From the summer of 2020 to the fall of 2021, farmers in North India staged one of the largest agrarian protests in the country’s history. The direct impulse for these protests was three farm laws introduced by President Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government which proposed to further liberalize Indian agriculture by privatizing agricultural marketing and encouraging contract farming. Perceiving this to be a direct assault on their livelihoods, above all by dismantling the public procurement system that guarantees Minimum Support Prices (MSP) and thus leaving farmers at the mercy of large corporations eager to enter the agricultural sector, farmers’ unions in the breadbasket state of Punjab began to mobilize. When the laws were passed without parliamentary debate in September 2020, tens of thousands of farmers embarked on a tractor march to Delhi, blocking highways and train tracks and picking up support along the way. Harassed and beaten by police, they established highway encampments on the borders of Delhi where they were soon joined by farmers from other states.
Demanding repeal of the farm laws, the farmers sustained their protest for over a year despite harsh conditions that included the worst wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The encampments, complete with systems of food provision derived from the Sikh tradition, became sites of vibrant political and cultural expression. Although originating in Punjab and deeply shaped by the state’s relatively prosperous Jat farmers, the protest quickly attracted solidarity from farmer organizations in the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan as well as a national-level farmers’ alliance. In a stark departure from the past, in which farmers’ movement demands were seen to contradict the interests of Dalits (who in rural India constitute the bulk of agricultural laborers), these protests received significant support from Dalit organizations and unions. Ten labor unions launched a day-long general strike in their support. The farmers’ protest even received international attention, including strong solidarity from the Punjabi diaspora rallying at Indian embassies abroad and even supportive tweets from Rihanna and Greta Thunburg. Perhaps most surprising is that they prevailed: the Modi government ultimately relented and repealed the farm laws in November 2021.
Many outside observers found it surprising that farmers in cotton tunics driving tractors could be playing such a significant political role in a 21st-century BRIC country widely lauded for its rapid growth and modern information technology (IT) sector. For comparative historical sociologists, this paradox may bring to mind Barrington Moore’s argument about India in The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. For Moore, India was an anomalous case in which the introduction of democracy preceded the commercialization of agriculture and industrialization (thus violating his “yes peasants, no democracy” theoretical conclusion). Moore feared that, in the absence of a class with the ruthlessness to impose agricultural modernization from above and extract the surplus for industrialization, India would be doomed to economic stagnation (and that caste and regional parochialism furnished dim prospects for the alternative, communist path to modernity). While less clear about the implications for Indian democracy, Moore argued that the country’s enduring economic backwardness was “the price of peaceful change.”
Moore’s India chapter—with its reliance on British colonial sources, underplaying of colonial underdevelopment and emphasis on agrarian stasis, ignorance and docility—has few admirers among South Asianists today. Nevertheless, his basic point was subsequently developed in various ways by India scholars from Ashutosh Varshney to Susan and Lloyd Rudolph: the coexistence of electoral democracy and a sizeable peasantry has given rural India considerable influence in national politics, which has been wielded to obstruct forms of capitalist development that threaten its existence. Varshney and the Rudolphs made these observations in trying to make sense of the massive farmers’ protests of the 1980s, orchestrated by many of the same organizations, in the same regions, and with the same tactics as those today. At that time, the main goal of the “new farmers’ movements” was to obtain cheap inputs and remunerative prices for their crops—in other words, to prevent the perceived squeezing of agriculture for urban industrialization (so-called “urban bias”). Behind the mobilizations of 2020-2021 was the perceived threat to the public procurement system—previously the target of farmer ire for its relatively low prices—which is now seen as one of the last protections against predation by corporations intent on penetrating agricultural marketing and production.
