Land, agriculture, and dispossession in India: A comparative look at the ongoing farmers’ protests and the anti-SEZ movement

From a social science perspective, farmers’ movements are interesting because they bring the churnings in the agrarian political economy into a particularly clear light. They index the changing political economy of the state, and they define new and generative spaces for creating new solidarities and collectivities, for imagining new futures, for developing new ideas about social justice, and for rethinking the relationship between law and popular sovereignty. For this reason, the ongoing farmers’ protests in India have attracted considerable attention from scholars as well as activists and journalists across the globe. In this piece, I seek to add to this already considerable literature by applying a comparative perspective to the current farmers’ protests and bringing them into conversation with earlier movements in India. While I focus especially on a comparison with the anti-SEZ and anti-dispossession movements of the first decade of this millennium, I begin by briefly looking at the so-called new farmers’ movements (NFM) that emerged in parts of India during the 1970s and 1980s. 


The NFM posited the ‘Bharat versus India’ distinction as a new primary contradiction, as they mobilised to protect the interests of an ostensibly united rural ‘Bharat’ against an exploitative, statist, industrialised and bureaucratised urban ‘India’. There are compelling reasons for drawing parallels between the NFM and the current farmers’ protests, and – as many scholars and commentators have already shown – doing so certainly reveals both interesting continuities and some telling discontinuities. Some of the key actors leading the protests both then and now are the same – this includes most notably the Bharatiya Kisan Union, still under the leadership of the Tikait family, as in the old days. And similarly, as one might expect from looking back to the 1980s, the Shetkari Sanghathana that always favoured enhanced market access for farmers are conspicuously absent from the current protests.

Geographically speaking, the “strongholds” or bastions of the NFM and the current protests do not entirely overlap, but they do overlap to some extent. While Karnataka and Maharashtra were important terrain for the NFM, the current protests are rooted predominantly in the north Indian Jat belt stretching across Western UP and Punjab (also bastions of the NFM), as well as Haryana – that is, the heartlands of India’s green revolution.

The demands of the NFM and the current farmers’ protestors are also comparable, at least if we view them at a sufficient level of abstractions. This includes the demand for fair and supportive conditions of agricultural production, and for equitable terms of trade in and remunerative prices for agricultural produce. Even the mobilising slogan of kisan mazdoor ekta zindabad (long live the unity between farmers and workers) that has become so audible in the current protests has been around for a while.

And last but not least, both the NFM and the current protests have spawned critical debates within academia and beyond about agrarian populism and the role of caste and class in shaping agrarian politics – in other words, about all the stuff of everyday life that is hidden beneath slogans like kisan mazdoor ekta zindabad. In the 1980s and 1990s, debates raged over whether one could describe the NFM as essentially kulak lobbies, or rich peasant organisations, or whether they truly represented all agrarian castes and classes, as they claimed to do. Similar debates about agrarian populism have resurfaced at the current conjuncture. On the one hand we have BJP spokespersons alleging that the protests today are led by a class of neo-rich farmers-cum-commission-agents who are making a killing at the cost of taxpayers, while the average farmer continues to fight for existence. This is a quote from Balbir Punj, the national vice president of the BJP, in the Indian Express. And on the other hand, we have agrarian sociologists reflecting on how and to what extent more or less antagonistic agrarian groups across classes, castes and gender are currently coming closer, building a broader base for popular agitation. Shreya Sinha’s writings on the Punjab, for example, is a wonderful illustration of this.

The Anti-SEZ movements and the Urgency of Protest

Such comparisons are in many respects illuminating and generative, and well worth making. Here, however, I would like to suggest an alternative comparison, namely with the anti-SEZ and anti-dispossession movements that emerged in many parts of India with particular force around 2005. These movements have been the focus of my own research, and the comparison may offer productive insights into the very different politico-economic context of today, compared to the 1980s.

