Since coming to power in 2014, despite public opposition, the Modi government has been openly enforcing laws such as the Land Acquisition Ordinance, demonetisation, GST, neutralising Section 370, CAA-NRC, favouring capitalists and corporates. In continuance of the same politics, taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, the Modi government illegally and forcibly passed three new farm laws in Parliament in September 2020 and announced immediate implementation of the same.
The farmers of Punjab strongly opposed this and held protest demonstrations for three months throughout the state to create mass awareness about the government’s intent to implement anti-farmer policies allegedly at the behest of capitalists like the Adanis and the Ambanis.
In November 2020, after gauging the unswerving attitude of the government, the farmers organisations announced that they will take the protest to Delhi. Subsequently, a large number of farmers, with their tractor-trolleys, started moving towards the national capital to support farmers’ organisations. But when the police prevented them from entering Delhi, the peasant organisations were compelled to protest on the roads connecting to Delhi that ended up blocking the borders of the national capital. Eventually, Kundli and Tikri borders became the de-facto protest sites for farmers.
Expressing solidarity with them, farmers of Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and almost all the states of the country also started demonstrations in different places across the country. Today, the movement started by the farmers’ organisations of Punjab seems to be turning into a comprehensive mass movement as it has received support from almost every section of India and even from abroad.
Dalit and landless communities of Punjab are also said to be participating in the movement in large numbers. But, does the movement truly reflect the issues and demands relevant to the landless sections and the oppressiveness of the entrenched casteist ideology?
Punjab and Haryana were the primary states to usher in the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Along with the investment of big capital in the name of the Green Revolution, mechanisation was also strengthened and farming in Punjab changed from traditional farming to commercial farming. As a result, there was a huge reduction in the job opportunities available to the farm-labourers in the state. The economy of Punjab is agro-based wherein mainly three categories of people depend directly on farming.
The first category consists of the landlords who own a large amount of land; the second is the landless farmers who cultivate by leasing the land; and the third category is of the farm-laborers who maintain their family by working as farm labourers.
A large majority of the farm-labourers of Punjab are Dalits who, according to the 2011 census, constitute 32% of the total population of the state, however, own only 3% of the land. Being mostly landless, this section is forced to work in the landlords’ fields. Despite being a major contributor to agriculture, this section has always been a victim of exploitation and exclusion. The relationship between the landowner and the farm labourer is that of the exploiter and the exploited, due to which there have been conflicts between them.
Speaking to Dalit Camera (an online portal), the leader of the ‘Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Commitee’ Gurmukh Maan explains the flaws of the new farm laws made by the central government, and says that he and his organisation have been associated with the peasant movement since the beginning against the fascist agenda of the Modi government.
Talking about Siri-Labour in Punjab, he explains that two communities of Dalits primarily work in the landlords’ fields – Mazhabi Sikh and Ravidasia Sikh. Siri-labour usually works as bonded laborers. Talking about the presence of Dalits and farm laborers in the farmers’ movement on various borders of Delhi, he explains that during the corona pandemic, migrant workers of UP-Bihar had gone back to their native states. Then, at the time of paddy sowing in Punjab, the local Dalits, who demanded parity in wages with their urban counterparts, were boycotted by the landlords. Because of this, there is resentment against the farmers in the Dalit community and their representation in the present movement is not on the scale as one might expect.
But Gurmukh Mann says that he and his organisation are aware that at this juncture the Modi government is a big enemy against whom everyone should come together. He acknowledges that even today caste oppression remains a major issue. But, at the moment, the agitation against the Modi government is also a big issue, so they have come to cooperate.
On the participation of Dalits and other farm labourers in the peasant movement, speaking to Dalit Camera, a photo artist and documentary film-maker from Punjab, Randeep Madoke also said that the paucity of resources needed to join the movement for long time is also a major challenge. The labourers do not have means of transport and this section of society is daily wage earners who need to work everyday in order to feed their families. Madoke also points to the fact that there are a few Dalit organisations in Punjab and the membership of those that exist is small. Nonetheless, it is important that they join the movement because here is where they would learn the importance of organised struggle. Also, while talking about equality among people in the farmers’ protest, he compares it with the idea of ‘Begampura’, which was conceived by Guru Ravidas ji.
There are two major arguments that are being discussed about how these new farm laws will negatively impact Dalits. First is that with the growing dominance of big companies, the mechanisation of agriculture will increase. Due to which the farm-laborers will get less work and unemployment will increase. Secondly, Dalits farm labourers and other poor people mostly depend on government schemes for obtaining ration at fair prices. Once the new laws are implemented, the cheaper ration being distributed by the government under the public distribution system will discontinue and the poor will be left with no option but to buy ration at a higher rate from the market.
Kuldip, a researcher in the United States who belongs to the Dalit community, says that this movement is particularly focused on the economic demands of the farmers that are important in the current political situation in India. Besides that, on the question of participation of farm-labourers and Dalits, he believes that, in terms of socio-economic justice and equality, this movement won’t bring much difference in the lives of landless people at the grassroots level in Punjab, because presently they are working as landless wage labourers for the landowners and tomorrow, with the implementation of land laws, they will work for the big companies. The only difference will be that now they are doing a kind of bonded labour in the fields and later the companies will exploit them in other ways, examples of which are already in front of us from different parts of the country.
