dialectics once famously warned, one should not try to leap over one’s own shadow. In any case, let me try and do just that; and, having gathered all the “pessimism of intellect” at my disposal, ask: Will these positive repercussions also include an abolition of landlessness, or better still, that of property as such? Will this happen at some point in near future? And, given how the landless Dalit communities were violently attacked when they demanded their right to lease out the village commons for farming, will this abolition be peaceful?

A few weeks ago, speaking after the failure of the sixth round of meetings between union leaders and the rightwing government, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the leader of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), the country’s largest farmers’ union, declared that the popular demand to roll back the three agrarian bills does not, by any means, represent the final objective of this struggle. Instead, as he tersely suggested, this demand must be understood as inaugurating a new movement that aspires to transform the entire agrarian society of Punjab. Since then, four more rounds of meetings have failed. Last week, the government offered to suspend the three farm laws for 18 months. But the unions have resolutely refused to accept the offer, and the struggle has continued unabated. So far, this popular demand has managed to gather diverse, even disparate, sections of Punjab’s agrarian society, including the landless laborers, the small and medium farmers, the Dalits, the women, and the Jat farmers. This, in itself, is an unprecedented triumph, given how traditional leftist struggles tend to focus only on specific subsections of the working people. But what forms of structural transformations this gathering of multitudes will inspire remains an open question. The tensions between the demand’s limited aim, to preserve the older regime, and the desire to create a better world…

 

Coda

On January 26, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organization of 32 farmers’ and workers’ unions organizing the ongoing protests, organized a “Tractor March” in New Delhi. The night before, the SFS, a student organization, and Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, a leftist union of farmers and workers, refused to adhere to the designated timings and routes of the march, already established by the organizing committee in consultation with the Delhi Police. As expected, members of these unions broke the barricades on the New Delhi borders and jumpstarted the march early in the morning, offering an unexpected counterpoint to the nationalist pomp of the Republic Day celebrations being currently held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Meanwhile other groups soon discovered that even the routes that had been officially designated for the march were blocked by barricades and heavily fortified by armed police and riot contingents. As the tractors began to lose their way in the city, thousands of farmers and workers became easy prey to a daylong barrage of tear gas and lathis. There were glimpses of resistance, too. But the tractors breaking the barricades were soon cornered by the police and their drivers brutalized. And the rank and file who kept throwing the tear gas shells back at the police eventually tired and disappeared into the crowds. Meanwhile, in the midst of this chaotic churn, a separate contingent of protestors decided to storm the Red Fort, a Mughal-era monument where the Indian government annually celebrates the Independence Day, and collectively hoisted the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh religious flag.

By the evening, the organizing committee was starting to take measure of these unexpected splinters and divisions in its ranks. Meanwhile, both the liberal and rightwing media outlets were already orchestrating nationwide smear campaignsagainst the farmers and the agrarian workers, even openly demanding a brutal crackdown by state forces. Liberal politicians and intellectuals were actively dissociating themselves from the protest and condemning the working people for overstepping the bounds of “democratic dissent.”

If so far, these protestors had resolutely countered the politics of nationalism, then they now find themselves in the unseemly position of having to prove their nationalist commitments to the ruling rightwing government. Otherwise, summons from the NIA and charges of sedition will only continue to intensify. In fact, even before the “Tractor March” was held, the BJP government was already beginning to target several trade union activists and organizers, some of whom have since been arrested and, as in the case of Nodeep Kaur, repeatedly tortured and sexually assaulted in prison.

On the night of January 27, the police and paramilitary forces on the Ghazipur border assaulted the unsuspecting farmers and workers, who were sleeping at the time. Later, an ultimatum was issued to vacate the site, as the authorities cut down the electricity supplies, deployed new water cannons. The next day, the Rapid Action Force was brought in and the armed security personnel took out a flag march in the area. As the state prepares to unleash a wave of brutal repression against the protestors, several new convoys of farmers and workers have started traveling to New Delhi, to join the ongoing occupations. Meanwhile, a few hours after the protestors successfully pushed back the police forces at the Ghazipur border, just 27 miles north, an armed group of over 200 people, alleged to be members of a Hindu rightwing organization, attacked the occupation site at the Singhu border.

