The farmers’ protest may grow into a second “total revolution”: JP movement activists

Farmers protest at the Singhu border in November 2020. Several social activists see echoes of the JP movement in the ongoing farmers' agitation. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
17 March, 2021

Social activists who were part of the JP movement, led by the political activist Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s, see echoes of that movement in the ongoing farmers’ protest. In March 1974, the JP movement began as a student-led protest in Bihar against unemployment, which soon gained Narayan’s support. The movement subsequently fought against corruption by Congress leaders under the Indira Gandhi-led government. Narayan had called for “sampoorna kranti,” or a “total revolution.” Several activists said that if the farmers’ protest sustains for longer, it could turn into a second total revolution.

Lakhs of farmers have been camping at Delhi’s border to protest against the centre’s farm laws. I spoke to NK Shukla, an active participant of the JP movement and presently the national joint secretary of the Akhil Bhartiya Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ organisation affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that is also participating in the ongoing protests. “The JP movement was the first such mass movement, which gave an open challenge to the mighty government of Indira Gandhi,” Shukla told me. “It sustained for more than a year, resulted in the Emergency and then a clean defeat of Congress for the first time in Indian politics. Even Indira and Sanjay Gandhi lost their seats.” He continued, “Similar is the condition going to grow with time with respect to the ongoing farmers’ movement which has already crossed more than three months. If it sustains for a long time in such spirit, it would reach the same point where the JP movement was.”

I also spoke to Anil Roy, a resident of Patna, a former professor who was an active student participant in the JP movement. Roy is currently the secretary of the Association for Study and Action, a social group that works to organise informed discourse on social, economic and constitutional values. “The issue of the agitation is more severe and more profound than that of the agitation that took place in 1974,” Roy said. “This pressure group has identified the tie-up between the government and the corporates. But, as far as its consolidation is concerned, it's still now on the way to get more strength. The second thing is that the agitation is stimulating the other pressure groups as well. The students federation of Bihar are in speculation and in churn constantly about how they should associate themselves to this drive.”

In June 1975, amid calls for Gandhi to resign, the prime minister imposed a national emergency in the country. Narayan was imprisoned along with other opposition leaders and political activists. The Emergency was revoked in 1977 and elections were announced. With guidance from Narayan, opposition parties united under the umbrella of the Janata Party. In the 1977 elections, the Janata Party defeated the Congress. It was the first national electoral loss for the Congress since Independence. It took three years since the JP movement began for the Congress to face the huge electoral setback. In the same way, activists said the Modi government may face losses in the coming state elections scheduled to begin in March 2021, and eventually in the 2024 general elections. The BJP has already faced defeat in the Punjab municipal elections in February 2021, and subsequently in the by-polls for five municipal wards in Delhi.

Shukla emphasised that the JP movement started as a students’ movement and later developed into a political movement. “All the opposition parties also came out to support the movement, it slowly developed into an anti-Congress movement,” he said. He believed the farmers’ movement is headed in the same direction. In press statements this month, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella organisation representing several farmers’ unions participating in the protests, said that its leaders have “castigated the BJP regime” for the rising prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. They have also been speaking against the Modi government for “selling the public sector in the country to the corporates.”

Further, in a protest meeting on 10 March, Rakesh Tikait, a leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) announced that he will go to West Bengal this month to urge farmers in the state to defeat the BJP. He added that a call has been made to defeat the BJP in the five upcoming assembly elections— West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry—that are scheduled to begin from 27 March. However, Tikait also stressed that he would not support any particular political party.

Shukla noted that opposition parties have also been supporting the farmers’ protest. “You can see how the political parties have started speaking aggressively on this subject,” he said. “So the movement is in direction to get a political strength and then at one time it could be with the only agenda to remove BJP at the centre. Its effect could be visible in the coming legislative elections in states.” He continued, “Now there is stability in this movement and it is in a balanced state. Definitely Punjab, Haryana and Western UP are the centres but its effect can be seen everywhere in India.” He added that this was the case despite the mainstream media not accurately covering the extent of the protests.

The farmers movement has also been employing the same tools of protest that the JP movement used. Activities such as long protest sit-ins, demonstrations, blocking roads, blocking railway tracks, and meetings at the panchayat level have parallels in the JP movement in Bihar. The government clampdown on the protests—the increasing media censorship, the control over social media and freedom of expression, the denial of permission for any protests against government policies—can also be compared with the political climate in the 1970s.

Social activists pointed to the broader support that the farmers movement is gaining from diverse social groups, such as trade unions, labourers, students, and the youth. Shivanand Tiwari, a former Rajya Sabha member of parliament and a veteran leader of Rashtriya Janata Dal, had also been active in the JP movement in Bihar. “This movement is in the right direction and it has an impact on all cross sections of society,” he told me, referring to the farmers’ protest. “I haven’t seen such a huge movement in my career.”

Barring incidents of violence during a tractor rally on 26 January, he said the movement has been well organised and peaceful, and established “a voice of dissent” against the government. “The biggest achievement of the movement is that it has bridged the communal gaps among communities and brought all sections of the society together for a larger cause and welfare of farmers,” Tiwari said. “The effectiveness of the movement in bringing society together can be seen in that there is no effect of the BJP’s efforts to defame this movement. This movement was against the government since the beginning with respect to farm bills and it would grow definitely against the government in a stronger way with time.”

Kumar Prashant had also been active during the JP movement and was jailed for his participation. Prashant is the head of Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi, an organisation that studies and spreads MK Gandhi’s thoughts. “Anything which is against status quo will reach the same place where the movement of 1974 reached, no matter what is the starting point or what is the cause,” he told me. “If the effort is honest, then it will reach to the stage of total revolution.” He emphasised that 1974 movement too did not begin with the goal of removing any establishment or government. “When you talk about a change in the system, then the status quo takes it against itself and starts to distract, damage or deviate the movement. The same is the situation with the farmers’ movement.”

“Farmers are talking about MSP”—minimum support price—“their rights and welfare which is absolutely not against any government,” Prashant said. “But when you keep your points honestly and are not ready to compromise, the government takes it against them and that is why the BJP government has been trying to break the movement since beginning. But despite all those efforts by the status quo to malign the farmer movement, nothing happened and the movement is on right track and going stronger with the time.” He reiterated, “It would not be surprising if this could be the second total revolution with its centre in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP.”

Prashant pointed to the irony that political roles have been reversed since the JP movement. While the BJP’s predecessors supported the JP movement to fight the Congress government, it is now the BJP in power. “The people who were challenging the status quo that time, are now in status quo position, and the people who were being challenged are challenging them this time,” he said. Prashant added, “The difference is that the present status quo is more equipped and organised with cunningness to repress such a movement or voice of dissent for any change. The present government is more dangerous because it has a dominant communal colour with cunning politics.”

Shreesh Pathak, a political analyst and senior lecturer at Amity University in Noida, said that the farmers’ protest has reached at a decisive and defining moment. “Either it would acquire a nationwide revolution against the established regime going beyond repealing the farm laws and addressing pressing issues of the country or it would be denuded by internal rifts, spread untapped and eventually vanish altogether,” he said. Pathak continued, “At a time when majority of media is paying allegiance to the government and the ruling party has transformed itself more as election machine than a political party, the development of a spontaneous mass protest of this scale is not a daily phenomenon. To sustain a revolutionary movement, leadership, resources and a dominating ideology are required.”

Pathak added that the farmers’ movement would need to evolve an ideology if it has to last in the long term.  “The success of this people's movement could rejuvenate the reluctant and somewhat defunct civil society of the country,” he said. “The failure of this movement would be like losing a great opportunity for inviting essential political development.”