Jat Power and the Spread of the Farm Protests in Northern India

Jens Lerche
Issue: April 2, 2021

Jens Lerche is Reader (Associate Professor) in Labour and Agrarian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He has researched agrarian development and relations between Jats, Thakurs, and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh since the 1990s. 

 

The kisan mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, on 29 January. At the centre of the stage are Naresh Tikait, president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (L) ; Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, a leader of western UP's Muslim farmers (C); and Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (R) | ChalChitra Abhiyaan

The combination of caste & farmer identity amongst the Jats in western UP uniquely strengthens the resistance to the farm laws, but also creates barriers to creating lasting solidarities with marginalised groups that the farm movement is trying to incorporate.

It has been labelled the largest farmers’ protest in the world. Since September 2020, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have been in a continuous protest action against three new farm laws. The protests are still spreading across India and have turned into the most serious challenge to what many see as an increasingly authoritarian government of India. In enormous Mahasabhas across north, east and central India, farmers have pledged to continue the fight until the laws have been repelled.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party never thought that the farmers – let alone the Jat farmers – would become its main problem. It was the mainly Sikh farmers from Punjab that first spearheaded the protests, leaving the movement vulnerable to smears that it was limited to well-off farmers from a particular religious minority. When the Hindu Jats, otherwise strong supporters of the BJP, joined in huge numbers that illusion could no longer be maintained.

The Jats — as many other farmers across India — have always viewed themselves as central to what India is.

The ferocity of the Jats’ engagement has been unexpected for the powers-that-be. But it shouldn’t have been. Rightly or wrongly, the Jats see the farm laws as a direct threat to their continued existence as independent farmers. The Jats — as many other farmers across India— have always viewed themselves as central to what India is. The pushing through of the laws without any consultations with farmers has challenged the very perception they hold of their position in society.

The final nail in the coffin was the humiliation of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait, a prominent Jat figure, at the protest camp at the Delhi borders in January as the government prepared to dislodge farmers. It showed that farmers, including the Jat farmers, could be ridden roughshod over by a government that, they felt, listened to big capital and not to them, the sons of the soil. The Jat farmers had enough of what they see as their humiliation by the government.

Worryingly for the government, Rakesh Tikait and his brother Naresh, their BKU farmers union, as well as many Mahasabhas have pledged to vote out the BJP in upcoming state elections. Across western UP, local BJP politicians find themselves socially boycotted by their caste and farmer brethren.

For the farmers, this has become a struggle about the very future of farming in India — and the future of the farmers themselves.

The ham-fisted government action in attempting to dislodge protesting farmers in January has transformed Jat farm leaders into heroes of the protest action. It has turned the protest against the farm laws into a fight for the future of this government and its pro-business agenda which farmers and others view as anti-farmer and anti-people. For the farmers, this has become a struggle about the very future of farming in India — and the future of the farmers themselves.

The Jat farmers and the protest

Most of the Jats have been solidly behind the BJP since the late 1990s, and this has been an important ingredient of the electoral strength of the BJP. The BJP’s anti-minority nationalism has played well with the Jats. As elsewhere in India, the BJP’s mobilisation strategy amongst that Jats has included the stoking of anti-Muslim sentiment. This culminated in riots in the Jat heartland of Muzaffarnagar in 2013, instigated by groups of BJP activists and Jats. The riots led to the killing of 66 people, mainly Muslims. Tens of thousands of Muslims fled the area, never to return.

Agriculture has become less profitable and nearly all farmers are forced to combine farming with work outside agriculture.

But this successful divide and rule politics papered over economic discontent. Farmers had not been happy with their economic conditions for a long while. In 2015-16, a whopping 86% of farming households had less than two hectares of land; and 68% of all farmers made do with less than one hectare. Agriculture has become less profitable and nearly all farmers are forced to combine farming with work outside agriculture. To make matters worse, in spite of India’s economic boom from the 1990s onwards, good jobs in the non-agricultural sectors are few and far between. The economy has been informalised. Over the last few years, the number of jobs in India has even slumped; the first time since records began.

