Sara Abraham interviews Pritam Singh
Sara Abraham: On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2020, the farmers at Tikri held up pictures of political prisoners who were in the jails of India. Today [Dec 10 2021], despite their victory over the Modi government, farmers are still occupying the protest site and demanding the release of political prisoners. Their powerful action demonstrates that the farmers are making connections between various struggles.
Dr. Pritam Singh: Yes, and one of the leading human rights activists and lawyers, Sudha Bharadwaj, was freed yesterday. Numerous other political intellectuals remain imprisoned.
SA: One of the most striking things besides the size of the farmers’ movement is its longevity – occupying the streets for a year. How many different organizations came together? How was it all held together – were there principles of unity? Were there divisions we never hear about?
PS: Thirty-two organizations from Panjab came together on the 5th of June 2020, the day the ordinance came out. They immediately recognized it was a massive attack on agriculture by agro-business corporations, making use of the COVID emergency. They immediately launched their agitation.
Then they realized that as these laws were not passed by Panjab government, there was no point in protesting in Panjab. Although they targeted institutions of the central government (like sitting on the railway tracks), the territory was in Panjab. They decided therefore to go to Delhi, and despite all the oppression that the Haryana government launched against the farmers they succeeded in reaching Delhi.
When they arrived, they were welcomed by the Haryana peasantry with open arms. This in itself was remarkable because there has been a history of conflict between Haryana and Panjab peasants, especially around water-sharing issues – and these conflicts are at least partly encouraged by the central government. But the Haryana peasantry could see that the Punjabi farmers were fighting for all peasants.
When the farmers’ organizations from other regions joined there were a total of 40 organizations, collectively called the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or shortened to SKM. [One of the largest farmers’ unions the BKU (Ugrahan) did not join the SKM but was present en masse at the Tikri protest site, and abided by the decisions made by the SKM.]
Unity in Diversity
There are several ideological – not differences – but viewpoints. These can be divided into three to four main ones.
About ten organizations are on the Left. Within the Left there are two tendencies:
One are the Left organizations in Panjab. In the past the majority have been in some way or the other inspired by Maoism or the Naxalite movement. But they aren’t on the path of armed struggle. They have realized that you need to work among the peasantry and build deep roots.
Second are those whose parent organizations are affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or to the CPI, the Communist Party of India.
The others are mostly pure economic organizations who have been in the field for many decades articulating demands of the peasantry. These demands are around rates of products and marketing, the availability of electricity, or its rates. The leader of one of these, Balbir Singh Rajewal, has emerged as the most articulate and well-informed peasant leaders from the entire 40 organizations.
Among the Sikhi groups there are two strands: first, those who are inspired by the Sikh traditions of egalitarianism and sharing with others. This strand, while inspired by Sikh traditions, saw working with non-Sikh farmer groups as a part of the Sikh tradition
Second are those Sikh activists who wanted to project the farmers’ struggle as a Sikh struggle. This strand’s attempt to appropriate the whole struggle by putting the narrative that it was a Sikh struggle tended to weaken cooperation and solidarity with other farmers’ organizations.
Those supporting the second strand remained as an isolated tendency and not part of the umbrella group of farmers organizations. They did contribute significantly to strengthening the farmers’ struggle but also sowed seeds of friction and negativity.
Outside Panjab the organizations are similarly economic, such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union from Uttar Pradesh. Some, like Yogendra Yadav, are affiliated with the old Socialist Party. This is an anti-communist socialist current in India that goes back to Jai Prakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia. While anti-Stalinist, they do not make a distinction between Stalinism and communism. They present themselves as anti-communist.
Despite these differences, they all realized that forcing the government to repeal the three farm laws and asking for the Minimum Support Price for sale of crops or MSP they were united.
They were also united around the supply of electricity [which should be for free] and stubble burning [as smog has been generated annually from the burning of rice stalk stubble, this led to the criminalization of farmers engaged in this activity, rather than supporting an alternative method of disposal].
It reflects the maturity of the farmers’ organizations that despite all the attempts by the government to create rifts between them, and although sometimes differences emerged, they did not break their unity.
If a leader made a mistake, then he would be suspended from the leadership for a few weeks. But his organization would not be.
