Indian Farmers’ Unions Block Roads to Bolster Democracy

*By Claire Trilling
Time Period: June 2020 – December 2021
Location: India (Punjab & Delhi)
Main Actors: Farm Unions, organized under the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (“United Farmers’ Front”)
Protest camps, nonviolent occupation, sit-ins
Declarations of indictment and intention, slogans, caricatures, and symbols, public speeches, chanting, live streaming, banners, posters, and other displayed communications
Haunting or bird dogging officials, fraternization

The Indian Farmers’ Protests were sparked by the introduction of three Farm Bills in the Indian Parliament in June 2020 and accelerated by their passage in September 2020. The bills were advanced by the Hindu nationalist government led by President Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After winning the 2014 elections, the BJP government began to systematically undermine democratic institutions, degrade citizenship rights for religious minorities, and limit civil liberties. The passage of the Farm Bills was yet another anti-democratic move as the government refused to consult farm unions and circumvented usual legislative procedure to sidestep dissent. The bills significantly cut back government involvement in the agricultural section and gave private corporations greater influence over sales and pricing. They also did not include any of the provisions recommended to protect small farms, triggering concerns among farming communities and making them deeply unpopular in a country where over half of the labor force works in agriculture.

Organized resistance to the Farm Bills began in the northwestern state of Punjab. After the bill’s introduction, union activists translated the text into Punjabi and distributed it across the state, which generated widespread outrage and spurred local protests. The farm unions in Punjab gradually coordinated the protests in their region and reached out to farm leaders in the nearby states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In September, 32 farm unions across Punjab came together to organize a nonviolent movement demanding the bills’ repeal. Their first major campaign was called the Rail Roko (“Stop the Trains”). Participants occupied railroad tracks and toll plazas on major roads to disrupt daily transit. In one case, farmers dug up a helipad that a state minister was set to land on. Actions also included sit-ins outside the houses of prominent political leaders. In response to the campaign, several state-level BJP officials resigned, and one local political party withdrew from the BJP’s parliamentary coalition. However, the campaign failed to win any concessions from the national government.

On November 7th, 2020, roughly 300 farmers’ organizations from across India met in the capital, Delhi, to discuss how to escalate their campaign. The meeting resulted in a shared set of demands and the establishment of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organization of farm unions tasked with coordinating action nationally. The SKM initiated the second major campaign of the movement, called Dili Chalo, Dera Dalo (“Let’s go to Delhi and Sit There”). Soon after, farmers from several provinces began the march on Delhi. Organized by local unions and coordinated nationally under the SKM, the farmers brought tractors to remove police blockades when needed and ultimately merged into four large marches that converged on the city’s four main entry points on November 25th. Although they were met by police barriers, tear gas, and water cannons, an estimated 150,000-300,000 farmers set up protest camps on each of the four highways. On November 26th, the SKM organized a 24-hour nationwide solidarity strike with the farmers that drew millions of participants. 

The government began negotiations with the farm unions on December 3rd in response to the building pressure. The talks went through several rounds, with the farmers threatening to drive tractors into the capital at one point in order to force concessions from the government. On January 12, 2021, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the Farm Bills. However, the farm unions refused to accept anything less than the full withdrawal of the laws due to concerns that partial measures would a) fail to adequately address the bills’ harms, and b) fragment the movement. Because of this, talks with the government had largely reached a stalemate by late January.

Throughout this period, the protest camps around Delhi remained well-organized. The farm unions and their allies provided meals, medical supplies, clothes, and other basic services to the tens of thousands of participants. They also organized rallies, music performances, and games, among other events. Local unions coordinated with towns and villages to maintain a rotation system that allowed farmers to take turns returning to their homes without diminishing the overall numbers in Delhi. Camp participants also set up multiple YouTube channels, social media accounts, and a newspaper to spread their own narrative of events in the face of government slander. Outside Delhi, the SKM organized regular day-long strikes and local demonstrations to demonstrate that the protest camp still had widespread support.