Since 1993 I have been doing fieldwork in the area around Sisauli, the small market town where the Bharatiya Kisan Union has its headquarters (and is the hometown of the Tikait brothers who lead the union). When I last visited in 2016, the local Jat farmers were fully supportive of the BJP government. They said, they were doing okay economically, combining sugarcane farming with outside jobs in the private sector, the army, and the police.




A participant at the kisan mahasabha at Muzaffarnagar. The slogan on his cap reads: "We're tired of asking for our rights, it's now time to seize them. Make farming profitable and make the youth stand on their feet."  | ChalChitra Abhiyaan

But even in this relatively prosperous area things were not as easy as they used to be. The government’s stipulated minimum prices for sugarcane had fallen in real terms for years. Payments for the sugarcane harvests were now delayed on average for more than a year. The notebandi, the abrupt decommissioning of high denomination bank notes in November 2016, also created problems.

Across this region the bedrock of the economy was the government guaranteed sugarcane prices. A future without them was unimaginable.

The BJP government had promised to double farmers’ income by 2022-23 from the 2016-17 levels. Just before the 2019 general election it put in place cash transfers to farmers. That is practically all the farmers have seen of the promised improvements, leading to protests. But the support for the BJP was unrelenting, just as unrelenting as the anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu staples of the TV channels. During the 2019 elections, farmers in north India voted for the BJP, which came back to power with a redoubled majority.

Across this region the bedrock of the economy was the government guaranteed sugarcane prices. A future without them was unimaginable. So, when this was threatened in late 2020 by the new farm laws — at a time where the non-agricultural job market too had gone into reverse — the Jats did what they have done many times in the past: they joined the protests against cuts to their farm economy.

The farm laws

At the heart of the dispute between the farmers and the government is the future of farming and farmers in India. Since the start of neoliberalism in India in 1991, successive governments have cut state support and subsidies to agriculture. These support systems that had been put in place from the 1960s onwards to ensure that India could feed itself. They aimed to usher in a green revolution and to transform the farming economy into a modern capital intensive sector. With major ongoing subsidies to farmers in the US and Europe, such systems should not surprise.

Farmers see the laws as inevitably leading to the undermining of the existing minimum purchase prices.

The government continues to maintain a system of regulated markets and guaranteed minimum purchase prices for some of the main crops, including paddy and wheat (thought their reach is uneven across states). A similar system exists for sugarcane. The new farm laws will promote private markets, and the fear is this will effectively do away with the government regulated markets. They will also give private business free reins to engage in large-scale trading and stocking of agricultural produce. And finally, they will enable contract farming. Farmers see the laws as inevitably leading to the undermining of the existing minimum purchase prices.

They think that the laws will benefit large scale trading businesses instead of small farmers. To them the laws are shoo-ins for conglomerates run by billionaires close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, whose businesses already have benefitted from other reforms of the government. The government, on the other hand, claims the reforms will benefit farmers as it will lead to increased prices for their produce and a much more effective farm sector.

The Jat history of dominance

The BJP should have known better. The Jats aren’t used to be bossed around. Historically they were warriors as much as cultivators. Their entry into known history began at the early part of the last millennium, in northwestern India. They and other semi-tribal pastoral bands gradually conquered huge swathes of territory and settled and dominated what is now Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh (UP). They reached into UP in the 12th century and continued their conquest and colonisation until the 16th century, before it was halted by the Mughal Empire (Pradhan 1966: 95). The Jats in Punjab joined Sikhism, but their dominance continued.

