Changing Protest Pattern

Analysing Peasant Unrest

Sandeep Banerjee

This has reference to Raman Swamy's article, in Frontier (Vol 49, No 49, June 11-17, 2017) as it brings to the fore many recent and old stories related to peasant unrest. Recently, in Mar-Apr 2017, people saw a really farmers’ movement in a “Creative, Colourful and Macabre” ways in New Delhi when some 80-90 Tamil Nadu ‘farmers’ protested for continuous 41 days. Almost every day the media got something new and unique shows, may that be holding ‘dead rats’ by their teeth (carefully of course, after all they are not ‘low caste’ poor mushaharis), chewing grass, shaving half of their heads, doing angapradakshinam or even parading naked. Leaders of top echelon of various parties came to pay visit. Even the Chief Minister came to calm down the farmers. Their demand had already got green signal from the HC and they wanted the Union Govt to pay 400 Billion to TN. Another important demand was loan waiver for all farmers (i.e. including those having land more than 2 heacters or 15 bighas or 5 acres, which means the top 8.3% of farming households owning or working on 39.4% of arable land of the state). That organisation’s name was also significant, which implies that they are fighting for the river inter-linking project, a dream project of H.E. Ex-President APJ Abdul Kalam sahab. All opposition parties in TN, including the CPI, CPM observed bandh for their support. A good part of the Intelligentsia supported them vociferously, and even some IIT-Madras students did 2-days fast in support.

Then again in the month of June there were 2 such innovative and even macabre protests—one on 16th June, a countrywide chakka jam movement (or in the 1980s’ language, Rail Roko, Rasta Roko, a form of protest first demonstratively came by the Shetkari Sanghatana of Sahard Joshi fame and later taken up by western UP and Punjab-Haryana high productive belt); and then on 21st June, a road-show on the World Yoga Day by performing Shabasana on the roads (closing down traffic, naturally). The first one got little or some success, and as it was called for 3 hours only almost nowhere the police showed brute power on protestors. In case of Railway track obstruction, police intervened quickly and after some negotiation rail traffic got smooth. To quote from Raman Swamy’s article, “The farm leaders have all concurred to observe this day as another moment of protest. However, it has been left to each of the individual groups and sanghatans to devise their own modes of expressing themselves—the only condition being that it should be peaceful and non-violent.’’ These movements call for govt intervention in market—input subsidies, a govt backed support price that can help farmers make a small profit, loan waiver, easy loans, and also in support of MP farmers movement in early June in which 5 protestors were shot dead on a single day. Perhaps many of the leading organisations also support (or demand) river interlinking.

In contrast to what happened in early June in Mandsaur district in MP the aforesaid movements look like protests by ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’. And despite the characters of the organisations who gave the call, the character of the movement got determined by the front ranks who got the violent response from the state machinery. According to Milind Ghatwai of Indian Express “The story of the five killed in police firing at Pipliya Mandi in Mandsaur Tuesday is one of despair before death. None of the five was a land-owning farmer. One was a 19-year-old in Class XI who liked biology, the second an unemployed 23-year-old who had married two months ago and wanted to join the Army, the third a 30-year-old who worked as a daily wager, and the remaining two—a 22-year-old and a 44-year-old—who worked on family farm lands they didn’t own.” Surnames of four out of 5 killed on that day was ‘Patidar’, which in terms of Madhya Pradesh caste list, denotes OBC. As such, in Gujarat, 'Patidar' literally means someone who is a landowner (having ‘pati’ or proof of ownership of land, equivalent to ‘patta’ of Bengal). And that of the other one was Dhangar, who are SC in some states and ST in some other, and literally Dhangar meant cattle-herders. Even if they could manage to have ownership records for the parcel of land they cultivated, they all would have been ‘marginal’ farmers according to Indian governmental classification system (less than a hectare). According to Govt web site “In Madhya Pradesh, overall average land holding is 2.2 ha as per agriculture census 2000-01. About 51% of the cultivators are marginal farmers (average holding 0.4 ha), accounting for only 11% of the cultivated area. About 20% of the farmers are small farmers with an average size of 1.5 ha accounting for 16% of the cultivated area. The rest of the farmers (23%) cultivate 73% of the land.’’ Moreover, MP govt website gives following data on Mandsaur district: (i) cropping intensity there is only about 1.56, i.e. about half of the land there is single-cultivated land; (ii) about 52% of the land gets irrigation. So, all the martyrs there de facto belonged to “About 51% of the cultivators are marginal farmers (average holding 0.4 ha), accounting for only 11% of the cultivated area” with less (or no) irrigation facility; and many of them depended on working outside their ‘land’. (As Miling Ghatwai aptly puts as “The story of the five killed in police firing at Pipliya Mandi in Mandsaur Tuesday is one of despair before death”.) According to Marxist classification they can be called poor peasants and perhaps some of them belonged to middle peasants families, not farm owners or farmers and/or kulaks who depend on farm labourers (>50% of the work performed on their land are purchased).

But why do those poor and middle peasants rallied behind demands of farmers who farm not for subsistence but for profit? Why do they demand subsidised inputs and as much as possible support price from the govt? Here is an answer which may invite ridicule — because peasants and farmers (except very big ones who can wait to sell their product at their better prices) are compelled to sell their products in non-free markets, where few buyers (big merchants or aratdaars) depress price as much they can. [Most probably in March a case happened in Namkhana market (South 24 Parganas) where such Aaratdars wanted to buy Patal (Tricosanthes dioica) at Rs 2/kg while, in the markets in Kolkata, it was selling at 35-40/kg. Peasants got enraged and poured all their veggies on the road and went back home.] Govt is unable to ‘free’ the market from this ‘pre-market’ or pre-capitalist imperfection. Therefore, the way out was thought to be govt intervention, or intervention of ‘non-market’ force: govt subsidies and govt support price. A democratic revolution to end all pre-capitalist evils (also many others) is no visible or viable ‘option’ in the eyes of the village toilers since decades.

Is there any ‘moral’ of this story?

Vol. 50, No.1, Jul 9 - 15, 2017