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Contemporary Farmers’ Protests and the ‘New Rural–Agrarian’ in India

Sudhir Kumar Suthar ( teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

What are the reasons behind farmers’ protests? Using narratives collected from various parts of India, the underlying processes of socio-economic transformations, which have created a dual-identity crisis among farmers, are explained to argue that anxieties have manifested in large-scale protests, producing a new politics around rural–agrarian questions.

The author is grateful to P S Vijayshankar, Surinder Jodhka, Shailza Singh and to the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies team as well as Lalit Pandey, Aashish Sagar, Pramod, Santosh, Lokesh, Amit and Vrinda.

This paper is an attempt to understand the agitations by farmers in India erupting since March 2017. The protesting farmers have been demanding higher minimum support prices (MSP), loan waivers and implementation of the Swaminathan Committee recommendations. This paper tries to explain the nature of these protests and the reasons behind such massive farmers’ mobilisations after almost 30 years. It is argued that these protests are the political manifestation of a major attitudinal shift in Indian society towards the rural–agrarian. Contrary to the late 1980s and 1990s, when the rural as a sociocultural space was “vanishing” (Gupta 2005), and people’s participation in the agrarian profession was declining (Reddy and Mishra 2009), this attitudinal shift is indicative of a reversal of the trend. These protests show an emergence of a new social group that looks up to the rural–agrarian as the way of the future. This also demonstrates a quest for a new identity based on an imagination of the new rural–agrarian.

This attitudinal change followed by the mass political mobilisation of the farmers is an outcome of dual “crises”:1 the rural–agrarian crisis and an emerging sense of disillusionment with the urban. Those who participated in these protests were not only farmers who were defending the rural, as was the case during the 1990s farmers’ movements. People from all segments of the rural–agrarian society, including small shopkeepers, women, landless families and so on, participated in these protests. Besides, it also involved a semi-urbanised, propertied middle class who may have had some historical linkages with the people in the rural areas.

Narratives discussed in the paper reveal that the push- and- pull factors, which are understood as determinants of rural–urban migration, are witnessing a reverse process as well. The two major push factors include urban anxieties and the role of education. On the other hand, the pull factors identified are the land question and emergence of a kisan biradari.2

The findings presented in this paper are based on the narratives collected from various parts of India in the last three years, which include conversations with some of the participants in the protests and discussions with the leaders of these movements. These findings are preliminary observations and require further empirical investigation. Yet, it does explain a larger trend in Indian society and politics.

New Rural–Agrarian Agitations

The recent farmers’ protests manifest the emergence of a new politics evolving in and around the rural–agrarian question. Although this new politics can also be seen as an amalgamation of farmers’ politics during the 1960s and 1980s, the more immediate reasons can be found in the socio-economic changes that happened in the Indian countryside after the economic reforms of 1991. The economic reforms did produce massive changes in various parts of India, including in regions like Malwa in Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, or Sikar in Rajasthan, where the first wave of protests started. These regions have undergone significant economic and social changes in the last three decades (Suthar 2017a, 2017b).

These protests initially began in the Mandsaur town in Madhya Pradesh in June 2017. The protesting farmers were demanding the waiver of agricultural loans and a rationalised MSP covering more crops as well as input costs based on the Swaminathan Committee report’s recommendations. This led to a nationwide farmers’ protest after the killing of six farmers in police firing. Soon, various farmers’ organisations from Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, among others, came in support of Mandsaur farmers.

This common reaction was just the beginning of large numbers of agitations, which were to commence in the next few months. Several farmers from Tamil Nadu also gathered during the same time at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi, holding human skulls, bones, and dead rats in their mouths, symbolising their poor living conditions. A month later, farmers in Sikar and Ganganagar districts of Rajasthan also protested against the government’s negligence of farmers’ issues. The entire district of Sikar came to a standstill when people from every walk of life came in support of the protesting farmers.

Eventually, these agitations resulted in the formation of a joint platform of around 180 farmers’ organisations working in different parts, called All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKAsCC). These agitations culminated in a massive protest march followed by a Kisan Sansad (farmers’ parliament) in the national capital on 20–21 November 2017, attended by thousands of farmers. The most significant show of strength of farmers was witnessed when around 50,000 farmers marched on foot from Nashik to Mumbai to pressurise the Government of Maharashtra to accept their demands.