The Jats were organised in egalitarian bhaichara (brotherhoods), and the brotherhoods and villages were part of a wider Jat khap (clan) structure. Each khap had its own militia. A khap council might cover up to 84 villages. The Jats were owner-cultivators who would take part in all agricultural activities themselves (Stokes 1978: 82, 241). But they also subjugated large groups of mainly Dalits as agrestic labourers, especially in the fertile tracts of western UP between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna.

The Jats clearly were the masters of the countryside, and they did not take edicts from above lying down.

In the decades after the First War of Independence (1857-59), the British colonial rulers invested in canal irrigation schemes in the Jat-dominated areas in order to feed Delhi and to pacify the area. These areas became the new bread-basket of northern India. This led to a long period of growing wealth (or, at least, falling poverty) among the Jats (Stokes 1978: 211).

After India’s independence in 1947, the Jats continued to dominate across the region. Charan Singh, a Jat from western UP, was one of the foremost peasant leaders from the 1930s till the 1980s, and briefly served as India’s prime minister. After his death, Mahendra Singh Tikait took up the mantle and led an alliance of Jat and Muslim farmers in often confrontational struggles for higher prices and better conditions. Always prepared to go to jail for the cause and to be at the forefront of the action, he led the famous ‘Boat Club Rally’ of 1987 when half a million farmers took over central New Delhi. That protest won them higher sugarcane procurement prices and lower input prices. The Jats clearly were the masters of the countryside, and they did not take edicts from above lying down.

The hardening neo-liberal position of the government from 1991 onwards too made the farmers’ struggle more difficult. In that context, the BJP policy of curtailing the rights of minorities and promoting groups such as Jats seemed a better bet.

The farmers’ movement lost strength from the 1990s onwards. I have argued elsewhere that suggestions that the farmers’ movements only represented the interests of the well-off capitalist farmers is wrong. All farmers who lived off selling their produce would benefit from their demands. At least within the Jat community the movement had strong support even amongst the small farmers. But by the 1990s many Jats had one foot in the non-agricultural economy which dented their resolve. The hardening neo-liberal position of the government from 1991 onwards too made the farmers’ struggle more difficult.

In that context, the BJP policy of curtailing the rights of minorities and promoting groups such as Jats seemed a better bet. That was the path taken when Mahendra Singh Tikait’s sons, Naresh and Rakesh, took over the BKU leadership after his death in 2011. It is only the present events that have jolted them back into the independent position of their father.

The combination of caste and farmer identity is a strength in the sense it enables strong resistance against government edicts and outside authorities. [But it] also enables strong dominance of others, such as Dalit labourers.

In this, just as their father, the Tikait brothers draw on the historic solidarity and ruling structures of the Jats. Naresh Tikait is the Chaudhary (traditional leader) of one of the Jat khaps, the Baliyan khap. Just as their father, he and his brother Rakesh openly use caste structures in the mobilisation of the Jats. Their mahasabhas now organised are a case in point. In the Jat territories the mahasabhas are in principle gathering of all Jats and of Jats only, mobilised through the khap structures. For the purpose of the protest, though, they are opened up for others as well; but at their core they draw on caste solidarity. These mahasabhas are now central to the broadening and deepening of the protests against the farm laws.




Farmers attending the kisan mahasabha at Muzaffarnagar  | ChalChitra Abhiyaan 

The combination of caste and farmer identity is a strength in the sense it enables strong resistance against government edicts and outside authorities. The mahasabha’s messages, such as a social boycott of BJP politicians and a fight to the end against the farm laws, carry more weight for many than would a similar farmers’ union call. But the inextricable linkages between caste and class also enables strong dominance of others, such as Dalit labourers. At local level, in the villages, the Jats have maintained their dominance of these groups, which include their erstwhile Dalit Jatav farmhands, in often quite violent ways.

It is quite common in many Jat-dominated villages in western UP and Haryana that the village Jat panchayat would take the law into its own hand and use social boycott and fines as means of exercising its authority and dominance across castes. The lines of oppression and exploitation more often than not followed caste-class lines.

Beyond farmers?