Despite Narendra Modi’s ability to divide the rural electorate through religion over the pasts eight years, the protests showed that farmers could still mobilize around economic demands with significant success in 21st-century India. Indeed, beyond the defeat of the farm bills, the other instance of Modi walking back a major policy proposal also came from rural India: in 2014, fierce protests forced him to walk back changes to India’s land acquisition laws, which were intended to make it easier for the state to dispossess farmers for private industrial and commercial investment. Thus, the two major political defeats for the present authoritarian BJP government were delivered by rural India in opposition to the commercialization of agriculture and agricultural land. It would seem that even the most ruthless government in India’s independent history cannot overcome the enduring “peasant problem” that Moore described.
But if the political muscle of rural India remains strong, are the consequences for economic development—not to mention democracy—as dire as Moore predicted? This is where Moore’s thesis requires a major revision. In the radically changed circumstances of 21st-century capitalism and an authoritarian Hindu nationalist regime, the protesting farmers are more agents of, rather than obstacles to, development and democracy.
Rethinking the Role of the Countryside in Development
Moore’s assumptions about the role of the countryside in development, though derived largely from the history of the West, were shared by many postcolonial leaders and planners in the 20th century. But the era of national development projects is over and, under conditions of neoliberal globalization, agricultural surpluses are largely irrelevant for financing industrialization. While it is possibly true that the under-taxation of Indian agriculture—along with many other factors, including a weak developmental state and low prioritization of health and education—helped to slow industrialization in the Nehruvian period, today industrial investment in India comes from domestic and global capitalists who raise their capital from globalized financial markets. Rather than extracting agricultural surpluses to develop a modern industrial sector, India’s farm bills would have accomplished something very different: they would have pried open the agricultural sector to multinational capital—perhaps especially the large Indian corporate houses run by the Adanis and Ambanis (who were often singled out by the protesters). This may have provided a fix for capital, given India’s dwindling growth and over-indebtedness in the real estate and infrastructure sectors, but there is no obvious mechanism by which this would jumpstart India’s sluggish industrial sector, which has stagnated despite obscene tax breaks in Special Economic Zones, Special Manufacturing Zones, and a variety of other subsidies and tax shelters. The Indian state relinquished its role in capital allocation in the early 1990s, and the Modi government finally abolished the already enfeebled Planning Commission in 2014. The government’s argument for the farm bills is that, like anything which contributes to the profits of capitalists, they would maximize growth—not that they would jumpstart industrialization.
If squeezing the countryside to promote industrialization—what Henry Bernstein calls the “agrarian question of capital”—is no longer relevant, what remains is the very real question of how rural people are able to make a living in this new economic reality. After 30 years of economic liberalization, it is abundantly clear that the present trajectory of Indian capitalism fails in this regard, as it simultaneously assaults small farmers while providing meager exit options from agriculture. Although economic liberalization increased India’s growth rate—which increased moderately in the 1990s, rapidly in the 2000s, and more slowly since then—this growth has been concentrated in non-labor intensive sectors like IT and back office services, combined with a great deal of financial speculation and resource extraction, but very little industrial manufacturing. What manufacturing does exist is far more capital intensive than that which ultimately absorbed Europe’s dispossessed peasants two centuries ago: a privately-owned steel mill today produces more steel with 1/10 of the workforce required by the public sector steel mills of even the Nehruvian era. And those jobs no longer have the wages, benefits or protections the public sector workforce once did. The far larger absorber of “footloose labor” is the construction industry, which uses networks of brokers to manage a highly casualized, underemployed, and precarious work force. Economist Dani Rodrik calls this reality “premature deindustrialization,” a peaking of industrial employment at a relatively low level of GDP per capita, which characterizes most of the Global South outside of East Asia. Marx simply called it the “general law of accumulation.”