These agitations have been very diverse in their strategies and methods of mobilisation. Mostly, the protests were remarkably peaceful and well organised. The demonstrations were organised forms of political resistance with participation from diverse socio-economic groups or castes and classes. A large number of women along with educated youth took part in these protests.

Unlike the 1980s movements, the leadership in these movements was not very traditional in outlook. These protests witnessed the emergence of an informed, professional new leadership—very articulate and technologically sound—along with the traditional form of leadership. Many of the protests also had a very successful social media campaign to garner nationwide support. These protests were also characterised by a unique mix of unorganised and decentralised forms of mobilisation as well as a highly coordinated and organised form, led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).

In Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, protests were largely coordinated by the local farmers’ organisations. In the case of Sikar (Rajasthan) and Maharashtra, on the contrary, protests were organised by the AIKS. In the case of Sikar, the entire city, and in the case of Maharashtra, an entire region came to a standstill. In the case of Sikar, people from all walks of life including bus and taxi drivers, rickshaw pullers, students, women, and landless labourers participated in the protests.

A national magazine had called the protests a “farmer’s revolt.” Similarly, in an interview, Yogendra Yadav, a political activist associated with Swaraj Abhiyan also called this a historic moment and a move towards “peasant rebellion.” Probably, it is too premature to categorise these protests as a movement or to judge them with a yardstick of “success” or “failure,” but they do reflect a qualitative shift in the politics in rural India. This political shift is an outcome of specific processes of sociological and economic changes that took place since the introduction of large-scale economic reforms in 1991.

The Rural–Agrarian and the Urban

Since independence, the rural–agrarian society in India has undergone two significant phases of socio-economic transformation. Economically, both these phases produced newer classes, whereas sociologically, they resulted in the emergence of new rural sociocultural value structures. These changes further led to new forms of political mobilisation in the countryside, demanding more state support for the agricultural sector. But both these phases also generated different kinds of crisis and stress situations. The first phase produced a rural–agrarian crisis whereas the second phase, after the 1991 economic reforms, led to a crisis in the urban. The present phase of rural–agrarian protests can be seen as an amalgamation of both these “crises” situations, which look back to the rural–agrarian as a way out.

The first phase of rural–agrarian change occurred after the green revolution during the late 1960s. This phase was characterised by high growth in agricultural production, bringing economic development in the selective regions of India. Socially, this also facilitated the emergence of a new rural landed class, which was looking up to more state support for agricultural development. This class asserted its demands politically by organising massive protest rallies in New Delhi during the 1980s. However, these acts of political assertion were organised in a decentralised manner, and also lacked any concrete ideological basis.

K Balagopal (1987) had called this new landed and educated class the “provincial propertied class.” Though this class had expanded itself into urban areas through its economic diversification or by investing into the properties or business, it always looked back to the rural as a support base. Strong ties with the rural compelled them to articulate the demands of the rural–agrarian sector politically. A major factor behind this section’s political activism in defence of the rural was a sense of nostalgia and attachment resulting from their embeddedness in the rural sociocultural spheres. Consequently, apart from the political economy reasoning behind demanding more state support, preservation of the rural society and its sociocultural ethos was also adopted as a major mobilisation strategy by these movements (Gupta 1997). This new class also criticised the existing model of development for giving precedence to urban India at the cost of the rural and agrarian India.

However, the farmers’ politics during the 1980s largely remained confined to protection of the political and economic interests of a particular class of the rural–agrarian, especially the landed class. They hardly had any transformative agenda for the holistic development of the rural. The agenda of the rural poor or landless labourers or the rising inequalities due to the impact of green revolution were either sidelined or were missing from the political campaigns of these movements. Tom Brass (1999) and other scholars had discussed these “new farmer movements” highlighting some of the limitations of these movements, including a tendency to support the right-wing political forces.

