Back in late November, the BJP-led government had actually permitted the protestors to enter the national capital and to resume their protest at a designated site. But the protestors refused to do this, and instead, chose to reclaim this border for themselves, precisely by occupying it. They promptly turned their congregations of tractors and trolleys into several different encampments, equipping them with 24/7 community kitchens and open libraries, while building a slew of different stages for hosting political and cultural programs. These occupations are not just a reaction of wronged citizens who have set out to reform the Indian parliament. Rather, they form an important stage in a still-unfolding narrative of militant anti-capitalist struggle.
More importantly, the setting up of this new border—fortified by the police and paramilitary forces and occupied by working people—has catalyzed a historic transformation in people’s lived experience of the postcolonial condition, as widely documented by the protestors themselves. Consider, for instance, Sukhjinder Mahesari’s short essay, published in the second issue of Trolley Times, a multilingual newspaper currently running at the occupation site on the Tikri border. Mahesari offers a particularly moving account of how his convoy of protestors, traveling to join the occupations at New Delhi, was repeatedly assaulted by the Haryana police, and how they were forced to seek refuge at a gurudwara in the small village of Habri.
Amidst the several poignant scenes of mutual-aid at the gurudwara, Mahesari discovers that his convoy had fortuitously arrived in the village of Kartar Singh Jhabbar, a famous anti-colonial revolutionary, condemned to life imprisonment by the British colonizers for politically organizing against the Rowlatt Act (1919). Uncannily enough, one hundred years later, the current ruling government is deploying the Rowlatt’s postcolonial version—the notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—to charge and incarcerate the protestors without trial or judicial review.
Concluding his essay, Mahesari writes that the arrival of this convoy in the village of Habri has brought history full circle. The brutal violence being perpetrated by the Indian state is a sign that the anticolonial struggle of the previous century has remained incomplete. And, if anything, the current protests are an attempt to, once again, recommence this same struggle.
This border has become a revolutionary lodestone for hundreds of other similar convoys of farmers and agrarian workers, traveling here from across the country. While encountering and resisting the brutal assaults of police and paramilitary forces, they, too, are starting to realize that the postcolonial state has turned out to be no more than a servile agent of domestic and foreign capitalists.
It must be noted, however, that the scale and intensity of protests in other agrarian states of the country are mediated by their specific political-economic conditions. If so far Punjab has turned out to be the protagonist of these protests, then this is because it is here that the crises of the Green Revolution are at their most concentrated. In many parts of the country, the state regulations of the agrarian market have already been revoked, while in some other parts, contract farming has already become a lived reality. This has, in turn, affected the scale of protests in different regions, the intensity of state violence that farmers and agrarian workers have encountered, and the media coverage that that they have received.
This border is a tactical response to the current political-economic exigencies. The emergence of the new border around New Delhi has been accompanied by the emergence of several other, smaller borders across Punjab. If the leading agribusiness corporations have started expanding their operations by covertly acquiring bigger godowns, buying bigger lands, and building private railway lines, then the working people in Punjab have responded to these developments by occupying numerous railway stations and toll plazas on highways, by picketing and shutting down the thermal plants, the petrol pumps, the malls, the silos, and the telecom towers that are owned by these corporations.
Much has already been written about the occupations as a site of struggle: its vast networks of mutual aid, the role played by the union leaders, the presence of women on the frontlines, the culture of protest music, the significance of libraries in these occupations, the visions of an egalitarian future availed by Sikhism to the protestors, and so on. But very little, in comparison, has been written about the occupations as a tactic.
The ongoing occupations can be classified as “circulation struggles,” to borrow a concept from Joshua Clover. Clover argues that following the secular collapse in the profitability of industrial sector in the US, capital has shifted its locus to the sphere of circulation. Finance, insurance, real estate, and the global logistics of supply chains: these are the new portals to profit. Further still, Clover contends that in the wake of these world-historical shifts, class struggle, too, has followed suit. Occupations, blockades, and riots: these, per Clover, are the privileged tactics of the new circulation struggles12.
