In November 2020, thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh mobilised along Delhi’s borders to protest the three farm laws passed in September that year. Continuing for over a year, the farmers’ agitation represented one of the largest and longest-running people’s movements India has seen in recent times. In November 2021, the Narendra Modi government finally relented and announced the repeal of all three laws.
The Bharatiya Janata Party saw the mass-based farmers’ movement, which galvanised rural communities, as a threat to its popularity and its prospects in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In a strategy used by governments and political parties the world over, it sought to break the movement by identifying fault lines within the agrarian communities and supporting counter-mobilisations. Essentially, these are other farmer groups that emerged within the same ecosystem but were in effect aligned with the government and working to destabilise the protests. Two farmers’ organisations in western Uttar Pradesh—the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Samiti and the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Bhanu)—can be seen as counter-movements within the farmers’ protest. A third counter-force was the intervention of a large khap panchayat, effectively in favour of the government. Together, they represent an attempt to weaken the farmers’ movement and obfuscate the protesters’ message at the grassroots level.
Historically, social movements uncover the shortcomings and failures of the state in upholding its guiding principles. In response, the party heading the government, or more broadly the state, does not always use overt repressive force to mitigate them. Instead, the state often employs multiple tactics to delegitimise ongoing social movements. Of these, covertly supporting a counter-mobilisation is often the least visible and yet the most effective strategy. Vocal representatives of the counter-groups compete for media attention and attempt to shape a public narrative in favour of the government, while seeming to be speaking on behalf of the protesting communities.