The second phase of the rural–agrarian transformation occurred in the aftermath of 1991 economic reforms. Unlike the late 1980s, this phase witnessed declining state investment in the agricultural sector and linking of Indian and global agricultural sectors. Besides, the expansion of the service sector in the Indian economy also resulted in the rise of the informal economy, small-scale business activities and enlargement of education industry (Jodhka 2014). These developments in the Indian economy opened up newer employment and social avenues for the people living in rural areas. Consequently, urban areas became the new sought-after destination of the youth and middle class who were educated and also desired a modern lifestyle. Besides, the emergence of a new informal economy in the urban areas as well as in the mandi spaces also led to the socio-economic transformation of rural society (Vasavi 2012; Gupta 2005; Jodhka 2014; Harriss-White and Shah 2011; Mohanty 2005). The new economy produced new sociocultural values of individualisation and led to the disintegration of caste and other social hierarchies in the rural areas.

Overall, these structural economic changes resulted in, what Jodhka calls, “emergent ruralities.” According to Jodhka, the new rural was qualitatively different from the rural society of the late 1980s. He further explained it in the case of Punjab (Jodhka 2006: 1534):

Growing obsession with the so-called “new economy,” information technology, media and the urban consumers led to a complete marginalisation of “rural” and agrarian sector.

Farmers were looking at avenues to move out of agriculture as well as from the rural areas. They preferred employment as security guards or any other low-paid jobs in the city spaces than being small cultivators. The middle- or marginal-farmer households began investing heavily in the education of children, especially in the field of technical education or coaching economy with a dream of joining organised sector employment.

Unlike the 1980s, when the socio-economic change had fostered political assertion of the farmers, the second phase produced some form of depoliticisation of the rural–agrarian society. Politics was not seen as a collective social activity but as an instrument either for economic gains or as a waste of time and energy. However, for the marginalised groups, electoral politics was the only ray of hope. The farmers’ movements of the 1980s had not incorporated the demands of socially marginalised groups into their political agenda. Consequently, these sections, especially the rural-educated youth coming from marginalised groups saw electoral and organised politics as the only political tool available to them for protection of their socio-economic interests. This political consciousness amongst the marginalised groups led to the emergence of the politics of the “bahujan” (Yadav 2002). These emerging forms of political mobilisations produced political as well as social contradictions in the rural and agrarian political realm.

These contradictions required a new understanding of determinants of politics and also of the society and economy of the rural. Priyanshu Gupta and Manish Thakur (2017) have argued that the classical political economy approach of the rural–agrarian dominance may not be very useful in understanding the “fundamental transformation of the ‘village’ from the spatial habitat of the traditionally ‘dominant’ to the ‘waiting room’ for the aspiring and the despairing.” In addition to this, the rural–agrarian discourse has remained village- and agriculture-centric. With the changing nature of economy and “ruralities,” there are strong rural–urban linkages emerging. These linkages are producing newer interactions between the two sets of social values, putting rural–agrarian on the centre stage. In a special issue of Review of Rural Affairs in this journal, the limitations of the existing “formulations like Bharat versus India, the narratives of ‘crises’ or even the formulation of rurbanity” were highlighted (Jodhka 2016). Largely agreeing with these limitations, this paper argues that a new process of “rural–agrarian–urban,” linking three processes while retaining some of their essence simultaneously, is shaping the 21st-century rural India.

The new rural–agrarian is a product of the aforementioned two phases. This new linkage has produced newer crises situations on the one hand, but also produced newer forms of political possibilities and aspirations of the rural on the other. This is getting consolidated in the form of a quest for a new identity. Although it is yet unclear what this identity would be, it appears to be a mix of individual as well as community values, community building around the agrarian and the land, and finally, a new rural with modern facilities.

Quest for Rural–Agrarian Identity

The present protests are a political manifestation of the increasing quest for a new identity. This identity is a mix of an individual (being and dignity) as well as a collective sense of belonging. This also emerges from a sense of disillusionment from the urbanisation process but also a desire to reimagine the rural in newer ways with more space for individual freedom. It is also based upon newer aspirations in the rural where city-like facilities are demanded. It is this complex interplay between the rural and the urban with agrarian in the middle that makes the new process of politicisation over the agenda of rural–agrarian possible.

