In April 2017, the newly-formed Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh announced a waiver of loansfrom cooperative banks that were pending with small and marginal farmers in the state, cumulatively amounting to more than Rs 36,000 crore. In June, large scale farmers’ agitations erupted in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a new debt relief scheme to aid farmers defaulting on loans, while the Maharashtra government announced a loan waiver of Rs 30,000 crore for small and marginal farmers. In light of the growing farmers’ unrest across the country, the Punjab and Karnataka state governments also announced a loan waiver for farmers in their respective states. Amid all this, however, farmers from Tamil Nadu who led a 41-day protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi well before the UP loan waiver, conducting macabre demonstrations symbolic of their plight on each day of their protest, appear to have been forgotten.
Almost a month into their protest, on a tepid morning on10 April, nine among the group of 100-strong protesting Tamil farmers stripped naked outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. Three of them rolled along the road, while a few of them jumped around, almost playfully running from the confused police. According to Perumal, a member of the protesting farmers belonging Valasaramani village in Tiruchirapalli district, the protest was a reflexive response to the farmers being prevented from meeting the prime minister despite having an appointment. He told me similar protests have been adopted by the group in the past to symbolise the government depriving them of their self-respect. The shock of the instance was chafed only slightly because the previous weeks had seen the farmers intensify their protests at Jantar Mantar with growing levels of absurdity and desperation.
The protesting farmers are members of the National South-Indian Rivers Interlinking Agriculturists Association, or the Sangam, which consists of more than two lakh members. It was formed in 2015 to address the grievances of farmers in Tamil Nadu. The Sangam began its protest on 14 March. Aweek prior to the Rashtrapati Bhavan incident, the farmers had shaved off half their moustaches, and when that elicited lukewarm interest from the media, each of them shaved off hair from half of their heads. That week, starting 15 March, the Sangam began its campaign of provocative protests. Its members wore nooses around their necks, carried skulls they claimed belonged to farmers who committed suicide, held dead rats and snakes in their mouths and conducted mock funerals of their comrades. Although these protests, owing to their extraordinary nature, received attention from the news media and politicians, it did not result in any of their demands being addressed.
Since 2016, Tamil Nadu has been facing its worst drought in 140 years as a result of which, multiple crops failed. The drought severely affected Karnataka as well, which led to the state’s refusal to release any water from the Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu despite Supreme Court directives. The dry riverbeds in the state that arose because of this refusal and sand mining in the state’s rivers compounded the farmers’ struggles in Tamil Nadu. As the water crisis in the states led to failing crops, most farmers were left with unpayable debts because of the loans that they had taken for the cultivation of these crops. Perumal, another farmer with the same name as the famer from Varasamani village, who is a member of the Sangam and belongs to Sallapatti village of Thiruchirapalli district, told me, “The people from the bank come and abuse us every day, they take what they want from our house. They humiliate us every day in front of our entire village.”
The Sangam is only one of many farmer groups of Tamil Nadu, but it has cemented itself as one that is able to get the attention when necessary. In June 2016, in Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, various banks took the tractors of several farmers into custody. The farmers were late on paying the interest on their loans and the Supreme Court had reportedly directed the banks not to seize the tractors. Dhinesh, the head of the Thiruvannamalai wing of the Sangam, told me that the farmers from the group marched in to the local State Bank of India branch wearing only their loincloths, symbolizing that they were forced to beg, protesting for the tractors to be released. He added that the tractors were eventually released but the loans were not waived.