By Mel Harrison
For almost two months, an extraordinary movement of more than half a million Indian farmers has stood firm in their demand to repeal the farm laws. Now it seems that the government has blinked first in the face of a determined and popular struggle.
The mass movement of farmers grew in the wake of the 26 November general strike against new labour laws, possibly the largest in history with 250 million workers taking part. Since then, defying the harsh winter conditions, farmers have camped at the borders to Delhi in huge numbers. They have forced the Modi government to the negotiating table, and the latest stage of the struggle has now reached the Supreme Court.
The farm laws relax rules that have given farmers some protection from the free market. In particular, they threaten the system that guarantees a minimum price for produce sold through government-controlled wholesale markets. Farmers see these markets as setting a floor for prices, shielding them from predatory competition from large agricultural business interests, and protecting them from the often dire consequences of sharp price reductions.
The increasingly authoritarian regime of Narendra Modi has faced down earlier waves of protest – notably those against the Citizenship Amendment Act – and been confident that the police and courts would act decisively in its interests. But, confronted with a farmers’ movement showing no sign of retreat, the government has shown the first signs of weakness.
This weakness is revealed by the decision of the Supreme Court to suspend the laws and propose an ‘expert committee’ to review them. Farmers’ organisations are clear, however, that this is not a victory, but a trap, designed to demobilise their struggle.
The Supreme Court hopes to persuade the farmers to call off their protests, return home and await the outcome of the Committee. But the farmers reject the ‘experts’ it has appointed as supporters of the laws, arguing that the outcome is already determined.
Until now, the Modi government has been unable to move with full force against the movement. But the decision of the court could provide him with the excuse to.
Providing a lesson for all struggles everywhere, the farmers’ organisations have resolved first and foremost to maintain their own strength, and not to be led by manoeuvres from the other side.
In an editorial statement, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) declared that “The farmers’ organisations have… reiterated their resolve to continue the struggle for the repeal of the laws. The coming days are going to be crucial for the struggle and all democratic forces must mobilise in full support and solidarity.”
The full CPI(M) editorial, published here, can be read below.
Editorial Appearing in People’s Democracy of January 17, 2021
An Ill-Conceived Order
The order of the Supreme Court on the three farm laws and the farmers’ struggle against them is ill-conceived and one-sided.
The three-member bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde has stayed the implementation of the three farm laws until further orders. This has misled some sections to hail the intervention of the Supreme Court. Actually, the stay is not linked to any further hearing on the substantive issues raised in the petitions or by the farmers in the struggle. It is linked to the setting up of an “expert committee”. None of the petitioners had asked for the committee. Moreover, the farmers’ representatives had already in talks with the government rejected the offer of a committee.
The Court has appointed four persons to the committee who are all known for their support to the three farm laws. One of them, Ashok Gulati, has been a leading exponent of neo-liberal policies in agriculture. It almost seems that the Court had relied on the government to nominate the experts for the committee. The two farmers’ representatives on the panel are also supporters of the farm laws. The Court did not deem it fit to consult the farmers’ organisations about who should represent them in the committee.
The report of such a committee is preordained. After two months when the report is submitted to the Court, it is inevitable that the Court will accept the recommendations of its own committee and the stay on the implementation will end.
The order concludes by stating that “While we may not stifle a peaceful protest, we think that this extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws will be perceived as an achievement of the purpose of such protest, at least for the present, and will encourage the farmers’ bodies to convince their members to get back to their livelihood, both in order to protect their own lives and health and in order to protect the lives and properties of others.”
Thus, the Court has made it clear, that this order is sufficient for the farmers to give up their protest and go home. During the trial, the Attorney General made the extraordinary assertion that Khalistani elements have infiltrated the movement. The Court responded by asking him to file an affidavit with the details and thus brought it on board.
Given the Court’s attitude, the government can take it as a cue to move against the protesters and to suppress the struggle on the plea that “anti-national Khalistani elements” are active in the struggle.
The farmers’ organisations have rightly rejected the “expert committee” set up by the Court and reiterated their resolve to continue the struggle for the repeal of the laws. The coming days are going to be crucial for the struggle and all democratic forces must mobilise in full support and solidarity.