Both the processes of agrarian crises and anti-urban sentiments have produced an identity crisis, not only in an individual but also in a collective sense. As an individual, this quest is driven by one’s sense of loss of self-dignity and respect resulting from economic as well as social reasons. But it is also linked with one’s sense of getting lost in an urban crowd. With the rise of individualised and consumerist lifestyles in the urban areas, the sense of community has gradually weakened. This has also led to an anxiety arising out of the present conditions of rural society.

These disillusioned social groups belonging to the rural or/and urban spaces find the focus on issues plaguing the rural–agrarian as a more effective agenda for political assertion. There are two reasons behind this. First is a gradual realisation of sense of urban impacting upon the agrarian (Gurunani and Dasgupta 2018). This impact is strongly linked with, but not confined to, the spatial questions like land acquisition for various projects for urban expansion. Rather, it has deeper socio-economic implications on everyday life of the rural–agrarian. Secondly, the rural–agrarian is still seen as a cultural community with a sense of belonging and brotherhood. This makes the rural–agrarian a possible notional sight of protest and mobilisation.

The farmers came out protesting against government policies as they are left with no other choice, as highlighted by many people during the author’s fieldwork. Some of the factors like declining prices of agricultural products, increasing expenditure on agricultural inputs and also increasing costs of education and health are responsible for making rural life miserable (Reddy and Mishra 2009; Himanshu 2018). What made the present protests different from earlier ones was the massive participation by all sections of the rural–agrarian society. Not only the male farmers, who have historically been a dominant group in farmer politics, but also many other social categories such as women, youth, middle-aged persons, educated and uneducated persons, tribals, and even the landless took part in these protests. The primary reason behind this is that the agrarian crisis is not confined to farmers and affects all sections of the rural society who are directly or indirectly associated with agriculture or allied professions.

In the case of urban crises, it involves those who may not be involved in farming directly but are still associated with rural society through their kinship or social networks or because they continue to own a piece of land in the rural areas. This social group consists of those who had moved out of rural life some years ago with new aspirations. They either came to urban spaces to study and find employment or for better living conditions.

However, these classes soon realised that even urban life had its own problems, including an expansive consumerist lifestyle, individualised life, urban forms of discriminations and so on. Besides, gradually declining economic opportunities, and jobs in the private sector becoming less lucrative and more exploitative have made urban spaces difficult for those who were the first-generation to move to the city from the family or the village. The prospect of moving to urban areas gave hope amidst the rising crisis in rural–agrarian society, resulting in massive migrations to city spaces. However, emerging challenges of survival in the urban areas are leading to a reverse push from the urban areas as well.

Those who took part in the recent protests were not able to articulate the nature of this “new” identity, but acknowledged that rural India needs to reinvent itself, if it wanted to survive. Rajaram Singh, who is the national secretary of All India Kisan Mahasabha and was an active partner in the AIKScC, spoke to the author during the Kisan Sansad, a mock parliament by the people coming from rural areas, on Parliament Street in Delhi on 20–21 November 2017. He mentioned:

Ye kisan ke liye, gaon ke liye, astitva aur pehchan ki ladai hai. Hamare pas iske siva koi rasta hi nahin hai. (It is a fight for survival and identity for the rural–agrarian India. We have no other way but to speak against this. (referring to the protests)3

Yashwant had also come to take part in the Kisan Sansad. Yashwant, a combine driver from Sangrur district of Punjab is not a cultivator, nor did he own any land. However, in response to the question on why he was here, he said:

We have no choice but to fight. Have you ever heard of banks taking action against an industrial defaulter? But when a farmer fails to repay a loan for few months after paying it in time for two to three or more years, the bank authorities start knocking his doors and threatening him. You have a job, and you get a salary. Our boys are without any work. I need to come here for them. I am not bothered about the result. But I feel satisfied that I did my due.4

Broadly, three major reasons behind this shift in the nature of the rural–agrarian and quest for new identity can be identified. There are pull- and-push factors involved here. Push factors are forcing people to move away from urban spaces whereas pull factors are those attracting people back to the rural–agrarian.