For example, there was a rule that you should not meet with leaders from other political parties. This rule was made so that the movement was free from the control of political parties who might try to use it for their own narrow political agenda.
When one leader from Haryana did meet with a party, he was suspended from the organization’s leadership role. Similarly, when Yogendra Yadav expressed sympathy with some BJP (Modi’s ruling party) workers who were hurt during a conflict, farmers reacted angrily. He was asked to remain away for one month, and later allowed to return.
They managed differences in a very mature way. Even those who were temporarily punished understood there is no animosity against them or their organization.
SA: Your answer begs the question. Has this experience broken through ideological and historic divides in the Left? Will this movement contribute to reinvigorating a united Left? Is something new happening?
PS: Well, it is somewhere in-between. It’s neither that their old ideological divides will remain as they were, nor is it that they’re all going to merge into something new. The truth is that the two main communist parties – CPI and CPM – have been drawing closer together given that questions around China and Soviet Union don’t exist anymore.
But the fact that an organization has a leadership structure means that people have a vested interest in controlling the organization. That is the internal dynamism. That organizational dynamic becomes a hindrance, because if a new party is formed then the leadership structure will change and some who are in a leading position might not be in the new one.
But I think that the fact that they have engaged in so many conversations, they all understood that the fascist threat which BJP poses reduces their differences. Meanwhile, the government carries on the old propaganda of naming all activists as urban naxals and Naxalites (Maoist insurgents).
Yet, the Indian state also does differentiate between the Maoists and the CPI, CPM. One of the reasons is that CPI, CPM have been incorporated into the framework of Indian nationalism.
Gone are the days when the CPM leader Namboodiripad said that we’ll work within the framework to wreck the Constitution. The CPM has lost that kind of rebellion: the idea that India is “one nation” is common to the CPI and CPM.
But during the struggle the left forces all have talked to each other and old doubts and many misconceptions have been removed. I do see greater opportunity for them to come together.
It appears from the way the organizations are working that they respect each other. They respect their differences, and that is a remarkable cultural and political change. It’s possible that a Left platform might develop recognizing all the different currents within it.
Sikhs in the Struggle
SA: Tell us something about the Sikhi parties and the Sikhi leadership. Are they anti-Left, or just not Left?
PS: Among the Sikhi groups there are those who are inspired by the Sikh traditions of egalitarianism and sharing with others.
There are three main principles of Sikhi. One is “Kirat karo,” which means you should work. Second is “Vand Chhako,” which means that whatever you produce should be shared with others. Third is “Naam Japo,” that you should meditate and communicate with the divine.
The first two are close to the socialist tradition. They also critique those who earn their livelihood using the labor of others. Some of the old Left has a problem with Naam Japo but I interpret it as critical reflection – that is, you are not only a materialist being who’s laboring and producing, but you’re also a spiritual being who can develop critical reflections.
Some of the Sikh groups are inspired by these egalitarian traditions and can work with the Left. Yet some Left groups were sectarian and objected whenever it was said that the farmers’ movement is inspired by Sikh traditions and that Sikhs are its major force.
The strength did come from the Panjabi Sikh peasants. They were the driving force and their institutions worked very well to help the movement. But it would narrow the agenda to say that other currents didn’t matter and it is a Sikh movement full stop.
In the same way, some of the Hindu Gandhians tried to misappropriate the movement. They said, “Oh, look at this peaceful movement, this validates the Gandhian principle.” They don’t understand that Gandhi has no traction in Panjab.
Actually, the mention of Gandhi evokes a negative reaction. Gandhi had criticized the 10th Guru (Gobind Singh) who had taken up arms (in the late 17th century) against the Mughal rule by calling the Guru a misguided patriot and even when he was proved wrong, Gandhi did not apologize to the Sikh community. He showed his arrogance by not apologizing, partly because he was a leader of the majority Hindu community while Sikhs were such a minority.
During British rule there was a Land Alienation Act preventing non-agricultural castes from buying land. This was because land was being bought by Hindu money lenders and traders, whereas the peasants were primarily Sikhs and Muslims, and in the Haryana part of the old Punjab, non-upper caste Hindus. The British government was worried that if this land was taken away from the Sikh farmers, as they constituted the bulk of the British army, it would create dissent in the army.