First, both the anti-SEZ movements and the current farmers’ protests were triggered by specific union laws that farmers feared would have far-reaching, immediate, and overwhelmingly negative consequences. Unlike the NFM of the 1970s and 1980s that were generally more concerned with an ongoing struggle over the terms of trade between agriculture and industry, and the extent of state support and subsidies, both the anti-SEZ movements and the current farmers’ protests are necessarily characterized by a higher degree of urgency – a sense that action is needed urgently in the here and how, to stave off a particularly grave and immediate threat. When farmers were being forcibly dispossessed of their land for SEZs or similar projects in the 2000s, they found that they had only a relatively short window of opportunity to save their land. Once the land was gone, hopes of getting it back were slim. Land was often lost for good, and even when movements appeared to “succeed” in fighting dispossession, land was often very difficult to reclaim. We have seen this, for example, in the case of land acquired for the Tata Motors factory in Singur in West Bengal in 2006. Even though Tata abandoned their factory in 2008, only a fraction of the land has since been sufficiently converted back to productive farmland. Similarly, in Goa, land granted to SEZs was embroiled in legal controversy for well over a decade  after the SEZ policy was officially scrapped, and is yet to be put to other uses. With urgency came confrontational mobilisation, violence and, eventually, state repression.

Even though the current farm laws  that the protests are directed against do not operate with forcible, state-led acquisition of farmers’ land, many farmers clearly fear the indirect, market-driven form of land dispossession that is likely to follow from these laws. Hence, we see in the current movement a similar kind of urgency when it comes to protesting swiftly and forcefully – not against adverse terms of trade, but against the spectre of future dispossession. State repression has been visible too. Paramilitary troops have been deployed, water cannons and tear gas used, and a veritable war of misinformation waged in the media. 

The Missing Debate

The specific laws that triggered both the anti-SEZ movement and the current protests were, tellingly, passed swiftly and with very little parliamentary debate – although, again, for slightly different reasons. The law on SEZs from 2005 enjoyed widespread support from most parties in the Lok Sabha so that little debate was needed to have it passed. The exception was the left parties who were critical. But the fact that the CPI(M) in West Bengal in practice endorsed the SEZ policy from early on partly muted criticism. As for the new farm laws, they came into being as ordinances last summer. A few months later, the clear parliamentary majority enjoyed by the BJP allowed it to work through its preferred mode of law-making and not bother with much parliamentary debate before the bills were passed into law through voice vote.

Yet in spite of smooth passage through parliament, the protests that ensued in both cases – the SEZ policy, and the farm laws – clearly shows how key stakeholders and affected groups were sidelined and decoupled from the decision making fora in which far-reaching laws were formulated and passed. If we return to Pranab Bardhan’s classic formulation of India’s three dominant proprietary classes, we can see this as indexing a declining role for India’s farmers – even for rich farmers – within this class coalition, at the expense of industrial capitalists in particular. This trend was arguably already evident during the heyday of the NFM; but the anti-sez movement and the current farmers’ protests show how this process has greatly accelerated. The shift from the crumbling late-Nehruvian state that was the target of the NFM, to a decidedly neoliberal state, is now complete.

Varieties of Neoliberalism

Within this overall change to the political economy of the Indian state, however, the comparison made here also makes visible important nuances. To put it simply, while both the UPA and the current Modi government pursued neoliberal policies, they did so in different ways. Alf Nilsen has called the policies of the UPA an inclusive neoliberalism  – we might also have used the term rollout neoliberalism – where a partially protective institutional scaffolding is erected and certain redistributive measures pursued, in order to sustain the expansion of private accumulation. This inclusive neoliberalism was also a more accommodating form of neoliberalism that was at least partially attentive to popular demands whenever these escalated and threatened to destabilize capital accumulation, as was the case with Singur, Nandigram, Vedanta, POSCO, and so on. The UPA scrapped the SEZ policy; and later, it introduced new legislation on land acquisition and rehabilitation which, although not pro-farmer, at least ceded to some of their demands.

In contrast, the current Modi government has shown time and again that it rather adheres to what we may call roll-over neoliberalism, associated with authoritarianism and illiberalism. Examples are legion, and the current farmers’ movement is no exception. And while the farm laws may well have been suspended for the time being, there is no indication that they will be withdrawn. 

Justificatory Rhetoric and the Post-Agrarian

Let us look at the political rhetoric used to justify the SEZ policy and the new farm laws. The current government speaks of liberating the farmer; setting him free; or unshackling him. Indicatively, the justificatory language used for SEZs by the then West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya during the Singur and Nandigram movements was not much different. Bhattacharya spoke of using SEZs to “reach the fruits of development” to the deprived; “wipe the tears of the people”, and “bring a smile to the farmers’ face”. He even asked rhetorically: “should the son of a farmer always remain a farmer?”, implying that better futures could only be found outside agriculture. And farmers and activists who opposed the SEZ policy were derogatorily dismissed as Luddities and Narodniks. Today, critics are dismissed sometimes as “neo-rich farmers-cum-commission-agents”, but more often as Khalistanis, Naxalites, or part of a global conspiracy to defame India. While the language of delegitimation then and now is thus comparable, the language used by the current dispensation arguably does not stop at defamation, but actively criminalizes dissent.