Urban Spaces, Unfulfilled Aspirations

The most crucial determinant of this phenomenon in the category of push factors is the emergence of negative externalities associated with urbanisation. These include lack of job opportunities, high living costs in the cities and above all, the increasing sense of alienation and exclusion. The individualised urban lifestyle promotes a sense of social isolation, and also an absence of the sense of belonging. Besides, the faster pace of competitive life is challenging for people coming from the rural–agrarian sector. The new rural–agrarian youth, who shifted to the urban spaces looking for a better life, now feels disillusioned and left out in the city.

Prakash was amongst the farmers who had come from Tamil Nadu, and could not complete his engineering because of crop failure and his inability to pay the bank loan. He said:

People tried shifting to urban areas and looking for new avenues. But all of them are dissatisfied. They got nothing. Even my family tried it. Many others also did. Many families are puzzled. Our future is in the villages and not in cities. What do we do in cities? We cannot even pay the rent of the house. In the village, we had a house and a respectable life. In the city, nobody knows you.

This has further compelled people, especially the younger generation, to look back at rural areas, which had some sense of belonging, psychological association and also availability of, or at least a myth of presence of a social support system. What attracts them towards the rural, or keeps them associated with it, is its vibrant social life, fresh air, fresh vegetables, a relatively less expensive lifestyle and above all a sense of community. On the contrary, the idea of urban lifestyle is associated with multiple forms of exclusions and discrimination leading to disillusionment with the urban way of life.

Sudhakar who holds a graduate degree and started his dairy farm was also on the streets of Delhi for a month. In response to the question on why he was here, he replied:

I am here for my sons. I want to give them a decent life. This life is possible only in the village. They should go out, study and learn new things but village gives you a natural life. My parents gave me that and I want to give this to my children. It is not a fight for money. It is a fight for prestige and rural survival.

Amra Ram from the AIKS, who was one of the prominent leaders of the movement, explained what made this possible:

Everyone realises that the rural–agrarian is in a deep crisis. The fact is that India is a rural society which is largely agrarian. Youth do not see any other future and have no option other than to fight for the survival of rural India. They also understand the need to change if this fight has to be won. Ye smajh ki ise bachane ke liye ladayi jaruri hai, is andolan ki saflta hai (It was this realisation that resistance is necessary which made this movement a success).

It is necessary to highlight here that this may not be a pan-India rural phenomenon. Besides, this feeling of looking back to the rural may not be present among all sections of the rural–agrarian society.

Education and Migration

Another major push factor taking people away from the urban is the massive privatisation and commercialisation of the education sector and a simultaneous but gradual withdrawal of the state from organised sector employment. One major factor during the 1980s attracting people to the urban areas was the availability of educational institutions. Scholars have highlighted (Gill 1985; Balagopal 1987; Vasavi 2012; Jodhka 2014) how increasing access to education had played a crucial role in changing the rural society. It was one of the major causes of migration from the rural to urban areas. Dipankar Gupta (2015: 41) has argued that, “an important and necessary condition for being a ‘rurbanite’ is education.” He had further argued that it was the rural poor who were spending on education much more than what they could afford.

The increasing youth participation in the education sector had exposed them to a new culture of consumerism and individualism in the urban areas. However, the growing expenditure on various educational heads, especially on the tuition fee on the one hand and increasing role of coaching centres on the other, had also put this new generation of rural youngsters under immense psychological stress.

In Wardha city, I spoke to a 14-year-old boy in the month of June, during the school vacation period. He belonged to a nearby village and had just taken the ClassX exams. He was living in Wardha to attend coaching classes for Maharashtra Public Service Commission and Indian Engineering Services entrance exams, along with mathematics tuition classes for Class XI and Class XII syllabuses. I asked him why he had taken on so many assignments instead of enjoying his vacations at home. He replied:

Sir, we are people from the village. People from the cities think that we are backward. Since we come from a rural background (gaon se aate hain) therefore, we do not know how to live a good life (achha jivan). I want to do well in my life. I want to achieve something and want to show these people in cities that we villagers can also progress and do well in our lives. That’s why I am doing so many things in studies now.

Surprisingly, he also said that there are problems in the villages as there is too much of interference in personal life. However, he also added that in case of cities, no one cares for others. In the village community, one could call people immediately in case of an emergency.