Mahatma Gandhi opposed the Land Alienation Act. Upper caste Hindus who were traders and money lenders supported the Congress Party (led by Gandhi). That’s why in Haryana, Sir Chhotu Ram (an opponent of the Congress Party in pre-independence India) is a revered peasant leader while Gandhi doesn’t have any traction. There was never a poster of Gandhi put up in the movement, despite Yogendra Yadav and others who swear by Gandhi.
Gandhian ideologists don’t understand that the tradition of nonviolence among the Sikhs is deep and long. The fifth and ninth gurus were martyred and they put up a peaceful resistance.
But the Sikh ideology also says that when the time comes, after all methods have failed, you also have to take up the arms. They don’t fetishize non-violence the way Gandhi fetishized it. Nor do they valorize violence as such.
SA: This question has taken us back 100 years in a flash. Is this particular tradition of struggle 100-150 years old at least?
PS: Yes, absolutely. The bonds between the peasantry in Panjab and Haryana are more than 100 years old.
SA: In a very utilitarian way, do you think the history mattered in helping this movement flower? We know there’s a history, but did that history actually matter?
PS: History mattered. Sir Chhotu Ram is a common symbol of peasant unity. Sir Chhotu Ram was a Jat leader from Haryana. [Jats is a dominant caste group.] He had organized the Hindu peasantry, and the Hindu Jat farmers against the money lenders and the traders. Sir Chhotu Ram is equally respected in the Panjab.
Bringing up Sir Chhotu Ram was an expression of the historical unity which existed within the peasantry of the different regions. In terms of the social force in this movement, the Jat Sikh peasantry and the Hindu Jat peasantry of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh were the main forces.
They had that common bond: once upon a time we struggled against money lenders and traders. Today’s agro-business corporations are a multiplied and international form of them. That feeling of unity was there.
SA: Did the leadership evoke the name of Sir Chhotu Ram from the stage?
PS: Of course. Sir Chhotu Ram was visibly present all the time. And of course Bhagat Singh.
SA: So this was also an anti-colonial, anti-neocolonizers kind of struggle.
PS: Yes, the leadership pointed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as being behind these market reforms. But this neocolonialism did not lead to the emergence of narrow Indian nationalism due to the Maoist currents who do not go along that kind of Indian nationalism.
SA: What is the format for decision making? Was it done in mass meetings (Maha Panchayats)?
PS: No, no. The decision-making was done through the SKM, the conglomeration of 40 organizations. They had identified a leadership of seven or eight leaders who regularly met and made a decision.
The Maha Panchayat is an old institution where the peasantry, not in Panjab but in Haryana and UP, meet together. It’s a kind of community collective. It was rejuvenated, especially after the 26th of January [an incident that threatened a massacre, discussed below].
There was a fear then that the movement might be torpedoed by the government so it became a powerful counterforce. One Maha Panchayat in Muzaffarpur attracted, according to some calculations 500,000 people. They started having one after the other in Haryana and Panjab also.
You can’t make decisions where five lakh [500,000] people are together. Decisions are taken in advance and announced at the meeting, where the leadership seeks validation.
Forging Relations of Equality
SA: What new relationships were established through the struggle – that is, beyond the Left, Sikhi, Haryana and Panjab, what about other communities? Amandeep Sandhu has written about the Dalit (so-called “untouchable”) community, the women and the diasporic communities.
PS: First looking at the Dalits. It was an amazing aspect of this movement that the difference between landowners and the landless was abolished during the struggle. There were frictions here and there but by and large, the landless organizations – for example, the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Samiti, which fights for land for the landless people – actively supported the struggle for two reasons.
One, they knew that if agrobusiness corporations come, there would be large-scale mechanization. There would be farms of 400-500 acres and with mechanization they would be unemployed. They saw that these corporations were not only going to take away land from the landowners, whether small or big, but displace us by machines. It is in our interest to defeat these laws.
Secondly, Dalit workers also found commonalities due to Left-wing organizing. There was a common united leadership, which worked both among the landowners as well as among the landless, and even among the small landowners, who own two to five acres, and are almost semi-proletarians. Encouraged by the leadership, they joined the struggle.