Investigation shows that the landlords who are agitating to save their land are the ones trying to grab the leftover land from Dalits. Therefore, to achieve social and economic equality, it is also necessary to confront these contradictions.
According to the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964, 33% of the Shamlat land (community land of the village) under Panchayats is reserved for Dalit communities. The upper caste zamindar farmers of the village keep occupying it, which leads to a situation of confrontation between the landless community and the upper caste landlords in the village. For example, in the year 2008, when the labourers collectively raised their voice over the right to Panchayati land in Benada, a village in Sangrur district, they were strongly opposed by the Punjab’s zamindars. The protest was such that it became a matter of life and death. It was being said about Dalit laborers – “Who are they to cultivate the land? What is their relationship with the land?” But finally the workers won that struggle through unity and which later triggered a wave that spread to more than 100 villages in Malwa region of Punjab. In Jhalur village of Sangrur district, where a large part of its land is ‘panchayati land’, Dalits were attacked by the landowners after they intensified their struggle for their right on panchayati land. When Joginder Ugrahan, the leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), supported the labourers, he too was opposed by the landlords who forced his organisation to backtrack.
Today, there is protest against the farmer laws passed by the Modi government for the benefit of the capitalists of the country, and there is also the demand that the government enact a law for fixing the minimum price of crops. This is a legitimate demand of the farmers. It is believed that, with the privatisation of the market in agriculture, the corporates will pay a lower price for the crop or will harass the farmers by fixing the price arbitrarily. But, in the same way, small or big landlords, in an attempt to maximize their coffers, also suppress the rights of farm-labourers and discriminate on the caste basis. Therefore, it is important that these issues should also be a part of the discourse of this movement.
Writing about this exploitation of human beings by fellow humans, the revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh noted, “When you refuse to give equal rights to a human being, what entitles you to demand more political rights?”
Among the participants in the current movement there is an animated discussion and the question is being asked: Why should Dalits and landless sections come to this movement when there is no mention of issues relevant to them?
To this the response is that if there is no farmer, there will be no labourer either. A counter-argument emerges from the protest’s group discussions is that if there are no labourers then what will farmers do? Therefore, the issues of landless-labourers are equally significant and relevant for the movement to be effective and representative of all communities.
In an article titled ‘Untouchable Problem’ published in ‘Kirti Magazine’ in June 1928, under the pseudonym Rebel, Bhagat Singh wrote on the peasant-labourer question: “When a campaign for labourers’ rights was started, government servants inciting the farmers by saying: ‘Look, they are trying to turn the heads of these bh**gis-ch**ars (derogatory words used against the ‘untouchables’), provoking them to stop work’. This proves enough to enrage the landowners. But they should realize that their condition will not improve until they stop mistreating and oppressing the ‘outcastes’.”
While young girls are raising their voice in this peasant movement taking place in the 21st century and talking about their share and responsibility in the society and movement. It should also be noted that in Punjab and Haryana women have traditionally played a major role in the farm work, let alone the question of their having any right in the agricultural property, they have not been even given the status of peasants. What also needs to be talked about is the sexual and psychological exploitation of Dalit women who, out of economic compulsion, are forced to work in the fields of the landlords.
Thus, in the present movement, we find animated discussions over the issues of patriarchy and casteism and the rights of young girls in a new era. Along with the mass movement, a new cultural movement is also necessary to carry forward the heritage of revolutionary poets Sant Ram Udasi, Lal Singh Dil, Pash and Gursharan Singh. It is commendable to see today’s singers standing openly on the side of the farmers’ movement. But, can we say that these artists have become conscious about social issues? If yes, these artists will have to understand their responsibilities toward society and move toward a new progressive cultural movement. The current struggle, which is pitted directly against the government, is going to be long drawn. Passion is important but so are patience and ideology.
The architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar said: “Our fight against the British is important but it is equally important to fight the social and economic injustice that prevails in the country due to caste structure.” Gandhiji considered untouchability as a mixture of social and moral problems but Dr. Ambedkar saw it emanating from ideological, economic and political factors. Dr. Ambedkar emphasised modern values like social justice, equality, self-respect, and dignity and a legal political approach for upliftment of untouchables.
People from other sections of the society are only able to extend support to the peasants from outside. But the landless labourers who have been tied in an age-old relationship with the landlords have been the victim of centuries of structural oppression and exploitation. It is true that in today’s context there is a need to unite and challenge the fascist Modi government, but for real solidarity, it is equally important to fight honestly and openly against the inherited biases and conservatism. It is not enough to ask the exploited and oppressed sections to join this movement as a matter of morality. It is imperative that their economic, political, and social concerns are also addressed in the movement. The day the landlord and the landless, setting aside their inner contradictions, will unite to confront the forces of capitalism and fascism, these forces will be compelled to bow before this social force. That is how this mass movement of farmers will emerge victoriously, create history, and give a new direction to society.
*Divya Kapoor has a Masters in Political Science and Post Graduate Diploma in Mass Communication from Panjab University, Chandigarh. Gurpreet Doni is a poet and theater artist and doing LLB from Panjab University, Chandigarh.
This article titled किसान आंदोलन में भूमिहीन–खेत मज़दूरों की भागीदारी के साथ–साथ सामाजिक बराबरी का सवाल appeared I Hindi SabrangIndia on December 25, 2020 and is now being published in translation.
Translated by Javed Anand