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Past and Present

Punjab’s Peasant Movements

Pagrhi Sambhal Lehar to Samyukt Kisan Morcha: A Century of Punjab Kisan Struggle 1907–2021 by Ronki Ram, Chandigarh: Unistar, 2022; pp 129, `595.

The repeal of the three farm laws marks the victory of one of the longest struggles of peasantry in the age of neo-liberal capitalism in ­India. It is a significant milestone in the history of pro-people social movements in many respects. First, it has boldly challenged the authoritarian–corporate nexus that desires to bring the agriculture sector and, in a way, food sovereignty under the control of corporate capital. Second, it has set an example for other social movements that aim to push back neo-liberal forces. Last but not the least, the victory of peasantry over the anti-peasantry laws is a major setback to the unregulated growth of imperialism that seeks to control the production and distribution system of food and land use in the third world countries. In the light of these facts, the significance of the book under review lies in the attempt by its author to historically contextualise the 2020–21 peasant struggle. The aut­hor’s att­empt to draw parallels between the 2020–21 peasant struggle and major peasant agitations of the 20th century in Punjab brims with insight and telling details.

Why Protest?

The protest by Punjab’s farmer unions against the three ordinances, dealing with agricultural produce, sale, hoarding, marketing, and contract farming promulgated by the Government of India on 5 June 2020, began in east Punjab on 6 June 2020. Despite their continuous resistance against these ordinances, the central government, on 27 September 2020, turned these controversial farm ordinances into bills. The fundamental objective of these three acts was to open up agricultural production and distribution for private corporate capital (EPW Editorial 2020). The author has meticulously tra­ced the intervening period between the passing of the central farm ordinances and their enactment as acts/laws. When the central government unilaterally pushed ahead the passage of the three farm bills in a manner that fell short of the democratic procedure, farmers of Punjab and Haryana started dharnas, blocked roads, and began a pakka morcha (indefinite sit-in) outside the residence of Parkash Singh Badal, the former chief minister of Punjab, chief of Shiro­mani Akali Dal, and an ally of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) since 1998. A strident opposition was gradually built up in Punjab against the central government farm laws by galvanising varied kisan organisations of the state (pp 7–8). The peasant unions soon sensed that the central government is in no mood to withdraw the farms laws. Further, the fear of losing the minimum support price (MSP) and Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) system and the freedom to cultivate crops as well as the fear of land grab by the big corporations played an important role in the mobilisation of peasants by the unions against these laws.

The farmers’ and ­agricultural labourers’ unions of Punjab took the lead to shift their protest base to the periphery of Delhi, which was imm­ediately supported by the farmer unions of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The march was held under the leadership of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM)—a united front formed by the 32 farmer unions of Punjab, which was subsequently supported and joined by the unions from the other states and other pro-people national and international organisations. During the year-long protest, more than 700 protesting farmers lost their lives. The author has discussed many other incidents that reveal the government’s agenda to derail the non-partisan peaceful protest at all costs. One such incident that dented the movement was the unfortunate one at the Red Fort on 26 January 2021. Despite the government’s nefarious attempts to brand this confrontation as an anti-national act, the farmer unions showed great patience and jointly convinced the protesting farmers to remain peaceful and focused on the cause of their protest.

The 2020–21 farmers’ protest has proved that peaceful, but persistent resistance, against the anti-democratic whims of a government under the influence of neo-liberal forces can be chall­enged even during the rule of majoritarian political regimes. The author has further argued that the unique features of the protest (including but not limited to common kitchens, libraries at protest site, health facilities, participation by women students, etc) as well as its unity and commitment for justice call for an in-depth exploration of the movement. The author undertakes this exploration by contextualising the farmer’s protest within the rich heritage of peasant struggle in both pre-partition undivided Punjab and post-independence Indian Punjab.

