Some of the most stunning images from India’s recent 250 million-strong general strike featured the tens of thousands of farmers who joined it.
Streaming towards New Delhi from the Punjab, they battled with paramilitary police— dispensing with barricades and tear gas grenades with apparent ease.
Since the strike of more than a week ago, the numbers standing firm at camps on the outskirts of the capital have only increased.
All manner of farm vehicles are now blocking the main roads into the city from the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
This has sent a shudder of fear down the spines of the hard right politicians of the ruling BJP party.
Ministers are now scuttling between the camps trying to broker talks, while seeking to sow divisions in the farmers’ ranks (see below).
The crisis was sparked by recently passed laws that aim to end government aid to farmers and open up agriculture to the ravages of the free market.
The BJP wants to end the minimum price guarantee that stabilises farmers’ incomes by paying an agreed amount for certain basic crops.
It also wants to get rid of government-regulated wholesale markets.
These are both longstanding demands of the vultures of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The right hoped to sell this as a way of escaping the clutches of large landowners and commission agents who often run the markets.
But most farmers are not convinced.
“We will lose our lands, we will lose our income if you let big business decide prices and buy crops.
“We don’t trust big business,” Gurnam Singh Charuni, one of the main protest leaders told the BBC.
Hundreds of millions of farmers believe this is the final straw, and that having endured crushing poverty and insecurity for decades they will now be ruined.
Poverty drove as many as 42,480 farmers and daily wage labourers to suicide in 2019.
More than half of Indians work on farms, but the agricultural economy is in a terrible state.
It now produces less than a sixth of the country’s economic output.
Plot sizes are shrinking and crop prices are wildly erratic.
That means buying more land and investing in machinery is out of the question for many.
The BJP hopes that reforms will help introduce more large scale industrial farming operations.
They know the price of this will mean many small farmers will be driven to destruction, but export revenues are a glittering prize for the rich.
The many ways India’s vicious class divide hits the poor was illustrated during the recent Covid-19 lockdown.
Millions of labourers in cities suddenly found themselves without work or money.
They formed miles-long marches back to the countryside—to their family farms.
No matter how destitute the countryside is at least it provided some refuge if things became unbearable for those working away in the city and sending money home.
Now the government is trying to take away even that faint hope.
Action is spreading
Farmers protests are now spreading well beyond New Delhi.
Farmers from Madhya Pradesh are now marching to the capital in the hope of blocking the city from the South.
Meanwhile Hundreds of farmers have clashed with police outside the state assembly in Bhubaneswar in the eastern state of Odisha.
Countless protests are organised in states up and down the country—and are drawing support from unusual quarters.
Around 150 top Indian athletes, including some Olympic medallists, last week planned to hand back honours given to them by the government.
Many said they could not accept an honour from a government that attacked the farmers.
Protests have the power to challenge divide and rule strategy
The excitement around the farmers’ protest is a welcome change from the seemingly endless stream of depressing news from India.
Bringing together the poor from the countryside and the hundreds of millions of workers gives us a glimpse of the power needed to overthrow prime minister Narendra Modi and his followers.
It can also help stop the spread of the brutal anti-Muslim communalism that is being spread by the BJP.
But it is important to note that the farmers’ movement is not composed simply of the poorest people.
The bulk of those blocking the roads will undoubtedly be those with the smallest plots of land, and those who have no land at all.
But those doing the negotiating with the government ministers will be from the more prosperous layers in the countryside.
They are often chosen by even the peasants’ unions to represent them because they are better educated, more articulate and have links to parts of the political establishment.
This carries a danger that any talks will result in a deal that favours the better off farmers but allows the BJP to continue with its plan to reshape agriculture.
The government is also trying to whip up ethnic and religious hatred against sections of the protests.
Most of the protesters who have travelled to Delhi from the Punjab are Sikh.
Far right media commentators insist the farmers’ movement is in fact a cover for those demanding Khalistan—a separate Sikh state that would break away from India.
The protests, they say, are “anti-national”.
This is the same language they use to describe Indian Muslims who are fighting for their rights.
The BJP’s divide and rule strategies must not be allowed to derail the farmers’ movement.