Maharashtra farmers' protest: Remember the magnitude of their struggle, not the distress of their calloused feet
The image of nearly 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra walking a distance of nearly 200 kilometres to be heard by their government has become an enduring one.
As Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis concedes the patiently articulated demands of the so-called Long March led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the curtains fall on an agitation for which we have felt so much and from which we have learned so little.
Rarely is a protest, especially by groups governments address in a perfunctory gesture every five years, a test of the conscience. But the image of nearly 40,000 farmers – frail but with the dignity of a struggle that even the robust would find impossible to replicate – walking a distance of nearly 200 kilometres to be heard by their own elected representatives has become an enduring one, so spectral that even the apathetic have found it inescapable. Mainstream print and televised media, vociferously engaged in demonstrating the enigmatic art of drowning in a bathtub only days ago, may have preferred to look the other way. But its erasure has failed and in turn, revealed more about itself than those it chose to render invisible.
The response of civil society, a creature as elusive as unglamorous, was contradictory and two-fold. In certain quarters, the agitation, however reasonable, was said to have surrendered its moral vantage in being led by a unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The farmers came of tenable grievances, but how could they, commentators asked, have carried ‘red’ flags and by certain claims, representations of that ‘tyrant’ Lenin whose statue the cadres of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allegedly desecrated in Tripura?
In doing so, the farmers ‘politicised’ the protest and invoked a political formation which has no place in democratic India. That this is a portentous argument needs little restatement – the AIKS has a chequered history of peasant resistance that was only later subsumed by the rise of the left-wing in Indian nationalist politics.
To say that it is the association with a political party that makes a protest political is to hold a very narrow frame of what politics can be.
Affiliated or otherwise, the march is a political agitation whose methods and demands are both political and beyond the strictly electoral.
The second reaction was more sympathetic, taking tragic delight in the proliferation of images of the protesting farmers, their weary bodies, their calloused hands, their bloodied and weathered feet, and their endurance of the sweltering sun and the vagaries of traversing a tremendous distance. In these formulations, the protest was made intelligible to middle-class progressive groups and ‘consumed’ with a rapidity as encouraging as appalling.
As the protest became a test of the conscience, questions of complicity were raised and it was in the proliferation of such images that civil society gave a tragic, haunting beauty to the protest and assuaged its political unease in the making of peasant grievance. Predictably, such a modality freezes distress, refusing to probe its origins, engage with its rhetoric, and interrogate its solutions.
The march, quick as formulations were to compare it to Mao Tse Tung’s, was certainly a farmers’ agitation, but ‘farmer’ is a monolithic group only from the lens of urban arrogance. This was a protest that asked for loan waivers for the landed, but was predominantly a protest of the tribal and the landless asking for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006) in the face of acute agrarian distress.
This would, if implemented, legally and productively transfer ‘communal’ land, including the forests, to the most impoverished sectors in the countryside which have historically had no access to mechanisms and institutions of credit. It is a specific demand, but to its makers, it is the sole possibility of tiding over a much broader phenomenon of agrarian crisis which has spread like a lethal wave, particularly in the last decade.
It has meant (among other things) unfair pricing policies, successive famines and droughts. In the backdrop of a government rapidly withdrawing from the domain of social welfare, it has also led to debilitating distress for the most vulnerable sections of contemporary India. 'Farmer' may not be a monolithic social grouping, but the agrarian crisis in India has had universal and universally debilitating implications.
At its heart are the deflationary neoliberal economic reforms that India initiated with a flourish in its fable of a developing miracle. For the agrarian milieu, 'reform' meant a depression in rural incomes as production came to be geared towards primary exports to fulfil a 'balance' of trade whose balance is as historically skewed as violent. The corporate grabbing of peasant resources, the premise of the resistance of the march, and the opening of agrarian India to corporate farming are realities which configure this agitation — they cannot be stifled by aphorisms of grief and tragedy.
Tragedy is political, and so is the protest as it questions the trajectory of the Indian developmental state and the question of inclusion which its narration leaves stillborn. To paint the agitation in the guise of grief is to miss its rage and the many fundamental questions that it asks of us, and indeed, the Indian state. The revolution will not be televised, but there is virtue in asking, especially as the agitation ends and prepares to be forgotten, if it will be understood.
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