This seems to resonate rather well with our specific postcolonial juncture, marked as it is by the twinned ascent of commercial capitalism, on the one hand, and blockades and occupations, on the other.
But the similarities end here. For one, if circulation struggles in the US have predominantly featured the racialized surplus populations, who have been temporarily or permanently expelled from the sphere of capitalist production, then their counterpart in postcolonial India comprises farmers and agrarian workers who are driven by the fear that they will berendered surplus by the new farm laws. To this end, these postcolonial occupations have evolved around a specific political demand directed towards the Indian state. Roll back the farm laws, or else. As of now, everything hinges on this or else.
Hitherto sequestered in agricultural fields, the famers and workers of India have been suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar territory. This is the “space” of circulation: highways and railway lines, toll plazas and petrol pumps. Marching through their new surroundings, these farmers and workers have improvised an array of new political tactics: leaving heaps of broken barricades here and constructing scores of blockades and occupations there. And for the past two months, their struggle has electrified the Indian public sphere and, for the first time in 7 years, forced the rightwing government on the backfoot. More importantly, it has also halted the workings of capital. Back in October, the farmers and workers had blocked the movements of several goods trains supplying coal to numerous thermal plants in Punjab. As these plants started shutting down, the state was pushed to the verge of a major electricity crisis.
And yet, just like other tactical improvisations, these occupations, too, leave a few questions unanswered. For instance, even though the sphere of circulation has been rapidly transformed into a hotbed of occupations and blockades, their relationship to the capitalist crisis that is internal to the sphere of agrarian production remains unclear. Similarly, much remains to be said about the divisions of class and caste that currently subtend the popular demand to roll back the new farm laws.
When the protests first began, several political analysts promptly dismissed them as a struggle of “rich farmers” only. In recent weeks, however, other writers have challenged this narrative, and have, instead, affirmed that the unity of protestors cuts across the divides of class and caste. If anything, each of these narratives ends up mirroring the excesses of the other. If the former erases the robust involvement of landless Dalits and Jats in this struggle, then the latter elides the rather obvious point, namely, that solidarity in a political struggle does not by itself annihilate the structural workings of caste and class.
Consider, for instance, how the political participation of landless workers—the majority of whom are Dalits—has been severely restricted by the compulsion to earn their daily wages in the fields, or else lose their jobs. This fact alone should suffice to show how the objective structure of caste-based division of labor (and laborers) operates in excess of the political commitments of specific individuals and organizations.
This is not to criticize the ongoing struggle, but rather to signal the objective conditions under which it is evolving, and to elucidate how these conditions—mass landlessness and indebtedness, on the one hand, and the ascendency of medium and large farmers, on the other—have been engendered by the previous cycle of capital accumulation. In other words, this is to point out that the struggle against the implementation of the Green Revolution 2.0 is historically mediated by the crises engendered during the implementation of the Green Revolution in the 1960s.
Like all political struggles, this one, too, is evolving under circumstances which, in Marx’s words, are being “transmitted from the past.” And, sooner or later, these ongoing occupations will have to grapple with this nervous dialectics of the past and the present. That is, even though the occupations have continued to fearlessly choke the flows and swirls of circulation, they will have to eventually take up the question that secretly haunts them.
What does the popular demand to roll back the new farm laws mean for the landless laborers? On the one hand, the specter of mass landlessness has spurred an existential identification with those who are already landless. And yet, on the other hand, if fulfilled, this demand will merely serve to restore business as usual, where the Dalit and the landless Jats will, once again, find themselves thrust back into a life of endless exploitation and oppression by the bigger Jat farmers.
In a recent interview with Workers’ Unity, Randeep Maddoke, director of the much-acclaimed documentary, Landless, throws down a memorable gauntlet. Sure, Maddoke concedes, this is primarily a movement of the landed. But the new farm laws impact the landless too, who are likely to be made surplus to the requirements of the new agrarian regime. And so, it is hardly surprising that there has been a significant participation by landless laborers in these occupations. In fact, he points out that there are several villages in Punjab where the farmers’ unions do not even exist, and where the mobilization of people and resources is being single-handedly undertaken by the unions of landless laborers.