In the times of agrarian crisis, families of such youth could hardly afford to pay for their education. Simultaneously, there is a pressure to perform well in order to secure a better future. Increasing access to education is not commensurate to the employment opportunities available. But there is an increasing sense of anxiety due to the lack of job opportunities in urban areas.5 Most of the available jobs in the cities are in the private sector. These employment opportunities are contractual, short-term opportunities, and are also not very well paid. The kind of humiliation and discrimination one has to face in these workplaces further generates a sense of inferiority.

The exploitation and marginalisation in the urban job market have worsened in the last two decades. Jitendra (aged 32), from Trivedi Ka Purwa village of Banda district, Uttar Pradesh, used to work as a security guard in Kanpur. He lost his hand in an accident. The company threw him out and also did not pay his remaining salary. “I thought it is better to go back and work on the land instead of facing insult in the cities.” Now he does farming in the village along with his family.6

As a result of job-market-related challenges, the rural youth who are now educated and exposed to the urban lifestyle and its comforts, find it financially unaffordable. Mostly, these youth belong to marginal or small farmers’ households with an upper-middle caste family background. They do carry a sense of prestige originating from their caste–class location in the rural se-up. Profitable agriculture and rural community play the roles of support systems in case of a crisis in the city spaces. However, with the economic crisis in the agrarian economy on the one hand and increasing socio-economic complexities in the rural society on the other, they suddenly feel a significant loss of that support system. Any political mobilisation around the rural–agrarian question is a potential point of reclaiming that past. It is this mix of alienation, exclusion, and insecurities amongst urbanised youth that is leading to the rise of popular agitations in defence of the rural–agrarian.

While conducting fieldwork in Nagpur during May 2017, I interviewed a few youngsters who were continuing their studies in the city. Although they were living in the cities since long, they wanted to go back to their villages provided they get some economic opportunities there. They also had the dilemma of village social life being one with too much interference in individual lives, but they juxtaposed it with the discrimination and alienation present in the urban spaces as well. They all expressed their anxieties with the prevailing conditions in rural India and therefore articulated the need to rebuild the rural–agrarian.

While attending the massive farmers’ protests in Delhi in July and later in November 2017, various participants mentioned that although they themselves might not be farmers, they were related to the rural economy that is integral to the farming sector. They have relatives and friends who are farmers, and therefore they believe that it is their moral responsibility to stand with them in times of crisis.7

Santosh Lakshmanrao from Yavatmal district of Vidarbha articulated their plight, two months before these agitations started:

Agriculture and rural society are in terrible condition. We do not know how to articulate it, but we know that the government does not take us seriously. The government works for big players (bade log) and not for farmers and the poor. This will turn explosive one day. When, and how I do not know.

The village Donoda to which Lakshmanrao belongs had seen more than one villager committing suicide almost every year in the last one decade. When I spoke to some of the youngsters they argued: “Sir, you talk only about those who have committed suicide. What about those who died due to depression or shock because of social pressure? Is that not suicide or murder?”

When I was clicking their pictures, one of them said: “Sir, take a picture of this person (pointing to the man standing next to him). He is going to commit suicide soon.”

He continued, “He will commit suicide soon and one by one in the next few years, we all will. He refused to tell me his name.” The unrest was visible on their faces. Another person standing next to him added:

We all are graduates. We did not get a job after completing our education. By the time we finished our degrees, there were no jobs. Even if there were, one has to pay a heavy amount to purchase a job position. For this, a farmer has to sell his land. We did not want to sell our land due to our emotional attachment to the land and village. Hence, we decided to continue with agriculture and live in the village. Now we are into agriculture with three–four acres of land. This land is not enough for leading a good life in today’s times. Nobody wants their daughters to marry boys like us. Because we live in a village and we do not have wealth, we remain unmarried though we are touching 30s. Sir, you tell us, what charm we have in life? Our life is a waste.8

He laughed along with others. Such narratives reflect a sense of anxiety, alienation and above all a sense of identity crisis in people living in rural areas engaged in agriculture.

