Interview with Dr Ashok Dhawale, National President, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and one of the leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM)

Q. Were you surprised to hear the PM announce the repeal of the farm laws today - or was it in the works? Rumours hint at Amarinder Singh having approached the Samyukta Kisan Morcha through intermediaries with some such proposals?

No SKM leader was approached by anyone before the Prime Minister, in his usual fashion, made his unilateral announcement of the repeal of the three black laws. We do not even know if a Cabinet meeting had been called! The sudden announcement was unexpected. However, it was becoming clear in the last three months that the central government was being thrown increasingly on the defensive. This was the result of five major factors.

The first was the massive 10 lakh strong Kisan Mazdoor Mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar on September 5. The farmers and workers came mostly from Uttar Pradesh, but large contingents also came from Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Its most distinctive feature was that it succeeded in rebuilding secular unity, which had been disrupted by the RSS-BJP-VHP in the Muzaffarnagar communal riots in 2013.

The second was the unprecedented success of the Bharat Bandh call given by the SKM on September 27. This was the third Bharat Bandh call in the one year long farmers’ struggle, and the most successful of all three. Millions of farmers, workers, agricultural labourers, employees, traders, women, youth and students from all over India, cutting across religion, caste, region and language, came out on the streets to make it a magnificent success.

The third was the increasing tempo of the struggle in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. In Punjab, the farmers’ struggle has gone down to practically every home in the state. The constant repression by the BJP-JJP state government in Haryana, and the valiant and victorious fightback by the farmers, is a saga in itself. The struggle was also spreading in Uttar Pradesh.

The fourth was the stunning and dastardly Lakhimpur Kheri massacre of four farmers and a journalist, at the behest of Ajay Mishra Teni, the BJP’s Union Minister of State for Home. Along with this was the protection given by the Prime Minister and the UP Chief Minister to the culprits. This created revulsion among the people across the country. On Dussehra Day, October 15, effigies of top BJP leaders were burnt in thousands of places all over the country by lakhs of farmers and workers. On October 18, Rail Roko stirs were conducted in hundreds of places. The Asthi Kalash Yatras of the Lakhimpur Kheri martyrs travelled all over the country.

And the fifth factor was, of course, the impending state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. The Prime Minister and the RSS-BJP belatedly realized the grave danger that they faced in these elections.

The announcement of the repeal of the Farm Laws was a cumulative result of these five immediate factors, apart from the year-long saga of the united farmers’ struggle itself. It is a historic victory of this farmers’ struggle, which will long be remembered in history. This is only the second time in the last seven years of his rule that Modi has been forced to make a humiliating climbdown. The first was in 2015, when he was forced to take back the Land Acquisition Act Amendment Ordinance, again as a result of a countrywide farmers’ struggle.

The stir continues regardless? Why is the MSP so important, and more so for which states?

Along with the repeal of the three Farm Laws, the other key demand of the farmers’ struggle was a central law to guarantee a Minimum Support Price (MSP) at one and a half times the comprehensive cost of production (C2 + 50%) to all crops of all farmers. This was a seminal recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers, headed by Dr M S Swaminathan.

It is now well known that over four lakh farmers in India have been forced to commit suicide due to indebtedness in the last 25 years of the neoliberal policies from 1995 to 2020. Of these around one lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last seven years of the Modi regime alone. This is a major manifestation of the agrarian crisis that has been swamping India.

The Modi regime is telling a white lie when it claims that it has already implemented MSP at the above rate. It has applied the formula A2 + FL, which is much lower than C2 + 50%, and has thus tried to deceive farmers. As against the Government’s bombastic announcement seven years ago of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022, which is now already upon us, the fact is that the latest NSSO survey has shown that farmers’ incomes have in fact declined for the first time.

In most parts of our country, the MSP declared by the central government for 23 different kharif and rabi crops has no meaning, simply because there is no government procurement in most of the states. Hence traders routinely buy agricultural produce from farmers at much less than the MSP. Even in Punjab and Haryana, government procurement is restricted mainly to only paddy and wheat. Hence this is a key demand of farmers from all over the country.

Successive central governments implementing neo liberal policies have increased the cost of production in agriculture manifold over the last three decades.

One, by slashing subsidies on agricultural inputs like fertilisers.

Two, by encouraging rapacious corporates in the manufacture of seeds, fertilisers and insecticides.

Three, by greatly increasing the price of diesel, petrol, power and irrigation. However, the price that the farmer gets for his crop has never increased in the same proportion. This is the root of the agrarian crisis and massive peasant indebtedness, leading to farmer suicides on the one hand and distress sales of farm land on the other.

This is further aggravated by natural calamities like severe droughts, floods, hailstorms and unseasonal rains, with no proper crop insurance cover. The PM Fasal Bima Yojana has proved to be a farce, enriching corporate insurance companies at the expense of farmers. With huge amounts of credit being channelized to the corporates, there is a credit crunch in the farm sector, especially for small and middle farmers. The agricultural import-export policies adopted under WTO dictates and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have also hit farmers very hard.