Another factor contributing to Dalit participation was a sense amog them that this farmers’ movement was breaking down caste barriers at the protest site: toilets are being cleaned by upper-caste Jats, roads and streets are being swept by Jat Sikhs who otherwise would not do those jobs.
Especially in the langar (the community kitchens) you are always equal. There was a sense of being treated equally and with respect.
As far as women are concerned, both the Sikh and Left traditions value women’s roles. They encouraged their participation and although the women were not in the Coordinating Committee, they were sometimes the main speakers. They handled the media distribution, especially the digital network.
Women taught classes for children, they provided medical services. They were given prominence deliberately by the leadership. They were not brushed aside. Women also found that the patriarchal division of labor was breaking down, that men are cooking food, men are cleaning utensils.
There was one very moving portrait given by a woman journalist. An old man with his family was cooking the meal. He asked her, “Why don’t you come and have a meal?” So she sat down as he was making chapattis (bread) and ate. Then she wanted to wash the dishes but he said, “No, no, no, no, you’re not going to wash dishes, I am going to wash the dishes, you do what you have to do.”
The farmer understood that she’s a journalist, and that is equally important for us. Although she came from a middle-class urban background, she had never experienced this kind of equality before.
As far as the diaspora is concerned, there are a few very important dimensions. One is that over the last few decades, the sons and daughters of the Panjab peasantry have become senior academics in different parts of the world.
I’m not the only one. Like me, there are others who have roots in the Panjab peasantry but who now occupy important academic positions at Oxford, Cambridge, London, Copenhagen, New York, Vancouver.
We were at the forefront in confronting these laws at an intellectual level. We confronted the agro-business corporations’ economists and the pro-government economists, debated them in the newspapers and TV. We rebutted their arguments everywhere.
We exchanged views and supported each other as we were writing articles, seeking information, and listening to each other’s presentations. Informally, there was a network, and the majority had grandparents who were farmers. This was an entirely different intellectual layer, an asset which the peasantry of previous generations did not have.
At the beginning pro-government and pro-agrobusiness corporations were full of confidence that the agriculture market reforms were good, but they lost their self-confidence because we questioned them on every issue – whether it was their assertions that this would double the income of the farmer, provide a workable method of dispute resolution, provide an adequate minimum support price through the market mandate and lead to an adequate minimum wage and better food security.
Secondly, diaspora Panjabis have become active in the political life in Western countries. One Labour Party member of the UK Parliament is Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, whose grandparents were farmers. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, he made brilliant speeches about the farmers. He mobilized several MPs and forced the government to have a discussion on the issue in the House of Commons.
For the first time a so-called Indian issue was discussed, and this despite the Tory government being pro-BJP.
SA: What was Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi demanding?
PS: That we should condemn the Indian government for using repressive measures. He understood that merely saying that market reforms are bad is not going to work. He knew that many Tory government spokesmen and even many pro-business newspapers, including the Financial Times, were not critical of the market reforms but focused on the Modi government’s repression.
There were demonstrations in support of the farmers in British different cities. The more people learned, the more supportive they were. English farmers, for example, were solidly behind the farmers’ movement. Sometime an individual farmer would put up a flag.
I was asked once by Oxford students to give a lecture in a park in support of the farmers. Some farmers from the local area joined even though they had not even been invited.
This international solidarity which emerged was amazing. I was asked by a French newspaper to write an article and the same article was translated into Spanish. Farmers in different countries were suffering from economic conditions, and the movement of Indian farmers led to discussions about whether the old economic model of agriculture to industry to services is something which we should accept uncritically. In the era of global climate change small farming is important.
The fourth arena where the diaspora responded was in sending funds to the movement.
Community of Care
SA: How did the langars operate? They must have required massive funding to go on for 300-400 days of feeding thousands of people.
PS: The langar is a very old, well-established institution. For example, in the Golden Temple every day 100,000 people get free food and on important days, 200,000. This has continued without interruption. Many poor people come and eat. They’re not Sikhs and they don’t know anything about Sikhism.
There is an accumulated experience about how to run the langar. It requires a whole arrangement: how to get the raw food, how to process and distribute it, how to clean up. The diaspora provided critical support for buying materials.