Historical Roots

In Chapters 3 and 4, the author has revi­ewed some of the major peasant struggles of Punjab that have bequeathed a rich legacy for later generations of far­mers of this region. After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British Raj put the entire land of the state under meticulously devised legal control. The canalisation of large tracts of barren land had given way to the development of irrigation facilities that not only propelled the high-yielding varieties of crops but also gave rise to the residential colonies of farmers around the newly dug canals. Further, many farmers of this region joined the British Army, which led to a ­social and political awakening among the newly established canal colonies in western Punjab that eventually played a catalytic role in the peasant movements of Punjab. The author contends that

farmers’ struggle of 1907 is the pioneer of peasant movement in Punjab, which provides clues to understand what sustained the vigor of 2020–21 farmers’ protest at the borders of Delhi. (pp 35–36)

He has highlighted that a good number of agro-related acts—the Punjab Land Alie­nation Act, 1900, the Punjab Loans Limitation Act, 1904, the Transfer of Property Act, 1904, the Punjab Pre-emption Act, 1905, the Court of Wards Act, 1905, and the Punjab Land Alienation Amendment Bill, 1906 had been passed by the provincial government to bring agriculture under the command of the British Raj. These acts were passed without any resistance from the landowners. However, the Punjab Land Colonisation Act, 1906, which stated that “if a new settler died without gaining occupancy rights, the land lapsed to the government,” had prompted the landowners to rise against the provincial government.

When the landowners of Punjab felt that the act threatened their ownership of the land, they turned hostile. The increase in ­water rate by the government further aggravated the crisis. In order to resist, the landowners first united under “yeoman grantees” of the Bar Zamindar Ass­ociation and then under the revolutionary leadership of Ajit Singh (uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh) who with the support of the Bharat Mata Sabha (an underground organisation) fought the Punjab Land Colonisation Act, 1906. Here, the author has made an important analogy between the 1907 and 2020–21 peasant movement; the laws passed by the governments then and now were perceived by the farmers as a threat
to their land.

The 1907 movement has played an important role in cultivating consciousness among the peasants about their rights of land cultivation. In addition to this movement, the author has discussed a series of other movements, which were generally against the feudal lords, or the laws of the state to protect and extend the feudal system of land tenure. One such movement named Nili Bar da Morcha began in 1938 with the strike of 50,000 muzara (tenant peasants/sharecroppers) under the leadership of Punjab Kisan Sabha (PKS) formed on 23 March 1937. The significance of this morcha was highlighted by the author as the beginning of Kirti Party’s movement against feudalism in the Punjab. Other important pre-partition struggles discussed by the author include the Anti-Bandobast (land settlement) agitation of Amritsar in 1938 against the unjust increase in land revenue, the muzara struggle of Gurdaspur, the Charkit Morcha, the Korotana struggle, the Lahore Morcha of 1938–39, the Harsha Chhina Mogha Morcha (1946), and the Tanada Urmar Morcha (1946–47) against the anti-peasant policies of British rule and/or feudal lords that were either res­tricting or undermining the land or cultivation rights of the tenant peasants.

Like in the pre-partition times, the post-independence Indian Punjab also witnessed many peasant struggles to safeguard the land rights of the farmers. From independence to the 1970s, the majority of movements were anti-feudal in nature led by the left-wing leadership/forces. Among the pre-green revolution movements, the Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) muzara movement of 1948–51 is the most prominent. The PEPSU movement was a continuation of the muzara protracted struggle against the biswedars (big landlords/absentee landlords). The Praja Mandal leaders, Akalis, and leaders of the communist-led kisan unions stood with the muzaras in their tirade against the biswedars who had no legitimate right to land which had been theirs for generations (Muk­herjee 2004).

The muzara movement of Patiala state compelled the maharaja to make a royal proclamation on 11 March 1947 to the effect of guaranteeing proprietorship rights to tenants, though only on a portion of land. The tenants did not accept the proclamation and rem­ained steadfast in their resolve to realise the return of their hereditary land (p 59). The author claims that the muzara movement touched new heights with the entry of the Lal Communist Party Hind Union, led by Teja Singh Swatantar, on 5 January 1948. After a long struggle, the PEPSU Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act together with the PEPSU Abolition of Ala Malkiyat Rights Act brought the muzara agitation to its successful conclusion.

