by Ellen Isaacs
February 23, 2021
The largest strike in history, a truly awe-inspiring struggle, has been underway in India since September 2020. Over 250 million farmers and other workers from finance, transport, steel, energy and power, health care, communications, ports and docks have participated in this ongoing uprising(1). It is a response to policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that aim to increase the control of private corporations over the Indian economy and decrease the income and rights of workers. Where, we must ask, will this struggle lead?
Two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people make their living from agriculture, and 86% of them own plots of less than 5 acres. Since the 1970s, there have been farm regulations called mandis that have provided a safety net for farmers under which they sold their produce to licensed middlemen with subsidies and price guarantees. Not a firm net, for “liberalization” by several recent governments has increased the costs of farm equipment and fuel, which have suppressed farmers’ output and increased their debt. Smaller revolts in 2016, 2018 and 2019 were forcibly suppressed by the government.
Farmers are demanding the repeal of three new laws that reduce the role of middlemen and encourage large corporations to deal directly with farmers, without the previous price protections, and deny farmers any redress in the courts. These changes are being touted as an increase in freedom, while they actually remove all earning guarantees to farmers. The corporations will be allowed to monopolize prices and hoard food for export or until demand increases, not only decreasing farmers’ income but raising food prices for consumers. This is in a country where one third of the population is already malnourished. Even under the current system, the small middlemen have controlled the market and massively stockpiled grain to export it as cattle feed to Europe and the US, while Indian workers have starved during the Covid-19 lock down(2).
Workers are also protesting these new labor laws:
- Changing the requirement for companies to obtain government permission to fire workers if they employ over 100 workers to over 300 workers
- Requiring 60 days notice before any strike
- Ending social security/pension provisions for employees of businesses with under 20 workers
- Institutionalizing fixed-term labor contracts at the expense of permanent jobs.
The strike charter also demands cash grants to the lowest income households, food for those in need and pensions for all(1).
A Unified Struggle
Poor, middle income and wealthy farmers, as well as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh farmers have joined together in this revolt(4), despite Modi’s policies of building racism and factional violence. India has a long history of ethnic divisions that this government is re-igniting. Modi has waged a massive campaign to turn Hindu workers, 80% of the population, against Muslims as a way to win elections, place the blame for the Covid-19 pandemic and weaken workers’ struggles(11).
The current strike wave, however, has created unity. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organization of dozens of farmers’ unions called for a nationwide rail blockade on Feb. 18, which did occur in Northern India(5,6), and there is a call for a general strike on February 28. In the last few months, farmers have blocked roads using tractors, trucks, tents and boulders at over 10,000 sites on some days. After a group of strikers in tractors stormed the Red Fort, a famous monument in Delhi, police used iron spikes and steel barricades to try and keep strikers out of the capitol(3). Tens of thousands have camped around the city, and protest sites have turned into small towns, with generators, lodging, toilets, and libraries. The government has also frequently blocked mobile internet services and cut off water and electricity at these encampments.
The many leftist parties in India have been in support of the strike, and several ministers accuse it of being infiltrated by leftists and Maoists(7). Four of the non-farm unions supporting the strike are Marxist, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation (CPI [ML]), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), or the Socialist Unity Center of India (Communist). Women farmers, Dalit (“untouchable” – the lowest caste) farm workers and left-leaning Dalit unions have also joined the struggle(1). However, a the eight main leftist parties issued a statement in November that said only:
“We reiterate our opposition to these new agri-laws that threaten India’s food security, …destroy Indian agriculture and our farmers…. The Central Government must adhere to the democratic process and norms and address the concerns of the protesting farmers.”(8)
The left in India has a long and splintered history since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although involved in many struggles before Indian independence in 1947, the Communist Party of India (CPI) decided to focus on electoral politics in 1951. In 1957 they won power in the state of Kerala, but the central government could not tolerate the reforms they made and imposed their own rule. Since then the left has had a complex series of splits based on the Sino-Soviet conflict, the emergence of non-aligned capitalists like Nehru, and the growth of militant but isolated Naxalite rebellions by indigenous people of the interior(9). However, even the party most involved with that movement, the CPI(ML), has entered into electoral politics(10).
Will the Working Class be Victorious?
When almost one fifth of the population is involved in active struggle against repressive measures by the ruling class, the potential for making fundamental change is clearly present. Not only are the urban and agricultural workers uniting together, but they are overcoming the massive barriers of caste, religion and gender that the Indian rulers have imposed for so long in order to maintain control. However, there is no agenda to identify oppression by Modi with oppression by capitalism itself, nor to see this movement as a step to overthrow the whole system. In fact, the many parties that call themselves communist are not even speaking of revolution, but engaging in electoral politics and promoting parliamentary reform. Thus the so-called radicals are actually a pivotal force steering the struggle away from revolution.
These paths of conciliation by so-called communist parties are largely the result of the influence of Russian and Chinese post-revolutionary regimes that promoted alliances amongst their followers with “progressive” members of the bourgeoisie and liberal capitalist governments, and reliance on electoral politics. The early conclusions of the revolutionary parties of the USSR and China that a protracted period of a mixed economy was necessary before the achievement of communism has not only led back to capitalism in their own countries but stifled revolutionary movements abroad. Although the millions of Indian strikers may win some reforms, these will inevitably be reversed. The task is to imbue this widespread and hard-fought struggle with the idea of workers and farmers actually taking power and overthrowing capitalism, if not now then in the future. For this a truly revolutionary party will be necessary, in India as in all the world.