The government was rattled by this operation and deported one very rich Sikh American when all he was doing was funding the langar. Obviously, that act provoked criticism because the langar is our tradition. You are hitting at our religious tradition of supporting the langar.
Many times during industrial workers’ strikes, after one or two months, when wages are not coming in, children are hungry at home, and women face tremendous difficulties, morale starts breaking down. What the langar did was assure farmers there would be a continuous supply of food.
You might have difficulty in the summer. There might be mosquitoes, they might bite you. In winter you might have terrible weather and have to bear all the discomfort. When the rain comes, your makeshift arrangement is demolished and you have to start again – but you will have food.
Therefore, the fact that there was a continuous supply of food kept the morale up; no one went hungry. The government understood that the way these people are organizing the langar they would be able to carry on if necessary until the 2024 General Election.
The langar also provided something else, that many poor communities including agricultural and industrial workers from the surrounding areas would come and eat too. That created good will with surrounding communities.
Sometimes middle-class employees working in Delhi would come to the langar, eat and then go to their job. So the langar became an alternative culture, overcoming caste and gender barriers as men were cooking, distributing, supporting.
A few people from the diaspora who were doctors, engineers and technicians left their jobs or took a long leave and settled at the protest site. There are people who came from Dubai, a doctor from America. Many times farmers dug a few wells at the protest site to provide enough water, in other cases local communities gave them water.
SA: I hear also 400 songs were composed on the struggle. The musical community of the Panjabi diaspora, as well as the Panjabi musicians in India, got to work as well.
PS: Yes. I think that’s very, very important. I don’t know singers from the UK who supported the movement but Panjab-based singers like Kanwar Grewal, who is a Sufi singer and sings in the Sikh and Muslim Sufi tradition, became extremely popular. Others there who became household names, including Punjabis in Bollywood (the Indian film industry).
SA: The music would have been more important for the younger generation to connect with the movement.
PS: Yes, they don’t want to listen to speeches all the time. This music led to the mushrooming of many young people composing and singing songs at the protest site. Many 9- and 10-year old boys and girl sang or recited poetry.
Another amazing thing was the involvement of the children in Panjab, as I am sure it is in Haryana as well. I have a niece who lives in a palatial house in Panjab. She told me about a conversation with her nine-year-old son, who studies in an expensive private school. He told his mother, “Mommy, I feel very upset sleeping at night. I keep on thinking about the farmers. How it must be so difficult.”
She realized that although she had never talked to him about the farmers, he had been listening. He understood that “they” are a part of “us.”
Mothers were telling their sons, “You have to go to the Morcha.” They’re telling their husbands, “Don’t sit at home. Go to Delhi.”
Normally, they are protective. You want to protect your son or husband from joining a political movement. There might be risk of arrest, but here women were telling them, “Don’t sit at home. We have to go there.”
Similarly, the children here in the diaspora, those who born and brought up here and who go to Panjab maybe once a year or every two years, all of them are thoroughly involved.
In my neighborhood in the UK, the daughter of a Sikh family is in the first year at the university. On 26th of January, she stayed awake the whole night because she wanted to follow what was happening. The next day she was bombarding me with questions. Her mother told me that that is the only thing what she does these days is to read about the struggle.
The Panjabi farmers coined this word – hond – that is an attack on our existence. It is not simply land which is being taken away. It is our culture, it’s our traditions. If we lose the land, we will lose the memory of our grandparents who toiled on this land. It is a question of existence. It’s an existential crisis, which was very powerful.
SA: Amita Baviskar and Michael Levein [(2021), “Farmers’ protests in India:
introduction to the JPS Forum,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 48:7, 1341-1355] have argued that the farmers were not just fighting about agriculture, and they were not just speaking about themselves.
After all, earlier peasants’ movements also raised the same economic issues and demands. But now there is a new conjuncture. The farmers are reacting to the majoritarian agenda, the Hindu religious agenda and the corporate agenda. The fact that the farmers had the laws to talk about gave them a target but it was as much about opposing the new economic model of India. In that sense, they want to say it was not just about the agriculture. This was a struggle that worked on multiple levels.
