ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A New Class Alliance in the Indian Countryside?

From New Farmers’ Movements to the 2020 Protest Wave

Processes of socio-economic differentiation alter balances of power. This article explores the possibility that the current wave of farmers’ protests partly reflects a resetting of class alliances in the Indian countryside centred on small farmers and farmer-labourers who now account for over 85% of farming households. It does so by returning to the new farmers’ movement mobilisations of the 1980s and 1990s, and comparing three key relations between then and now: relations between farmers and the state, between farmers and large capital, and relations within the countryside between larger and smaller farmers and landless labourers. Smaller farmers, it is argued, are now more likely to ally with farmer-labourers and the landless, who are in turn less dependent on larger farmers than they used to be because of the growth of non-agricultural wage labour. The neo-liberal Indian state’s pro-corporate farm bills mean that contradictions within the countryside are for now overshadowed by external contradictions. And if implemented, they will accelerate processes of socio-economic differentiation in ways that make a new centre of political gravity in the Indian countryside more likely.

The authors would like to thank John Harriss and Jens Lerche for comments on an earlier draft, and also an anonymous reviewer and the EPW editors.

After two decades on the sidelines, Indian farmers’ movements are back at the forefront of national politics, dominating the news and unsettling India’s neo-liberal, pro-corporate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This article locates the current wave of farmers’ protests in a broader historical context of agrarian political dynamics, and suggests that it may reflect a resetting of class alliances in the Indian countryside with an emerging centre of gravity among small farmers and labourers—in contrast to the last major wave of farmers’ protests a generation ago which was anchored among better-off male farmers who mostly hailed from dominant castes.

The farm bills threaten the interests of labourers as well as the bulk of farmers, and particularly smaller farmers. Many smaller farmers have already seen their relative socio-economic position slip—a predicament rendered more acute by damaging COVID-19-induced lockdowns, which have also ­affected rural-based labourers.1 Structurally, the Indian countryside is well set for a broad alliance of less wealthy sections: 79% of rural households and 68.45% of farming households own less than a hectare of land (Table 1). While this is enough for some to get by, most Indian farmers cannot survive from their land alone, and have to work as wage labourers as well. The overlapping economic concerns of labourers, farmer-­labourers and struggling smaller farmers who fear the loss of their land have the potential to reset agrarian politics in India, in spite of divisive caste ideologies.

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Updated On : 5th Jul, 2021
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