It is for all these reasons that the farmers' struggle has demanded a law to guarantee MSP and procurement at one and a half times the cost of production. Another related demand of the peasant movement has been a complete loan waiver to the peasantry by the central government, which has no compunctions in granting loan waivers and tax waivers of lakhs of crores of rupees per year to its handful of favourite crony corporates.

You and other organisations say that the PM has done this for the elections. Will it have an impact?

The PM and the BJP will be sorely disappointed in the coming elections, if they are indeed free and fair. This is a classic case of accepting too little too late. Nearly 700 farmers have died at the Delhi borders during the last one year of this struggle. That will never be forgotten. The tremendous repression and the scurrilous defamation that farmers faced from the RSS-BJP governments, their IT cells and their servile lackeys in the media will also never be forgotten.

Equally important, the people in the election-going states, and indeed all over the country, are groaning under several other maladies. The topmost among these is the back breaking price rise of diesel, petrol, cooking gas and all other essential commodities. The second is the burgeoning unemployment among all sections. The third is increasing poverty, inequality and hunger. In the World Hunger Index, India has plummeted from 94th out of 107 countries last year, to 101st out of 117 countries this year. All this has nothing to do with the Farm Laws.

I was myself touring Uttar Pradesh last week on behalf of the AIKS and we held a number of meetings in several villages in four districts of eastern, central and western UP, viz. Etawah, Sultanpur, Amethi and Agra. Everywhere farmers were angry against the BJP for the above reasons. They were also angry that they were forced to sell paddy for Rs 1100 to Rs 1200 per quintal, when the MSP declared for paddy is Rs 1940. They were facing tremendous shortages and black marketing of DAP fertilizer. Thousands of crores of rupees of dues were not paid to sugarcane farmers in UP. The situation in Uttarakhand and Punjab is similar.

What in your view is most unique about the struggle? Apart from being the biggest and longest struggle after independence.

I shall set out nine distinctive features of this historic and unprecedented farmers’ struggle.

First, it is led by over 500 farmers’ organisations in the country, who have united under the platform of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM). Large sections of the peasantry have come together across India and particularly at the Delhi borders, from agricultural workers to poor peasants to middle peasants to some sections of rich peasants.

Second, it has been fully supported throughout by the Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions, in the spirit of worker-peasant unity. In fact, the struggle itself began as a joint struggle, with an All India Working Class Strike on November 26, 2020. Lakhs of peasants and workers from all over the country have come out on the streets in solidarity with the Delhi farmers’ struggle on numerous occasions in the course of the last one year.

Third, it has combated tremendous repression from BJP governments in the form of teargas shells, water cannons, lathi charges, indiscriminate arrests, and even farmers being mowed down by cars of a BJP Union Minister, but has overcome it all. Nearly 700 farmers have been martyred in this struggle so far, due to illness, accidents, suicides, and now even murders.

Fourth, it has faced constant defamation from the BJP-RSS and has been accused of being instigated by Khalistanis and Naxalites and Maoists, and even by Pakistan and China. As expected, sections of the Godi media have blurted out all these charges ad nauseum. But the farmers’ struggle has fought against all this defamation and has stood its ground.

Fifth, it has combated the worst health disaster to strike India in recent times, the deadly Covid pandemic. The earlier big mass struggle against the CAA-NRC-NPR in 2019-20 was suppressed by the government with the excuse of the pandemic. The farmers’ struggle began in the pandemic and continued valiantly even through the disastrous second wave.

Sixth, in spite of lakhs of farmers laying siege to Delhi for one year, the struggle has been completely peaceful and democratic. It has also victoriously combated the criminal conspiracy of violence unleashed by the BJP central government, it's police and its agent provocateurs on January 26, Republic Day, at the time of the huge tractor rallies.

Seventh, it has been entirely secular. The farmers’ struggle all over India cuts across religion, caste and language. It includes men and women, and young and old. The presence of women and youth in this movement has been truly remarkable. It is this secular and all-encompassing nature that has made it impossible for the government to suppress it.

Eighth, after the political defeat of the BJP in the assembly elections in Kerala, Tamilnadu, West Bengal, and in the local body elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, it is putting the BJP-RSS regime on the defensive in the run-up to the assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Punjab is already out of bounds for the BJP. The SKM has begun Mission Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand with a historic 10 lakh strong rally at Muzaffarnagar.

Ninth, and most important, this struggle has directly identified and attacked the corrupt nexus of corporate communalism, between the BJP-RSS-led central government and the Indian and foreign corporate lobby, symbolised by Ambani and Adani. A nationwide call has been given for the boycott of Ambani and Adani products and services, although it needs to be greatly widened and intensified. Through its three major demands, this historic class struggle of the peasantry has, in fact, squarely attacked the neoliberal policies themselves.