The official justificatory rhetoric around the SEZs and the farm laws also point to a relatively clear post-agrarian orientation in policy. As Jens Lerche provocatively said recently at a seminar on the farmers’ protests organized by Ashoka University and the Journal of Peasant Studies, from the point of view of the central government, India simply doesn’t need its farmers anymore. The post-agrarian is what matters. What is noteworthy, however, is that strong popular opposition notwithstanding, we often find similar post-agrarian aspirations on the ground, among many Indian farmers, big, small, and marginal alike. Satendra Kumar has shown this brilliantly in his work on the Jats in Western UP, where things have changed dramatically since the heyday of the NFM in the 1980s. The kisan identity, or farmer identity, that was such a potent mobilizing trope for the NFM has considerably declined. This decline of the kisan identity over many decades brought a generation of upwardly mobile Jats into new occupations and new urban economies, and away from farming. A comparable development has happened in Bengal among the middle peasantry that I worked with more than a decade ago. Here, many “farmers” looked to the city as a way out of agriculture and into a better future. And none of this is unique to UP or Bengal. As Jostein Jakobsen and myself have argued recently, many rural Indians harbour decidedly post-agrarian aspirations, in which farming figures only marginally, if at all.

Yet there is a fundamental disconnect between those at the top who use the language of post-agrarian aspirations to justify neoliberal policies, and those farmers on the ground who have to actually navigate the difficult and treacherous path to meaningful post-agrarian lives. In the SEZ context, Mike Levien writes from Gujarat about how the threat of land dispossession made the younger generation of more or less “reluctant farmers” acutely aware of the security that some ties to agricultural land provided them. In other words, the threat of land dispossession made the advantages of remaining in a semi-proletarian condition starkly visible, compared to a situation of being fully dispossessed and fully proletarianized: Retaining at least some land gave villagers a base from which to build a better future. At the current conjuncture, as Satendra Kumar writes from Western UP, the waning of urban economic opportunities, the hard impact of the Covid crisis, and the fear that the farm laws will in the not too distant future rob them of whatever farmland they have left, have similarly reminded Jat youth of the security embedded in ties to the land, spurring the resistance to the farm laws.

In Conclusion

My two final comparisons are of a more counterfactual nature. Arguably, both the SEZ movements and the current farmers’ protests are defensive movements. They emerged to defend what farmers value and what they hold dear. At the very least, the SEZ movement succeeded in exposing SEZs for what they were, namely state-facilitated attempts at redistributing landed wealth upwards. Sometimes, they even succeeded in preventing forcible land acquisitions from going ahead so that land remained with the farmers. What they didn’t do – and indeed, this is something that one cannot and should not expect defensive movements fighting on the backfoot to do – was to address a key problem that still haunts rural India, namely the insufficiency and unpromising nature of exit routes from agriculture. We still do not know where the defensive struggle of the current farmers’ protests will take us. But even if the farm laws are eventually repealed, key challenges for Indian agriculture will remain – challenges that are both economic and ecological, and which will require attention no matter what.

Let me conclude by turning to the very last page of Mike Levien’s monograph Dispossession without Development referred to above . Here Levien notes that anti-dispossession movements exhibit almost every single weakness that one can attribute to social movements. They are defensive; single-issue focused; ephemeral and ad-hoc in organization; ambiguous in class; and promiscuous in ideology. But in spite of all this, they are also, collectively, the single largest obstacle to neoliberal capitalism in India. I cannot claim to know the current farmers’ protests intimately enough to comment authoritatively on any weaknesses that they may exhibit, although I note that they have, from different quarters, been criticised for being both patriarchal and casteist. In spite of this, however, they arguably represent perhaps the most important obstacle to the further neoliberalisation of Indian agriculture.

This article is a revised version of a presentation given at the online international conference on the farmers’ protests, a pioneering field for the social sciences, hosted by OP Jindal Global University and partners, 14-15 May 2021.

Av Kenneth Bo Nielsen
Publisert 19. mai 2021 14:52 - Sist endret 19. mai 2021 14:52
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This blog disseminates activities and research rendering visible ideas, conflicts, frictions and movements taking place in so-called “rural areas” of the world. The blog is produced by the research group Rural transformations in the new century. Read more about our blog here.