If the pull from urban industry is weak, the push from agriculture remains strong, albeit uneven. Indian agriculture has been undermined by almost complete government neglect combined with the pressures of trade liberalization, price volatility and high levels of debt. Although the commercialization of agriculture continues, the result is socially and geographically uneven: pockets of accumulation by dominant-caste landholders simultaneous to larger swathes of extreme agrarian indebtedness and distress indicated by the endemic problem of farmer suicides. In the relatively prosperous Punjab region where the protests originated, even larger farmers have experienced the dwindling returns of the Green Revolution, the progressive degradation of soils and mining of the water table, and the relentless generational march of land subdivision in the absence of primogeniture. For most farmers in most regions, agriculture no longer suffices to sustain most households, leading to forms of off-farm income diversification that vary largely according to the pre-existing agrarian inequalities left intact by India’s modest post-Independence land reforms. For the semiproletarian majority, this often takes the form of combining casual wage labor with very small-scale agricultural production, petty informal business and reliance on social welfare programs like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. But even larger farmers must diversify, often investing in the education of their children with the highly uncertain prospect of landing government jobs, more often resulting in lower- paid private sector jobs in retail (if not unemployment). One result of these changes is that the livelihoods of small agricultural producers are no longer exclusively rural: for many, social reproduction involves combining sources of livelihood that cross the rural-urban divide.
A central tragedy of India’s postcolonial capitalism is thus that it dispossesses or impoverishes very large populations that depend on agriculture that it can’t possibly absorb into urban industrial labor. The result is the expansion of a “relative surplus population,” best understood not as a class but as a heterogeneous group borne of the disjuncture between the supply of fully- or partially-proletarianized populations and the demand for their labor power. This dynamic exerts a downward pressure on the livelihoods of diversifying petty commodity producers, semiproletarians, and the completely landless. With a rural population of 900 million people—the most in India’s history—this is a momentous problem that is only deepening with the progress of liberalization.
It is in this radically changed context that we must see the protests against Modi’s attempted agricultural reforms. This was not the resistance of an intact peasantry against the encroachments of capitalism; it was, as Jens Lerche argues, the resistance of a heterogeneous group of diversified and semiproletarized agrarian producers who had been squeezed from both the rural and urban sides of the economy. As the sociologist Satendra Kumar observes, the assault on agriculture represented by the farm laws coincided with a pandemic that eviscerated the off-farm urban jobs of rural young men. Thus a key difference between the recent farmers’ protests and those of the 1980s is that they are no longer just about agriculture. Rather, to understand them we must place them amidst the totality of India’s post-liberalization political economy, and specifically the way exclusionary growth—driven by financialization, real estate speculation, and knowledge-intensive services—has provided few life boats for the sinking (torpedoed?) ship of agriculture.
The Politics of Social Reproduction
India’s farmers’ protests thus cannot be interpreted as obstructing a path of industrial development resembling that of advanced capitalist democracies. The protests should be seen instead as a vigorous defense of crucial sources of social reproduction against assault from corporate capital. In addition to protecting agricultural livelihoods, the protests also called for preserving the Public Distribution System (PDS), which distributes subsidized grain obtained through the public markets (mandis) that would be threatened by the farm laws. PDS is a crucial source of food for the rural and urban poor who have not been sustained by India’s particularly exclusionary path of postcolonial capitalism. If “development” is something broader than maximizing growth at all costs, then the farmers’ protests were surely not obstructing it.
If the protests are more accurately seen as a distributive struggle between corporate capital and the bulk of rural India, there were nevertheless sharp class and caste contradictions among the protesters. Although there was much celebration of the contingent alliance forged between farmers’ unions (such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union, or BKU) representing landed dominant caste farmers, on the one hand, and Dalit organizations and unions, on the other, much romanticization and hope proved misplaced. Protests were from the start organized by landed Jats who exploit and oppress landless Dalit laborers on their farms (including through debt bondage), resist land reform and higher wages and often oppose implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS)—a crucial source of livelihood for the rural poor that has driven up wages nationally. BKU’s “farmer-worker unity” was therefore somewhat cynical.
