Navyug Gill, Virtues of Impatience

A wave of agrarian unrest appears to be sweeping across much of the globe. The epicenter is once again the greater Panjab region of India. In February 2024, thousands of farmers assembled with their tractors and trolleys along the state border with Haryana to attempt to march on the capital of New Delhi. They sought to compel the right-wing BJP government to implement a set of policies to make agriculture viable and sustainable, as well as address a host of longstanding grievances. In parallel ways, farmers have gathered in dozens of other countries – from Germany and Poland, to Brazil and Argentina, to Nigeria and Indonesia – to challenge the rules governing food production, restrictions on access to land and tariff regimes within new trading blocs. Whether in the villages of Shambu and Khanauri or the cities of Paris, Brussels and Madrid, scenes of tractors pushing up against police barricades have been broadcast through mainstream and social media to millions of people. Farmers the world over are engaged in a renewed struggle to ensure a future for small-scale agriculture in the face of hostility and apathy from governments and corporations. 

Despite the global reverberations, the situation in Panjab is the unique product of both immediate and protracted circumstances. In the summer of 2020, farmer and laborer unions in the region launched a mass agitation against the Indian government’s attempt to impose a set of three laws designed to deregulate and privatize the agrarian economy. This would have threatened the livelihoods of the 45% of workforce employed in the agricultural sector (Damodaran 2023) as well as imperiled the food security of the over 800 million people entitled to subsidized grains (Kishore and Chakrabarti 2015). During the year-long blockade on the outskirts of Delhi, over seven hundred protestors died over the frigid winter and scorching summer amid a COVID-19 outbreak. The government was finally forced to backtrack under unprecedented domestic and international pressure. On November 19, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a televised speech where he announced a repeal of the laws and the promise to create a special committee to re-examine agricultural policy. At the time, this represented arguably the most significant defeat for the agenda of neoliberal capital in the twenty-first century. 

The government promise to overhaul the system of agrarian procurement, marketing and distribution was essential to convincing farmers to lift their blockade and return to their homes. No one was under the illusion that the status quo antewas anything but a gradual descent into collective disaster. Since the 1960s, the Indian government’s introduction of new technologies and incentives to grow genetically-modified rice and wheat in Panjab – which became known as the “Green Revolution” – led to exponential harvests that quickly eliminated the risk of famine. Almost immediately, however, there were objections to the nature of this growth, especially its reliance on crops such as rice that were unsuitable to the region, the excessive use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and the exacerbation of class, caste and gender inequities (Gill 1988; Bardhan 1970; Ladejinsky 1970). Activists and scholars put forward various proposals for a more equitable agrarian model that did not require costly chemicals and misaligned subsidies. Yet such arguments were largely ignored or obfuscated by every Indian government for decades. Politicians in Panjab, meanwhile, abetted this negligence because it served elite interests while helping consolidate their own tenuous positions. The joint priority was to keep the state’s economy dependent on a wheat-rice cycle without diversification or industrialization in order to feed the country’s growing population.   

By the early 2000s, with yields stagnating, incomes dwindling and debts mounting, rural Panjab became the site of acute distress. The most vivid manifestation of this crisis was the phenomenon of suicide: according to one study, on average three small to marginal farmers or landless laborers killed themselves each day over a fifteen year period, totaling over 16,000 during 2000-15. The all-India figure is more harrowing: 350,000 farmer suicides in the first two decades of the twenty-first century (Singh et al. 2022; Gill and Singh 2006). The unacknowledged other side of this desperation has been the climbing rate of migration, with approximately 100,000 Panjabis applying to leave the state each year over the last decade for places like Canada, the UK, US, Italy, Dubai and Australia (Vasudeva 2023). The annual rate of undocumented migrants is thought to be upwards of twenty thousand people, with an increasing number attempting to cross the US-Mexico border on foot (Mehrotra 2024). Over 70% of all Panjabi migrants were previously engaged in agriculture, so that one in seven rural households now report having a family member settled abroad (Goyal 2024). These stark figures are almost certainly under-reported due to the stigma and secrecy around such drastic actions. Still, what they capture is the deliberate human detritus built into the peculiar development of the agrarian economy in Panjab.    

It is against this backdrop that the immediate aims of the current struggle must be understood. Panjabi farmers are refusing to allow the government to yet again fail to fulfil its own promise of agrarian reform. For them, the long pattern of deferral has become a question of life-or-death. The key demand is to establish a country-wide legal price floor (known as MSP, or minimum support price) for a range of twenty-three crops, so that neither private traders nor the government would be able to purchase below it. Currently, farmers face the abject predicament of planting crops without knowing what their price will be at harvest, which has led to the obscene spectacle of ripe produce being dumped in public squares when market rates invariably plummet. Furthermore, they insist that the formula for determining the purchase price of crops should follow the reasonable guidelines of the 2006 Swaminathan Commission, a government-sponsored expert panel that examined ways to alleviate the agrarian crisis. Finally, and perhaps most drastically, farmers are calling on India to outright withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ensure the sovereignty of people over capital. They say its policy of forcing governments in the global south to curtail domestic subsidies and tariffs – while allowing wealthy countries and corporations to evade regulations and manipulate markets – has made life more precarious than ever. Together, these changes would provide an opportunity to halt the precipitous decline of agriculture and chart a new future for rural livelihoods. 