It is interesting to note here that the present government’s intentions to permit private corporate capital into the agri­culture sector were seen by the peasantry as a revival of the muzara system. The farmers’ fear of land grab by big corporate capital can be seen as an important trigger for their movement against the state–corporate nexus. Another intriguing link with past that the author brings to the fore is the Mehatpur Byet (Anti-betterment Levy Agitation) muzara movement. This movement locally known as Khush–Hasiyati Tax morcha of 1959 was led by PKS against the levy of tax to cover the construction cost of Bhakra Canal System. The author has rightly highlighted that like the contemporary peasant struggle, the Anti-betterment Levy Agitation

brought together volunteers from across divi­des of castes, class (poor, middling, rich landowners and landless agricultural labourers), gender, age, religion, political affi­liations (congressities, Akali and Communists) and both urban and rural. (p 66)

The farmers protesting at Delhi borders were accused of being Khalistanis and supported by urban Naxals just as the peasants of the Mehatpur Byet muzara movement who were allegedly accused of being supported by Naxalities, and resultantly, subjected to brutal oppressions of the state but ultimately both emerged victorious due to their innate strengths.

Shifting Phenomenology

Moving on, the book takes us through the shift in leadership and objectives of the Punjab peasant movements after the introduction of the green revolution technology. Prior to the 1970s, these movements essentially aimed at striking against the state and zamindars who were exploiting the tenant peasants. However, after the 1970s, particularly after the introduction of the green revolution technology, the rich peasantry who benefited from this technology gradually hijacked the peasant organisations. The Chandigarh Morcha is an apt example of these changes. The author has argued that with the formation of Punjab Kheti Bari Zamindara Union in 1972 that was later transformed into the Punjab unit of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in 1980, a major shift occurred in the nature and politics of farmers’ movement in Punjab (pp 72–73). Till the mid-1970s, all far­mers’ struggles were waged under active leadership of the communists, but with the formation of the BKU, the centre of gra­vity of the Punjab farmers’ union politics shifted to affluent farmer leaders with no communist background. The BKU leadership has since its inception been monopolised by the rich farmers but even small and marginal farmers joined it. The first major kisan agitation launched by the BKU started on 20 January 1983 with the non-payment of electricity bills. Since then, the farmer’s movements of Punjab have shifted to the issues of remunerative prices, input subsidies, etc. Consequently, the unions backed by the communist parties gradually lost all ground in Punjab. Even in the present movement, leaders of many left-oriented unions have hesitated to openly declare themselves as communists. The fundamental reason behind this shift is the ince­ssant atte­mpts of mainstream political parties and the mainstream BKU leadership to brand communists’ organisations as stalking horses for the communist movement.

In the last chapter of the book, the author has raised some important concerns that he hopes the pro-people intellectuals will address in the near future. It is of grave importance to understand how the question of farmers’ welfare through the state initiatives in the form of the public investment, building the rural inf­rastructure and strengthening the cooperative rural network, extending MSP support for other crops other than wheat and paddy has been effectively substituted with the interests of big corporate capital and imperialism. There is also a dire need to understand the changing role of the state in response to the agrarian crisis. The government has built a compelling narrative about the necessity of big private corporate capital’s intervention into the agriculture sector to promote the welfare of the farmers (Singh 2021). But what are the implications for state–society relationship in the near future. Overall, this book is an imp­ortant contribution to understand the long-standing tradition of peasant movements in Punjab. It is a significant source for those who want to further ­explore the relationship between peasantry, state, corporate capital, and imperialism in the past, present, and future. It is also helpful to understand the various aspects of the peasant movement of 2020–21. However, there is a need to go beyond the narrative built by the author by meticulously applying theoretical understanding of the victory of peasant movements to gauge the future of social movements in the neo-liberal phase of capitalism.

References

EPW Editorial (2020): “Imposing New Inequalities,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 55, No 40.

Mukherjee, M (2004): Peasants in India’s Non-­violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, New Delhi: Sage Publication.

Singh, P (2021): “Neoliberal Capitalism and Misery of Small Peasantry and Agricultural Labourers in India,” Human Geography, 7 October.

 

 

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Updated On : 3rd Jun, 2022
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