World in View: Historic mass strike of India’s farmers

January 30, 2021

From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Gerry Emmett

One of the many farmers’ protests, this one on Nov. 27, 2020. Photo by Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia.

An estimated 250 million Indian farmers have been on strike since last September in opposition to a series of new laws, proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The laws are designed to allow big corporations to control the market and accumulate land. The strike, begun in Punjab and Haryana states, saw hundreds of thousands marching on New Delhi, the capital city.

The farmers see this as a struggle for their continued existence.

Capitalism follows its own logic regardless of history. But that history lives within the oppressed as the memory of dispossession and murder. India’s farmers know the way agriculture was “rationalized” in 1920s and 1930s state-capitalist Russia and 1950s state-capitalist China at the terrible expense of their class.


Modi’s Hindutva ideology is a bizarre mix of ancient religion and modern high tech, but its essence remains the same inhuman law of capitalist accumulation.

The farmers’ strike is in many ways a continuation of last year’s workers’ general strike. That also involved hundreds of millions of urban union workers and farmers protesting privatization and demanding relief for those suffering under the economic burden caused by COVID-19. Indeed, many rural strikers are urban workers who have been forced to return home to their villages as jobs were lost in the cities.

As in all genuine mass movements, social barriers begin to break down. Women have been leaders in many demonstrations, and 82-year-old Biklis has been a symbol. She said, “I will sit here till blood stops flowing in my veins so the children of this country and the world breathe the air of justice and equality.”

Muslims have also become active, despite past violence, and despite the bigoted 2020 Citizenship Act that targets them for discrimination. Columnist Syed Abdur Rahman writes, “Even the women donning hijab are joining the farmers, addressing the gathering and sitting in the protests for days. Muslims have been serving food to protesting farmers from day one” (SIFY, Dec. 9, 2020).

Dalit farm-labor unions have also joined the protests, thus implicitly challenging the dehumanizing caste system.


This coming together of urban workers with the rural masses has long been the aim of India’s Left. Many of the country’s historic Communist and radical parties have been involved in recent upheavals, including some in government. Yet, as many have noted, Modi’s government retains a significant popularity.

It is clear that a struggle against his and the BJP’s Hindutva capitalism has got to be a philosophical struggle as well. Contained within the many forces involved in the farmers’ strike is a potential revolutionary humanism, emerging from India’s concrete history, that can transcend not just Modi’s anti-historic ideology, but also the inhuman laws of capitalism itself.

As ever, this crisis not only brings Marx’s Capital to mind, but brings it to new life.

There have been a number of rounds of talks between the government and farmers’ representatives, but the farmers are promising to settle for nothing less than the full revocation of the new laws.

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