Farmers’ Struggle in India and Sri Lanka

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

The farmer community in Sooriyawewa, Hambantota organised an event to commemorate Independence Day hoisted the National Flag in loyalty and black flags to record their dissatisfaction and frustration for the mis-rule of the country in the last seventy three years that has taken away, as one farmer said, “the freedom of the people and elephants”. 

This rally marked the climax of the protests that began more than a month ago demanding the Rajapaksa regime to declare a protective elephant pass facilitating elephants to move from one area to another without disrupting the nearby villages. In a similar vein, Indian farmers revolted against three agricultural bills presented by the Modi Government in almost all the states in India. These legislations were drafted in favour of agro-business capitalism whose interests are being articulated by the Modi regime. The farmers from Punjab and Haryana have surrounded the Indian capital disrupting the movement of vehicles. They entered Delhi City on India Day.

Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggle

Although there is a difference, I use here the two terms, farmer and peasant, interchangeably. I suggest that all who wish to know about agrarian changes and class resistance should read Henry Bernstein’s excellent book Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. History is full of narratives of peasants’ struggle and resistance and today these struggles focus against commodification, dispossession, proletarianisation and ecological destruction, the processes that are closely linked with neo-liberal globalisation. 

Such resistance had been on larger and smaller, heroic and mundane scales. Bernstein writes: “The heroic scale is exemplified in Eric Wolff’s book Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century with its case studies of Mexico, Russian, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba from the 1900s to the 1960s. In today’s conditions, it is expressed in the belief that neoliberal globalisation has generated a counter movement of global agrarian resistance like La Via Campesina”. We may see small scale resistance of farmers almost every day on myriad of issues and in multiple locations in the global south as well as in the global north taking diverse forms.

Synergising the Peasants 

Whether they are conducted on heroic or mundane scales, Farmers’ resistance marks an important moment in the intersection between the global movement of capital and labour. The four processes mentioned above are being synergised now in the era of neo-liberal globalisation, we may for heuristic reasons discuss them separately.

Commodification as defined by Bernstein is “the process through which elements of production and social production are produced for and obtained from market exchange and subjected to its disciplines and compulsions”. Since the so-called green revolution, almost every phase of agricultural production, up-stream as well as down-stream, are commodified and placed under the hegemony of capital. This has now extended to an extent that even peasant subsistence is commodified. This process gives an idea where we may locate peasants/ farmers in the class map of the society of the global south. They were forced to interact with capital while allowing them to deploy mostly family labour in the process of production notwithstanding the fact that the real labour time used in the production process is now low. 

This poses a serious and complex question whether we could define a large portion of peasants as proletarians. In grappling with this question, it is not the correct view to compare peasants’/farmers/ class location with the formalistic definition of proletariat. Marx works not on definitions but on determinations. For Marx, labour of a person that is capital-creating is a labour of a proletariat. Of course, this is quite different from the proletarianisation through the differentiation of peasantry that the classical narrative of capitalist development, like Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia had shown.

The third process is the dispossession of the means of production. This may be a slow process as there are many reasons that make capitalist entrepreneurs to stay with small holdings if they can control them through many ways. Nonetheless, accumulation through dispossession is also in progress when food production is linked with the international food supply chain. 

The industrial agriculture that expedites the three processes of commodification, proletarianisation and dispossession directly leads to ecological destruction. The use of chemical fertilizer, pesticide and new varieties of seed generate a negative impact on soil fertility and pollute water resources. The peasants in Sooriyawewa are confronting head on this fact of environmental destruction that is happening in the name of economic development.

Farmers as the ‘Vanguard’

Farmers Struggles in India and in many parts of Sri Lanka today have raised the issue of vanguard in broad liberation movement. It is not correct to argue that the vanguard of the liberation struggle is structurally determined. My friend Prof Pritam Singh has discussed this issue at length. According to him, “in today’s India, the Punjabi and Haryanvi farmers represent the vanguard of the entire farming community in India and other sections of society associated directly or indirectly with farming.” 

Historical experience shows that it is their concrete struggles that determines the vanguard in the liberation struggles. Let me quote what Prof. Pritam Singh has said: “In every egalitarian movement, there is one section which is the most advanced and provides leadership. That section is the vanguard. It articulates the interests, aspirations and even emotions of other rebellious sections of society. In the UK in 1974, the coal miners were the vanguard of the British working class. 

Their defeat led to the rise of rightwing Thatcher. Had the coal miners won, it would have led to strengthening of the welfare state as a possible transition to democratic socialism in the UK. In India in 1974, railway workers were the vanguard. Their defeat paved the way for the rise of authoritarian Emergency under Indira Gandhi. Had the railway workers won, a new era of socialist-oriented reforms would have begun in India. In the 1960s in India, the textile workers in Bombay were the vanguard. Bombay then used to send Communists and Socialists to India’s Parliament. The crushing of the textile workers led to the rise of right wing Shiv Sena. 

 The Nepali Maoists were the vanguard in the movement to overthrow the monarchy in Nepal. Their success in 2007-08 was a historical turning point in ending the over 250 years old monarchy. Had they failed, the Nepali monarchy helped by US and India would have led to large scale massacre in Nepal. When the pro-monarchy sections in US and India realised that the balance of forces (including the military strength of the armed Maoists which had support even in the military) were in favour of the demand for ending monarchy, they retreated. Looking further back, in Bolshevik Russia in 1921, the Kronstadt sailors were the vanguard of the working class asking for socialist democracy. The crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion led to the rise of Stalinist degeneration of the socialist revolution of 1917.”  

(The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.)