While enjoying significant popular support, this struggle has not been without its detractors. What is striking is the unseemly alignment of market ideologues and liberal nationalists with a section of supposedly leftwing radicals. The first two groups tend to object to the farmer’s demands on fiscal or regional grounds. On the one hand, they argue that the government simply cannot afford to purchase crops at minimum prices, and that any interference in the operations of the market will create harmful economic distortions. On the other hand, they say that this entire struggle has been instigated by elite Panjabi farmers, and that the region is merely trying to maintain its own unfair dominance in comparison with the rest of the country. Such arguments reveal a set of conventional yet persistent prejudices. Instituting a broad MSP would not result in the government purchasing the entirety of every farmer’s harvest any more than a minimum wage means turning every worker into a government employee. Moreover, whatever the expenditure on the purchase of crops, a significant proportion would either be recovered through the subsequent re-sale on the open market, or go toward supplying subsidized food for the public distribution system. Meanwhile, unproductive corporate write-offs – to the tune of $320 million in 2020-21– are never subjected to the same scrutiny (Sharma 2022). Equally baseless is the charge of Panjabi dominance and elitism. The nature of the demands are not only explicitly country-wide, designed to extend laws and infrastructure to all regions, but are specifically geared toward the 86% of farmers with less than five acres of land (Padmanabhan 2018). The fact that Panjabis are at the forefront of this struggle rather than farmers from other states is hardly a demerit. Instead, it is an outcome of decades of organizing by rural unions along with a longer history of defiance and justice drawing on Sikh principles. To castigate these people as “privileged” betrays a warped desire to nationalize destitution, so that all farmers fulfil the stereotype of being impoverished, disorganized and inarticulate. 

A more insidious criticism of this struggle has emerged from certain quarters of the middle-class left. This position adopts a stance of reluctance and passivity rather than open rejection. The argument is that despite the dramatic scenes of farmers pushing against barricades and the WTO, their movement is insufficiently radical because it neither fully challenges capitalism nor properly addresses issues of caste or gender within the movement. Indeed, since farmers are seeking to ameliorate rather than transcend certain depredations, this struggle appears reformist and therefore unworthy of active support. This sort of critique betrays a remarkable lack of understanding history as well as the dynamics of change in contemporary India. Popular mass struggles over questions of economic justice cannot be dismissed by invoking a supposedly universal yardstick to measure radicalism. Who decides the meaning of “radical” and how are its potentials to be assessed in different contexts and conditions? From that perspective, every effort by workers in textile mills, dockyards and railways for anything less than the classic overthrow of the state and immediate collectivization of production would fall short. Indeed, Vladimir Lenin contended with this very problem in a pamphlet written over a century ago. He was disputing the prevailing interpretations that either celebrated or denounced the 1861 changes that brought about an end to serfdom in Russia. “The concept reform and the concept revolution,” notes Lenin, “are undoubtedly antithetical.” But, he goes on, “this antithesis is not absolute, this borderline is not something dead, but living and mobile, which one must know how to determine in each concrete case” (Lenin 1911). In other words, simple a priori statements are as shortsighted as retroactive judgements because they refuse to take into account the new possibilities created through struggle as well as the shifting contours within which they are implicated. What Lenin said about serfdom a half a century after its conclusion is even more pertinent to an ongoing movement unfolding in our very midst.  

At the same time, it is worth remembering that farmers and field laborers are by far the largest and one of the most effectively organized groups in the country. Out of a total workforce of nearly 500 million people (Deshpande and Chawla 2023), approximately 92% are employed in a variety of informal arrangements and insecure conditions (Hammer et al. 2022), while only 4% are unionized (Harriss-White and Gooptu 2001). That is a pittance compared to the upwards of 250 million people engaged in the various labors of agriculture (Li and Agarwal 2024; Bera 2018; Agarwal 2021). Moreover, in Panjab farmer unions alongside Sikh religious organizations and social activists have been at the forefront of confronting different inequities, from land redistribution to female infanticide and government repression. To wait for a movement to resolve its internal issues and rid itself of contradictions means to forever remain on the sidelines. It is precisely from these struggles and spaces that the capacity to bring about meaningful societal changes will emerge.  

This is why the farmer’s movement is significant beyond its immediate actions and perceivable aims. It is a struggle against the central logic of nearly three centuries of capitalist expansion which insists that large private corporations should invariably triumph over small-scale producers, and that the state should facilitate this foregone displacement. Farmers from Panjab are also confronting an unspoken principle of Indian nationalism that renders distinct regions as nothing more than exploitable components of a sacred whole. The demand to control one’s fate – in terms of crops grown as much as language rights and political sovereignty – is absolutely radical for the way it interrupts the givenness of the world. This reveals how a government that refuses to address the needs of its people undercuts its own political mandate and the wider legitimacy of its rule. In that sense, farmers are neither hopelessly clinging to survival nor greedily preserving their fortunes. Instead, they are fighting against the suffocating weight of condescension and convention as much as aggression to create a different horizon for collective wellbeing. Their impatience, as well as capacity and tenacity, is actually a virtue for the rest of society to emulate. Far more than intermittently casting an electoral ballot, this struggle is an imperative of radical democratic agency. 

Navyug Gill is Associate Professor of history at Willliam Patterson University


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