How difficult has it been to manage this to remain peaceful and non violent and inclusive? What were your biggest challenges and moments?

Right from the beginning, there was a consensus in the SKM to keep this struggle peaceful and non-violent. After the events of January 26, 2021, when the BJP government tried to violently disrupt the massive and peaceful tractor marches through its agent provocateurs, this determination of the SKM was further strengthened.

To handle the situation after January 26 was certainly our biggest challenge. The SKM did it by giving an immediate nationwide call to observe January 30, the day of the dastardly assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by RSS and Hindu Mahasabha men, through huge demonstrations stressing truth and non-violence. This was implemented by lakhs of farmers all over the country.

Maintaining the continuity of the struggle for one whole year was another big challenge. The SKM did this collectively by calling for nationwide actions every few weeks on certain important days that were deeply connected with our freedom struggle against British imperialism, various earlier peasant struggles and also the social reform movement. The birth and death anniversaries of the icons of these struggles were also commemorated.

One of the very heartening features of this struggle must be surely mentioned. And that is the magnificent support given to it by the Sikh Gurudwaras of our country, and by their langar culture. This truly sustained the struggle at all the Delhi borders and in several other places.

As regards your question about inclusivity, concerted steps were taken to bring all major farmers’ organisations together in this struggle, and then also to involve the central trade unions, and organisations of agricultural workers, women, students and youth. The national convention of the SKM that was held at the Singhu border on August 26-27, 2021, invited leaders of all these organisations to address it. All these efforts at inclusiveness helped this farmers’ struggle to become a truly nationwide people’s struggle.

After the Modi government promulgated the three hated farm laws first as ordinances on June 5, 2020, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) gave a countrywide call for mass protests. Several other Kisan organisations in Punjab also began a struggle and they later formed a joint front of 32 farmers’ organisations, including the AIKS. Ideologically, these organisations belong to the left, right and centre.

But it is a welcome development that they came together around an issue based struggle. The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), a large farmers’ organisation in Punjab, chose not to be a part of these 32 organisations, but began its own independent struggle on the same issues. But it later joined SKM.

When the Modi regime rammed through the three Farm Laws through Parliament in September 2020 by murdering parliamentary democracy and attacking the federal principle (it also rammed through the four Labour Codes through Parliament the very next week), the AIKSCC gave a clarion call for countrywide actions on September 25 and also gave a call for a massive ‘Chalo Delhi’.

In October 2020 the AIKSCC invited many other farmers’ organisations from Punjab, Haryana and other states, which were outside its fold, to a joint meeting in Delhi. It was in this meeting that the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) was born and it has been unitedly leading the current farmers’ struggle from November 26, 2020. Organisations like the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait) in Uttar Pradesh joined the struggle soon after.

How did such a powerful farmers’ movement emerge? Were there any precursors to it?

- The last seven years have seen a steady strengthening of peasant resistance against the neoliberal assault on their livelihoods by the Modi-led BJP government. As agrarian distress intensified, farmers and agricultural workers raised their voices against them. See these major protests by farmers in the years after the Modi regime came to power in 2014.
- The nationwide peasant struggle in 2015 against the Land Acquisition Amendment Ordinance led by the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan (BAA), a joint platform, which forced the Modi regime to eventually withdraw the Ordinance;
- The AIKS-led Kisan struggle of Rajasthan in 2017-18 for loan waiver and MSP, which succeeded in winning a good loan waiver package and other important demands;
- The 11-day united farmers’ strike in Maharashtra from June 1-11, 2017 and the famous AIKS-led Kisan Long March from March 6-12, 2018, both of which succeeded in wresting a large loan waiver package from the BJP state government and also some progress in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), along with increase in pensions;
- The formation of the AIKSCC in June 2017, with the AIKS being one of its major constituents, after the brutal police firing by the BJP Madhya Pradesh state government at Mandsaur that led to the martyrdom of six farmers;
- The AIKSCC-led impressive Kisan Mukti Sansad and the Mahila Kisan Sansad in Delhi in November 2017, in which thousands participated from across the country;
- The CITU-AIKS-AIAWU-led 10 lakh strong nationwide Jail Bharo on August 9, 2018, and the two lakh strong Mazdoor Kisan Rally in New Delhi on September 5, 2018;
- The AIKSCC-led 1 lakh strong Kisan Mukti March in Delhi on November 29-30, 2018.

The current nationwide farmers’ struggle is the climax of all these earlier peasant-worker struggles. Its partial victory and the confidence that this has generated will give a boost not only to peoples’ struggles on various other burning issues, but will also strengthen the defence of democracy, secularism, federalism and the Constitution of India itself.

Photographs from the Singhu border by DANISH PANDIT for The Citizen