In some important ways the present protests are different from those of the past. Just as the farmers’ movements of the 1980s, the present movement too involves farmers of all ages, men and women, and both large capitalist farmers and poorer farmers.

The movement makes a point of consciously reaching beyond the better-off capitalist farmers who are part of the movement.

But the leadership of the present campaign has a much better eye for inclusiveness across farmers’ groups. The movement makes a point of consciously reaching beyond the better-off capitalist farmers who are part of the movement. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group leading the protests, includes among its constituents the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, formed as part of small farmers’ mobilisation in central and western India in 2017. They seek to include the many farmers who presently do not benefit from the fixed procurement prices because there is little procurement and few regulated markets in their states. (A part of the movement’s official demands is the expansion of regulated markets and of fixed procurement prices across India, and the lowering of electricity prices for all farmers.)

The potential collapse of the most encompassing poverty reduction scheme in India also matters in the mobilisation against the farm laws.

They are also seeking alliances with the unions representing mainly the regular urban workers, supporting their claims for the repulsion of the present anti-labour labour laws. And they are even aiming to integrate rural labourers and Dalit organisations into their campaign, with some success. The Bhim army, a radical Dalit activist group from western UP, arrived with 100 activists to reinforce Rakesh Tikait’s camp when it really mattered. Likewise the radical Dalit grassroots movement for Dalit land rights in Punjab, the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, is also joining in.

What can unite them is the fight against big capital reshaping Indian agriculture, as well as the fight against the potential collapse of the public distribution system (PDS) that may well follow should the farm laws stay. It is a widespread assumption that if the regulated markets and the minimum support prices are abolished and procurement ceases, the PDS too will fall. Estimates show that in 2020, 66% of the population was covered by this. The potential collapse of the most encompassing poverty reduction scheme in India also matters in the mobilisation against the farm laws. At least some grassroots representatives for groups of Dalit landless rural workers concur and therefore support the protest campaign.

Some grassroots informalised labour groups have also taken advantage of the farm laws struggle to be bolder in their own local actions. This was the case for the Dalit labour activist Nodeep Kaur, who took advantage of the support from the farm laws movement to push through demands for pending back-pay. Her activism meant that she was arrested for a month and allegedly tortured. But because of the publicity and support from the farm laws movement she was eventually released.

This broad alliance against the farm laws and the BJP government is no doubt useful for the struggle to repel the farm laws and to vote the BJP out of power, a target all the constituents agree on. However, it is questionable how much further than that the alliance can last. Most of the interests of Dalit rural labourers and their dominant farming caste employers are opposed to each other. As recent as 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, farmers would often seek to lower wages or rely on machinery instead of labour to save money, creating even more hardship amongst the labourers.

It is not inconceivable that the common goal of repelling the farm laws and denting the future of the BJP government may just be achievable, but anything beyond that is more doubtful.

Caste-class differences are reproduced outside of the agricultural sector. The relationship between better-off workers and the most precarious, mainly Dalit and Adivasi, workers is often adversarial. Higher ranking castes and dominant farming caste households, who are more likely to be landholders, tend to get the better jobs— that are more regular, better paid, and less backbreaking and dirty. Dalits and Adivasis, who tend to be landless, get the insecure, informal, poorly paid and menial jobs.

Indian history, at least from the struggle of land reform onwards, is full of instances where the weaker parts of alliances are left empty-handed when the dominant group has got what it wanted. For now, the farmers’ resolve and their new alliances are changing the political landscape. It is not inconceivable that the common goal of repelling the farm laws and denting the future of the BJP government may just be achievable, but anything beyond that is more doubtful.

 

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References: 

Bayly, Christopher A. 1992 [1983]. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Pradhan, M. C. 1966. The Political System of the Jats of Northern India. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

Stokes, Eric.1978. The Peasant and the Raj : Studies in Agrarian Society and Peasant Rebellion in Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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