The movement faced a crisis in late January when a march into the city devolved into clashes with police. The SKM had reached an agreement with police to hold the march on Republic Day (one of India’s main national holidays), but miscommunication about the route and disregard by several break-away farm unions resulted in one segment of the march storming a historic fort. There and in several other parts of the city, police responded with violence, leading to clashes, arrests, and one casualty. To demonstrate their commitment to nonviolence, the SKM convinced protesters to withdraw from the city and denounced the groups that had diverged from the planned march route. However, the government seized on the event to claim that the movement had been hijacked by extremists and attempted to crack down on the protest camps. The farmers were saved by their supporters back in the villages, who mobilized thousands of people to converge on the sites, forcing the government to withdraw the police. 

The farmers’ movement maintained the Delhi protest camps, as well as organizing regular rallies and strikes, throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 2021. The SKM sent protesters to the national parliament in Delhi daily and supported campaigns against BJP candidates in several regional elections. Keeping the focus on their core set of shared demands, the farm unions demonstrated organization, discipline, and commitment despite the ethnic and religious diversity in the movement. With the SKM facilitating broader movement unity, individual unions effectively kept their own members informed and organized. The decentralized leadership structure also ensured that government attempts to arrest leaders did not disrupt movement activities. 

On November 19, 2021, President Modi announced the government’s intention to repeal the Farm Bills. While the sudden turnabout was likely triggered by the BJP’s concerns about upcoming elections in agriculture-heavy states, the farmers’ movement made themselves into a political force that the government couldn’t sideline or ignore. The participants had proven that they were willing and able to sustain their campaign and maintain public support in the face of repression, extreme weather, and COVID-19. On December 11, The SKM declared an official end to the protests after the Farm Bills were formally repealed by Parliament. The protest camps in Delhi were dismantled, and the tens of thousands of participating farmers returned to their homes.

The farmers’ movement in India provides several lessons for pro-democracy organizers. First is the power of protest tactics that disrupt without violence. The farmer’s blockade of Delhi was high-profile and impossible to ignore, with a greater impact than simple protest marches because it directly interfered with the government’s capacity to continue business as usual. Yet the government was hesitant to crack down on it because the SKM was careful to maintain and broadcast its commitment to a nonviolent blockade, and condemned extremists who deviated from the campaign’s nonviolent character. 

Tactics that are nonviolent yet highly disruptive could be similarly effective in the US context to counter potential moves to undermine American democracy. Second is the importance of building an organizational infrastructure that bridges differences. Participants in the farmer’s movement came from many different backgrounds, spoke many different languages, and adhered to many different religions. The intentional leadership of the SKM and its commitment to a shared set of core objectives enabled this diverse group to join forces and present a unified front in negotiations with the government, as well as to meet the significant logistical demands of maintaining a year-long major blockade and protest camp.

Where to Learn More
– Gettleman, Jeffrey, Karan Keep Singh, and Hari Kumar. “Angry Farmers Choke India’s Capital in Giant Demonstrations.” New York Times, November 30, 2020.
– Gill, Sucha. 2022. “From Disunity to Unity: Organization, Mobilization Strategies & Achievements of the Recent Farmers’ Movement in Punjab.” In Agrarian Reform & Farmer Resistance in Punjab, edited by Shinder Sing Thandi. London: Routledge India. 
– Mujib, Mashal and Karan Deep Singh. “In the cold and rain, India’s farmers press their stand against Modi.” New York Times, January 9, 2021. 
– Moudgil, Manu. “India’s farmers’ protests are about more than reform – they are resisting the corporate takeover of agriculture.” Waging Nonviolence, February 16, 2021. 
– Shankar, Shivam and Anand Venkatanarayanan. “The Anatomy of a Successful Protest, or How the Farmers Won Their Fight.” The Wire, November 23, 2021.

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