by International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India (InSAF). This piece first appeared in Discover Society.
Since the farmers’ protests started and intensified, in particular in the state of Punjab, soon after the Indian government announced its new farm bills in the summer of 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many publications and commentators have tried to explain the complexities and implications of these bills. This article focuses on a lesser examined angle of the debate: the connection between the farmer protests and the arrests of scholars and civic activists.
The Indian government alleges that farmers are being misled by political forces opposing the state, that they are being diverted towards other causes supposedly unrelated to the farm laws. Given the widespread misinformation and myth-making that is characteristic of public policy and mainstream media strategy in India, it is important to debunk hollow accusations, keeping in mind the broader picture.
In a bid to discredit the farmers’ arguments, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and government representatives have alleged that the farmers are being misinformed and misled towards other political agendas, ranging from Khalistan to Maoism. Leaving aside the arrogance of such a claim, it reflects on those who refuse to acknowledge that farmers can think for themselves, have been protesting for several years already and are currently organising themselves in unprecedented ways. However, hardly any media have paid attention to the plights of agrarian societies in the past decades. In contrast, farmer unions have taken extensive efforts to educate the people and are proactively utilising independent communication channels (e.g. Kisan Ekta Morcha IT cell and Trolley Times).
Many independent YouTube channels are also helping educate people, see, for example, Bahujan TV’s interviews with Harinder and Sahib Singh at the protest sites. There are also numerous sophisticated analyses of the laws and their repercussions made by the farmers themselves in a vocabulary that has been shaped by their own efforts. Farmers across the country are aware of their regional differences and diversities, and are building networks of solidarity and support. Farmers are part of a broader horizontal, egalitarian movement for social and ecological justice, a point that is made by farmers across the globe, who are supporting this historic protest.
Let’s take a closer look at who is supposedly misleading the farmers and to what ends. Piyush Goyal, the minister of railways and commerce and industry, recently noted that “demands being raised on a farmers’ platform to release so-called intellectuals and poets clearly demonstrates an effort today to derail farmer, farm law improvements”. However, those who oppose land displacement and mega-development projects are easily discredited as ‘Maoist’ or as plotting to overthrow the state. Terms like ultra-leftists and urban Naxals are ill-defined and serve as excuses to imprison anyone who speaks up and points to injustices. It is not the case that “Maoists” are infiltrating the farmer movements. It is rather the case that the corporate state is infiltrating into people’s lands, plundering the mountains and forests and rivers.
In a demonstration of solidarity, International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020, at the Tikri protest site, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) held an event demanding the release of arrested students, academics and civic activists. Even in their manifesto published months prior to this protest, the BKU (EU) argued how their demands are closely tied to the demands of scholar-activists and students. Several of these arrested scholars have been outspoken about the attack on civil liberties, about practices of land-grabbing for mining and other industries, and the illegal nature of several developmental projects, whereby Adivasi communities have been deprived of their rights and the environment has been destroyed. When farmers stand in solidarity with these imprisoned activists and demand their release, they stand with those who stood and those who are standing with them, and who continue to do so even in prison.
The argument used to discredit the farmer protests in fact diverts attention from the government’s own abuse of the rule of law through draconian, unconstitutional laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Approximately 4,000 people have been arrested under the UAPA, often as undertrials on arbitrary grounds, without the possibility of bail and little legal recourse.
In addition, in its multi-language publicity booklet “Putting farmers first”, the government oddly employs arguments supposedly drawn from science and agricultural expertise to both discredit the farmer protests as well as justify the farm bills. Yet, whereas countries around the world are now trying to undo the damage as a result of heavily industrialised agriculture, the Indian government turns a blind eye to the care for the environment and refers to the pseudo-science that suits its own agendas, giving preferential treatment to big businesses that control the entire supply chain rather than to small farmers and an ecologically sound and sustainable smallholder agricultural system.
The argument that the new laws will double farmers’ incomes and other benefits to them has also been contested by researchers following agricultural policy. This obviously does not imply that the existing situation is perfect (see the Swaminathan report). The enormous economic and ecological crisis of rural India is one that needs to be seriously addressed. However, it needs to be done with the help of science that is committed to social and ecological justice.
How does all this concern academics? The farm laws mark a clear step towards the deregulation of the agricultural sector and the retreat of the state, a neoliberal policy that is already being applied to education, public health and other sectors. Just like farmers have not been consulted in the reform bills that affect their lives and livelihoods, so the new educational policy has been issued with very little consultation and involvement of academics and educationists. Just like small-scale and subsistence farms are pushed to the brink and privileges are showered upon large agrobusinesses, so universally accessible public education aimed at building an independent citizenry is squeezed dry in favour of a technology-driven, ethically empty, elitist education system. There are numerous instances of corporate-oriented agricultural reforms around the world, which have impoverished the population and go hand in hand with the corporatization of education.
More significantly, pauperization of rural communities will amplify their exclusion from education. That is, education in anything more than the tokenistic sense is becoming more and more inaccessible, especially for rural populations. When farmers are driven into debt and their incomes are at the mercy of multinational corporations, when subsistence and landless farmers are displaced to make way for special economic zones and large agribusinesses, it will result in the exclusion of vast sections of the Indian rural population from education. Students from poor, oppressed caste rural communities as well as from Adivasi backgrounds face systemic discrimination in the educational system and are disadvantaged in multiple ways.
Finally, hidden in the legal jargon of the laws is a clause that removes the right of farmers to any form of legal recourse [Sections 13 and 15 of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020]. This is unconstitutional and sets a precedent for all others, placing the rights of corporations above those of ordinary citizens. The rights of rural communities at large, extending beyond farming to all other allied livelihoods, have been treated with consistent disdain and neglect. To add to this, scholars who have spent years researching the problems of agrarian communities and who have highlighted injustices faced by these communities, are facing criminal charges such as terrorism, and are being imprisoned with little right to legal recourse.