From here on, this struggle will only exacerbate. It is clear that the BJP-led rightwing government, abetted by the purveyors of liberal democracy, will continue to brutalize the working people of India for as long as the latter stand in the way of a new cycle of agrarian capitalism. If anything, this latest wave of state-sanctioned violence should teach us, once and for all, that it is not the fabled democratic traditions of dissent and protest that are integral to workings of the postcolonial Indian state. Instead, the sovereignty of this nation-state is founded on the compulsion of ceaseless capital accumulation, and that alone.

To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the structural relationship of the dependency between state and capital. And, if anything, the revolutionary drama of these ongoing occupations teaches us that unless we can start organizing in order to untether our collective social life from these dependencies and compulsions, postcolonial democracy will remain a nightmare from which we will keep failing to wake up.

[1] The author thanks Jasdeep Singh and Amandeep Kaur for their comradeship. This essay is for them. The essay has benefitted from Zachary Levenson’s editorial expertise and Mitch Cram’s copyedits.

[2] This historical irony is explained by the geopolitical exigencies of the day. The Congress Party’s continued reluctance to implement land reforms, compounded by the two deadly droughts during the early-1960s, had led to widespread food scarcity in India. When a series of food riots started erupting across the country, Lyndon Johnson’s administration began fearing the prospects of a large-scale communist insurrection in yet another Third World government. The US government promptly, and quite explicitly, turned its food-aid program into an instrument of neo-colonial hegemony. Already controlling one-third of the money-supply in the newly independent Indian state, the US government stopped its food aid, until India agreed to immediately devalue its rupee and pledged a long-term commitment to increasing its agrarian productivity by implementing the capitalist package of the Green Revolution.

[3] Nirvikar Singh and Deepali Singhal Kohli, “The green revolution in Punjab, India: The economics of technological change,” Journal of Punjab Studies 12.2 (1997): 285-306.

[4] Ranjit Singh, “The Green Revolution: An Analysis” in Social, Economic and Political Implications of Green Revolution, eds. B.S. Hama and A W Shukla (Classical Publishing, 1991), 12.

[5] Gopal Singh, “Socio-economic bases of the Punjab crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (1984): 42-47.

[6] Harish K. Puri, “Elections and after,” Economic and Political Weekly (1985): 1681-1683.

[7] Pritam Singh, Punjab Economy: The Emerging Pattern (Enkay Publishers, 1995), 435-6.

[8] Government of Punjab. Human Development Report 2004: Punjab, (Chandigarh, 2004), 41.

[9] Karl Marx. Capital: Volume 1 (Penguin, 1980), 799.

[10] Pritam Singh, Federalism, Nationalism, and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (Routledge, 2008), 124.

[11] This, as I explain elsewhere, is not to ignore the obvious, and quite profound, differences between the diverse political ideologies of ruling governments—say, the drastic contrast between the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and the Congress Party’s secular nationalism—much less elide the BJP’s dreaded project of constructing a Hindu nation. Instead, this is only to underscore how political ideologies are themselves mediated by the exigencies of capitalism, and how, despite patent ideological differences, successive ruling governments often work in tandem with each other.

[12] For critiques of Clover’s thesis and his response, see Viewpoint’s “The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot.Strike.Riot

[13] The RSS is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization. It is also widely regarded as the parent organization of the BJP. In the past two decades, its numbers have swelled rather dramatically. It currently operates over 57,000 shakhas (branches) across the country, and boasts of an armed militia of over 600,000 “volunteers,” responsible for regularly perpetrating numerous attacks on minorities.

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