Farmers’ Protests in Punjab — Through the Historical Lens of Social Movements (Part 2)

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

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The movement has been non-violent, innovative and flexible

For Part One, click here

How does the present Kisan movement in Punjab, against new Farm Laws, measure up to previous historical lessons?

As far as goal or objectives are concerned, this movement has largely been consistent and limited in its approach. Its main demand has been: repeal the three Farm Acts and guarantee MSP. However, as the centre continues to be obdurate, and everything pointing towards a long-drawn struggle, pressure to widen the scope of the struggle around federalism and state autonomy is also mounting from various quarters.

Tactically the movement has been non-violent, innovative and flexible. The movement has largely remained non-violent since in its inception from mid-September.


Apart from conventional Dharnas, Rail Rokos and Sadak Rokos, the movement has also innovated this time by opening up toll plazas, burning effigies of Modi and Adani/Ambanis on Dusshera, and by gheraoing Malls and Silos owned by corporates. When the Centre stopped goods trains in an attempt at the economic blockade of the state, the farmers were quick to clear the tracks.

Communication has been another strength of the movement. Ever since its inception, the farmers movement was successful in dominating the narrative. Both BJP and their former allies Akalis failed in their effort either to sell the reforms or paint the agitators as secessionists. Farmer leaders, intellectuals, artists and social activists have all used print, digital and social media to highlight the harm caused by the acts to the farmers, state and the federal structure.

Leadership to the movement has been provided by the various farmer unions of the state. Despite their large numbers (upwards of 30) and differences in ideology —left and right, the actions, responses and tactics employed by the farm unions have largely been well coordinated.

Sukhbir Badal’s tweet in favour of Three Farm Ordinances.

Conventional political leadership has played second fiddle to the farmers. However, the reluctance and adamancy of farmer unions to not allow any outside political, administrative and intellectual input remains a concern as a long drawn out struggle will need a much larger support base and diversity of skill sets than at the current disposal of farm unions.

The mass support for the movement has been impressive so far. It has drawn out various sections of the population including peasants, landless labour, arhtiyas, youth,women, performers and intellectuals.

Also Read: Punjab Protests Rattle the Centre

The geographical spread of the movement has been throughout the state. More impressively, even those sections which are not actively involved in the agitation like urban Hindus, Dalits, and so on, have shown sympathy for the movement.

punjab farmer

Large scale support of youth and women is a major accomplishment of farmers movement. Attempts to involve the urban masses in the agitation have been taken up. Uniquely, among movements of Punjab, this movement has been free from communalism and sectarianism.

Despite these advances, the movement in essence, remains largely a rural, peasant and agrarian movement. It still falls short of being a people’s movement, which it can become only after large scale public support of urban Hindus, Dalits and landless. For this to happen, their concerns and issues, as well as the contradictions of Punjab need to be addressed.

Resistance to neo-liberalism and its enforcer – the centralised state headed by BJP = remains the core ideological belief of the farmers movement in Punjab. The demand for retaining the state guaranteed MSP and state regulated APMC’s, rejection of crony capitalists symbolised by Ambani/Adani and demand for state autonomy and federalism have all been articulated during the movement. A historical grouse with an insensitive and brutal Delhi oppressing Punjab is also palpable during the agitation.

protestThe various constituents of Farmers unions have varied organisational strengths. Some like BKU (Ugrahan), Kisan Majdoor Sangarsh Committee, have strong and motivated cadre, resources and networks. They have shown capability of independent initiatives.

The coordinated action has ensured that smaller unions pool resources are undertaking joint activities like dharnas, stopping rails and blocking toll plazas. Flags of different Kisan Unions can be seen at the dharna sites. Though the movement has spread everywhere,its core areas remain Malwa and Majha.

Also Read: Shambhu Morcha and Khalistan: The Many Anxieties of Punjab Protests

The farmers movement is facing a formidable opponent in the form of Narendra Modi and his BJP regime. The daring and determination shown by Modi in pushing BJP’s core agenda like Article 370, Ram Mandir, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Triple Talak and measures like demonetisation has shown that once a decision is taken, the Modi government seldom relents or back downs.

PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah

So far, the centre has shown the same obduracy. It showed lukewarm response to farmers representatives at Delhi and the President of India refused to meet the Punjab CM and his MLA’s. Moreover, by stopping goods trains bound for Punjab, refusing to release RDF (Rural Development Fund) money and bringing a Anti Air Pollution Ordinance, it has upped the ante against the Kisan Movement.

At the same time, outside Punjab and Haryana, the farmers movement has not garnered the same type of response and by successfully cutting of media coverage the government has confined the movement to a manageable level. Punjab also has lost its centrality to the Indian state as a food basket and sword arm which gave it a strategic clout.

Punjab CM leading a Symbolic Dharna by Punjab MLAs at Jantar Mantar, Delhi

However, in an ever-evolving situation, the re-election of Joe Biden as US President, belligerent Chinese presence on the North East border, a simmering Kashmir and the threat of a Kisan Gherao of Delhi on November 26, can change the situation in favour of farmers movement and force the government to relent on the issue.

Also Read: Top Punjab bureaucrat & CM confidant proposes a legal way out of farmers’ agitation

The situation remains dynamic, tense and ever-changing. As of now, it seems that the agitation will remain long and sustained. Punjab has a rich history of social movements and a wide repertoire of memory and lessons from its past. How it uses them during the present struggle remains to be seen.

Also Read: Farm Laws and Farmers’ Concerns: What is the way out?

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Harjeshwar Pal Singh

Harjeshwar Pal Singh

Author teaches History at Shri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh

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