Whither India’s Farmers Movement?

I still can’t understand. Mohammed Bouazizi, a 24-year-old vegetable seller in Tunisia, sets himself on fire. Within weeks that fire spread fast forcing Tunisian President Ben Ali to flee the country, deposed Egypt’s long ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak and is threatening to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi in a bloody uprising.

The tremors have still not died down in the rest of Middle East. Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are simmering with discontent. The heat from the fire that began from Tunisia several week’s back still is warm enough to cause political upheavals.

It has been over 15 years when a spate of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh had rocked the nation. It was in 1997 when 37 farmers took their own lives unable to bear the crop loss that accrue from the failure of cotton to withstand the attack of the dreaded bollworm pest. Since then, the serial death dance continues unabated. There is hardly a day when reports of farmer committing suicide do not pour in from one part of the country or the other.

More than 250,000 farmers have since then committed suicide. What I don’t understand is that how come one person immolating himself triggers a people’s uprising that brings down undemocratic regimes whereas not less than two farmers taking their own lives every hour – day after day — fails to even provoke a high-level enquiry. How does one explain this? How come the Arabs feel outraged when a fellow citizen is slapped by a policeman, while Indians remain immune to the bloodbath being enacted on the farm?

The revolt in the Arab world may have been the outcome of a simmering discontent that continued to build up over decades. The spate of farm suicides too is the outcome of a continuing crisis that has been burning the farmlands for several decades now. But while it is easier to blame the unresponsive government and the agricultural scientists and officials for not being able to stem the bloody tide, I fail to come to grips with the possible reason behind the inability of the farmer unions to script the political upheaval.

In a country which has 600 million farmers, where numerous farm unions – big or small – dot the landscape, it is still beyond my comprehension to figure out why and how the farm movements have remained a mute spectator to the death dance. What has happened to the politically feared farm unions? What has happened to the great farm movement? Is the farm movement in India dying or is it already dead?

Several decades back, I still remember when Sharad Joshi of Shetkari Sanghtana along with a motley crowd of well-to-do farmers owing alliance to Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) swarmed the compound of the Punjab Raj Bhawan in Chandigarh. That was in early 1984. Farmers sat peacefully around the Raj Bhawan building. The gherao lasted a few days. BKU emerged as a formidable voice of the Punjab farmers.

Far away, Narayanswamy Naidu of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Association had led the farmers’ struggles for long. I still recall accompanying him on several of his visits to Punjab. This was the time when BKU was still in the formative stages. The presence of a stalwart like Narayanswamy Naidu did provide a lot of strength to the farmer’s movement in Punajb. Farmer leader Vijay Jawandhia believes that in many ways Narayanswamy Naidu can be called the real architect of BKU.

Narayanswamy Naidu decided to contest elections, and that was the end of the vibrant and powerful Tamil Nadu Farmers Association. Later, Sharad Joshi too decided to fight elections and he is now left without any followers.

Soon thereafter, Prof M D Nanjudaswamy emerged on the scene in Karnataka. Unlike Sharad Joshi and Narayanswamy Naidu who remained confined to farmers immediate problems of unavailability of electricity, and procurement prices, Nanjudaswamy led the campaign against WTO, and the imposition of genetically modified crops till his end came. He gave a new direction to the farmers' anger against the GM crops, knowing that GM would hit the sustainability of farming systems, contaminate the environment, and lead to seed monopolies.

Prof Nanjudaswamy formed the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha(KRRS). He was convinced that GM technology is part of the same package comprising the World Bank/IMF and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). He devoted his life to fighting for the cause of farmers' pride and their survival against the onslaught of the forces of globalisation that would drive away the farmers from their meagre land holdings.

He succeeded in linking the Indian farmers’ movement internationally. Probably the first farmers' leader from India to be recognized and respected abroad, he gave a new dimension to the farmers' struggle. He effectively used the collective power of the ever-growing anger among the farming communities. Whether it was uprooting Bt cotton plants, or laying a siege around Monsanto's office in Bangalore, or even ransacking the company's office, Prof Nanjudaswamy was always ready to brave the storm. Despite his frail posture, he was never afraid of the police batons nor did a possible jail term intimidate him into backtracking on his conviction.

Simultaneously with the rise of Prof Nanjudaswamy in Karnataka, the emergence of Chowdhury Mahender Singh Tikait of the BKU in Uttar Pradesh remains the golden period of the farm movements. Along with Tikait and Nanjudaswamy, Sunilam too was able to energise the small farmers in central India under the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti. But with the death of Prof Nanjudaswamy and the deteriorating health of Chowdhury Tikait, the farm movements have quietly slipped into oblivion. BKU meanwhile has split into several factions.

Except for a few localised agitations, farmer movement is crying for attention. Much of the decline can be attributed to the political ambitions of some of the stalwarts of the movements. This brings me to the moot question as to why farmers remain a quiet witness to the farm crisis. You can’t expect farmer leaders to call the shot when most of them are aspiring to be in Parliament or the State Assembly. There is nothing wrong in this, some would say. But the same political leaders, before whom the farmer leaders bow at the time of elections, surely give a damn to the farmers concerns when they are in power. 

The decline of the farmers’ movement is enabling some regional NGOs to emerge as the farmer’s voice. Some of them have done a remarkable job in highlighting farmer’s woes. At the same time, they have also helped explain and disseminate the negative impact of various international treaties and ongoing negotiations. But the problem is that whether we like it or not, most NGOs act as buffer to quell the anger that prevails at the grassroots. Given the nature of their establishment, it is difficult to expect the NGOs to clamour for change in a manner that it reflects the aspirations of the masses.

Still, not all is lost. I have a feeling that farmers’ anger and hope is not dead. The discontent is brewing, and is perhaps waiting for an honest leadership to lead the way. I can’t tell you when will that happen, but whenever that fire will spread it will change the face of Indian polity forever. Till then, you can only hope that someday someone will ignite the spark that will bring about a change, a change that may define the next course of India's history.

Oh father! Let my country awake!!

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