Jats also have an ongoing history of engaging in anti-Dalit violence. Their khap panchayats—notoriously patriarchal and conservative caste tribunals that condemn inter-caste marriages—played a significant role in organizing the protests in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Left-oriented farmer organizations, most notably BKU Ugrahan (an above-ground Maoist front), deserve much of the credit for pushing the larger and more conservative farmers’ unions—like the BKU—to take a more progressive position on caste and other issues. But much of the Dalit support came from leaders of formal organizations and there were even reports of Jat farmers coercing their laborers to attend. After the protests there were further Dalit atrocities in the region. Simmering tensions between farmers and Dalit laborers boiled over this past harvest season with Jat farmers “boycotting”—locking out and socially ostracizing—Dalit laborers demanding higher wages. The protests thus in no way represent the eclipse of class-caste contradictions in the countryside.
Some scholars argue that increasing off-farm income diversification and urbanization among both Jat farmers and Dalit laborers have softened class-caste contradictions in the countryside, thus making the tentative alliance possible. More persuasive is Jens Lerche’s argument that, unlike the demands of the 1980s protests, the farmers’ demands this time were demonstrably in the interest of all agrarian classes given the stakes for the Public Distribution System. Protecting this system was above all in the interest of the landless and land-poor; indeed, agricultural laborer and other unions had to push the larger farmers’ organizations, which were more focused on the proposed changes to agricultural marketing, to emphasize this issue. While the protest movement was therefore beset with contradictions, the broad populist alliance represented by the farmers’ protests had a real basis in the broad threat to social reproduction posed by the farm laws. Conversely, none of India’s farming and laboring classes stood to gain. This is one of the two major reasons why the broad Indian left—historically critical of the “kulak” politics of the farmers’ movement—got fully behind these protests.
Farmers and the Future of Indian Democracy
Another reason for the broad alliance and the left’s overwhelmingly-positive assessment of this round of farmer protest centers on the question of democracy. After a nine-decade struggle in the trenches of civil society, India’s Hindu nationalist movement achieved its strongest ever grip on state power with the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and especially his landslide re-election in 2019, which left his party with an absolute majority in Parliament. Modi has spent the last eight years in a merciless quest to transform India’s secular democracy into a Hindu nation. To achieve this goal—which now seems clearly primary rather than secondary to his muscular promotion of corporate capitalism—he has mobilized all branches of state power, combined with vigilante justice groups in civil society, to attack enemies of the nation (Muslims, Dalits, and leftists), undermine democratic institutions (like the judiciary and election commission), saffronize education, muzzle the media, and jail enemies.
In this context, where challenging this brutal and fascistic regime is an absolute precondition for any progressive politics, any source of opposition to the regime must be welcomed. In recent years, Dalits have resisted cow protection vigilantes, students have stood up against assaults on higher education, and Muslims have mobilized against the regime’s attempt to strip them of their citizenship. But protests from farmers in North India are particularly significant because of their enduring political weight and because the Modi regime appeared to enjoy overwhelming support among this very group in the last two elections. Whether the farmers’ protest signals growing disaffection with the regime and will ultimately contribute to a broader political opposition remains to be seen. But if such opposition is to coalesce, it is fairly clear that India’s farmers will need to be a central part of it.
India today faces two major challenges: how to transform a highly-skewed neoliberal pattern of growth and how to save democracy from the march of Hindu fascism. The farmers’ protests were not unequivocally progressive or free of contradictions, but they ultimately contributed positively to both. They put a break on corporate predation and upward redistribution amidst a broad crisis of social reproduction; and they delivered the most significant blow so far to the hegemony of the Hindu nationalists. Moore’s pessimistic conclusion that all paths to modernity and democracy rest on peasant destruction is an inadequate guide to the dilemmas of postcolonial capitalism in India. But his broader conclusion remains true: India’s future may well be decided in the countryside.
Michael Levien is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Dispossession without Development: Land Grabs in Neoliberal India and the co-editor of several volumes on agrarian political economy including Agrarian Marxism. His new research examines the politics of energy transition in fossil fuel producing regions of the United States.