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.”