PS: I would say that the farmers became aware of the new economic model because of the attack on agriculture. There was a learning process – they could directly see that these agribusiness corporations are going to take over land, so we are going to fight, we’re not going to sit back. The farm workers united with them out of the same realization that they too would lose from the entry of the corporations.
Then they started to understand that there is a larger agenda of WTO, which is neoliberal economic reforms, which is what the BJP is about. Some also understood the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) aspect of this as well.
This knowledge developed out of having participated in the struggle, because of the attack on agriculture. It did not start from first understanding the neoliberal agenda and opposing it, but from their concrete experience of opposing the agrarian laws.
SA: What connections were made between Panjab and the rest of India?
PS: That is a very good question. The perception about Sikhs has undergone a dramatic change. For a long period of time, especially after Operation Blue Star (a bloody military assault in June, 1984 on Sikh militants occupying the Golden Temple in Amritsar), the projected image of the Sikhs was that they are terrorist, militant, violent, anti-Hindu, this and that.
Sikh organizations had difficulty in countering that view because the Indian state’s media network is so powerful. That was true under the Congress government as well.
The Congress government also indulged in this exercise and their foreign embassies participated as well. This movement for the first time represented what I will say is the true color of Sikhism. People became aware of the traditions of solidarity, of giving langar to everyone, of being supportive and also of being peaceful.
SA: Also highly intelligent.
PS: Highly intelligent, exactly. Making jokes about Sikhs being brainless people must have suffered a big setback. The fact that Sikhs continuously emphasized the need for peaceful struggle led to a feeling of goodwill among the general Hindu population.
Muslims were never opposed to the Sikhs. It is the upper caste Hindus who had been dipped into anti-Sikh sentiments. A large number were disabused of that impression.
Sikh organizations also got a different view of the Hindu people because in Panjab, they see some upper caste Panjabi Hindus opposing Panjabi. They found that the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh Hindu farmers were not like that. Hindus are not anti-Sikh.
Also, people came from the city. Journalists and filmmakers who gave accurate reports reinforced the feeling of goodwill. It was mutual and actively created. Farmers’ organizations obviously played a very important role but one farmer, Rakesh Tikait from Uttar Pradesh was central.
January 26 Incident
I would put it as: On the 26th of January, some Sikh groups went and put a Sikh flag on one pole in the Red Fort area. It was not put on the designated pole where the national tricolour is hoisted, but on a pole much below that designated pole. It was a non-event.
The pro-government media (popularly and sarcastically called godi media i.e. lapdog media) overplayed it, saying it was an insult to the national flag. Through this media narrative, it looked like the government was developing a strategy to whip up anti-Sikh feelings and perhaps, repeat the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs, and thus derail the whole struggle.
BJP activists, backed by the police, came to the Ghazipur site that had the fewest farmers and were prepared to eject them. While other entrances were guarded by thousands and thousands of people, Ghazipur had only hundreds.
Tikait was the leader at that site. Although a Hindu, he had major support from the Jat Sikh farmers in UP who were on guard. The Jat Sikhs told him that if he surrendered and was arrested, they would be massacred. Overwhelmed by hearing that the people were prepared to stand by him, but would face death if he were merely arrested, he broke down and began to cry.
TV cameras caught the dramatic moment. As soon as the TV showed the scene, Jat peasantry in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana was outraged. Within hours, thousands of farmers flocked to that site, and the government’s plan to launch this massacre was defeated.
SA: You think a massacre was planned at the protest site?
PS: No one can prove that there was a planned strategy, but the circumstantial evidence points to what they were trying to do.
People traveled from their villages and surrounded the site. That was a big turning point in the movement. That’s how Rakesh Tikait became a hero.
Tikait belongs to a farmers’ organization, the Bharatiya Kisan Union.
In the previous election, the BJP was able to create a wedge between Muslim Jats and the Hindu Jats in Western Uttar Pradesh. Hindu Jats attacked some of the Muslim Jats. There were riots even in the villages. In the past, this wasn’t the case.
But now they have established a new solidarity with the Muslim Jats. Muzaffarpur, the whole Western Uttar Pradesh area, is a new place culturally, and politically. Solidarity has been built up between the Hindu Jats and the Muslim Jats through this struggle.
Against the Current