The Land Question

Another major factor contributing to the emergence of the new identity is the question of land. The land question has been in the news since the last two decades due to increasing cases of disputes between the farmers and the government over land acquisition for various industrial or other developmental projects. Traditionally, land was seen as a major asset in rural society. It was a source of livelihood, social prestige and also provided a sense of security. However, this emotional attachment with land had witnessed a change in the last two decades due to the increasing inclination towards urban spaces and declining interest in agriculture.

With a gradual decline in the number of jobs available in the market, an increasing sense of exclusion in the urban settings and a sudden jump in the land prices due to increasing demands for various urbanisation projects, the rural youth have started looking back to land as a source of support, prestige, and economic security.

Some of the protests around the land question during late 1990s and 2000s were about the disputes over the amount offered by the government as compensation. However, the recent protests are against the very idea of land acquisition. Villagers have gradually started refusing to give away their land irrespective of the amount offered. The question of land is no more about the agricultural land but is also associated with the idea of natural resources and their ownership (Naga 2016).

Vijoo Krishnan, who works with the AIKS and has been quite proactive in articulating farmers’ unrest, said in a conversation with the author:

It is wrong to assume that these protests are sporadic and they occurred suddenly. They are just a manifestation of farmers’ unrest against the manner in which various governments have been dealing with their concerns. In many states, the government had been proactively involved in giving away the land to the corporates without even taking farmers’ concerns into account.

This change of attitude is also an outcome of some of the policies adopted by various governments to create alternative sources of income in the rural areas itself. In case of Kerala, Rajasthan and Gujarat, the state governments had invested in making villages into tourist destinations with policies such as “ideal villages,” “homestays,” “weekend holidays” that generated employment opportunities and sources of income within the rural spaces (Verghese 2018). In the case of Punjab, many farmers have opened their farms to tourists. These experiments served twin objectives: promoting tourism and also making people aware of rural lifestyle and agriculture. This kind of exposure has also helped in generating a sense of confidence and self-pride amongst the villagers. With such activities, the prices of land have gone up. Besides, people also consider ownership of even a small piece of land in such areas as a major asset.


The recent farmers’ protests show certain continuities as well as changes in the rural–agrarian politics. Although it is difficult and premature to measure them in terms of “success” and “failure,” these protests have given the farmers’ politics a new lease of life. The sudden emergence of these protests symbolises the underlying deep and silent processes of socio-economic change in the countryside. These protests also reflect certain profound changes emerging in Indian politics. They constitute a rather unorganised and fluid form of politics and can be interpreted as the post-ideological phase of Indian politics. How far these protests will have an impact on India’s electoral politics is an open question. The survival and strength of these protests will depend upon their ability to confront the few challenges that were also faced by the farmers’ movements during the 1980s, such as the questions of rural poverty and labour and resolution of the caste–class dichotomy existing in the rural areas. Above all, the future of these movements is contingent upon their ability to fight with the ongoing religion- and caste-based polarisation on the one hand and massive penetration of the market forces on the other.


1 The usage of the term crises in a plural sense in the case of rural change was used by Jodhka (2006).

2 A similar formulation was described by Dipankar Gupta in his analysis of Bhartiya Kisan Union. Gupta has said that the BKU has bhaichara ethos which was an attempt to create a sense of belonging in the rural unionism (Gupta 1997).

3 Personal interview with the author at Parliament Street, New Delhi, 21 November 2017.

4Personal interview with the author at Parliament Street, New Delhi, 20 November 2017.

5 As per some reports, there has been a 6% yearly decline in unorganised sector jobs since 2004–05. This went up to 40% immediately after demonetisation. Reports have also shown that there has been a reverse migration after demonetisation was announced (Maji and Saha 2017).

6 Personal interview with the author, Trivedi Ka Purwa, Banda, 28 December 2016.

7 Interview with Yashwant Kumar (aged 38) from the Baman village, tehsil Akkalkuwa; a village of Maharashtra located on the banks of Narmada river. A young boy from the same village also said that they need to come and fight for others as well especially for the villages of Madhya Pradesh submerged due to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

8Interview with the author in Donoda village, Yavatmal district, Maharashtra, 9 May 2017.


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Updated On : 12th Jul, 2018


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