Interview with socialist Seattle city councilmember, and Indian American Kshama Sawant.
At this moment, there are huge protests ongoing in India. The Indian government has used repression against them in Delhi. But as the farmers say: police are using tear gas against us, but we were already crying. Could you tell us more about the reasons for the farmers protest?
As we know, India’s pro-capitalist government is currently headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his reactionary, Hindu fundamentalist, Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP. In September, the Modi government introduced three laws that will dismantle the bare minimum protections or regulations relied on by millions of small farmers for survival. One of the new laws, for example, would repeal the Minimum Support Price, which is a publicly-mandated price floor, a minimum price at which the government promises to buy produce from small farmers, as a measure of basic economic protection for them.
The new laws are a massive corporate handout to profitable agribusiness multinational corporations. The farmers correctly see these new laws as “death warrants” for themselves, leading to even more dangerous levels of poverty and indebtedness than already exists, while the elite gain even greater corporatization and privatization, and more obscenely large profits. Farmers and agricultural workers make up 60 percent of the country’s population. A 2018 study found that more than half of the farmers in India were in debt – and this was before the current pandemic and deep capitalist crisis. More than 20,000 farmers in the country have died by suicide from 2018 to 2019, and farmer indebtedness has been a major factor.
The protests have made world headlines, and have led to solidarity actions by South Asian immigrant communities globally, including right here in the Seattle region, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, These solidarity protests have even forced establishment politicians to speak publicly in support of the farmers’ protests, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a Member of the Australian Parliament.
How have these farmer protests been organized, and are there lessons that movements around the world can learn? How have they been able to sustain the protests for over two weeks now?
We’re speaking on Friday December 11, so at this point, the protests have sustained for well over two, nearly three, weeks. This is remarkable. The protest actions selected multiple transportation and commuting choke points not only in major cities like Delhi, but in multiple states, with hundreds of thousands of protesters blocking roads and squatting on railway tracks. The farmer protests are also noteworthy in the level of preparation they carried out before launching the actions. For instance, farmers interviewed at the Delhi actions say they are prepared enough to be able to sustain the action for months. The protests also have an impressive degree of coordination between the actions in metros such as Delhi and Mumbai, and the actions in rural areas in the individual states. They have organized shifts, with some attending the protest actions and others tending the land. Women’s committees have helped with providing food every day for the thousands of activists. The protests have not been short of food even for a day. This level of organization and confidence is one of the reasons why the farmers are not intimidated despite the brutal tear gas and water cannons used against them by the police.
Of course, such organizing is not the result of some clever top-down management based on ideas of business unionism. Such a level of preparation can only be achieved by first building the political conviction, solidarity, and cohesion among hundreds of thousands of oppressed people, the rank-and-file farmers, strengthening the clarity that we have to fight together against the ruling class, and that it will be a long and hard fight, and will involve significant sacrifice, but that it is worth doing because that is the only way we can successfully push back against the gross injustices faced by the overwhelming majority under this bankrupt system of capitalism. It’s this type of solidarity that is enabling the protestors to spend night after night in the cold winter in northern India, on the back of trucks and tractors. This is the kind of organizing needed for any serious strike action by the labor movement. Because big corporations and the capitalist state have all the wealth and resources to wait for protests and strikes to grow exhausted and demoralized.
Have there been any links between the farmer protests and the labor movement in India? We know that workers in India carried out what became the biggest general strike ever in global history in January this year. Can you speak about this, and also about the effect of these protests and strikes on the right-wing BJP government?
On November 26, the labor movement carried out a general strike involving 250 million workers, in solidarity with the farmers’ protest. This followed the general strike in January, also mobilizing 250 million workers, which was linked to the mass protest against the horrendous anti-Muslim and anti-poor citizenship laws of the BJP.
There is now a call for a major nationwide action on January 8, for a Bharat Bandh, which means Shut Down India. This call includes not only a hundred farmer organizations, but also ten trade union confederations, and a number of student unions. We need to build powerful international solidarity for this one-day general strike and shut down.
The trade union movement is correctly not narrowly limiting its January 8th strike slogans to supporting farmers, but are also raising a 14-point charter of demands for the broad working class. For minimum wage increases, for social security and pensions, and against the rampant privatization of the public sector. This will actually strengthen the mass movement of farmers and the working class as a whole, and help to clarify the need for unity of the oppressed against big business and their establishment representatives.
This also shows how at pivotal moments in the history of capitalism, protests triggered by one section of the oppressed can open the floodgates for wider sections of society to give expression to their discontent. In this way, the farmer protests are becoming a catalyst for the anger and frustration that has been bubbling under the surface among hundreds of millions of ordinary people in India. It remains to be seen if the movement wins concrete victories, but we can see how much potential there is. This is especially important right now, with the global capitalist economy being in a freefall, and the political establishment in every part of the world experiencing a profound crisis of confidence.
The BJP and the right wing and the capitalist class have demonstrated they are willing to go far in their attempts to divide the working class and the oppressed. For example, the BJP is trying to portray the farmer protests as an agenda of Sikh separatism, because one of the most prominent states involved in the protests is Punjab, a northwestern state that is also the birthplace of the Sikh religion, and where sections of the local Sikh ruling class have had a complicated history with the mainstream Indian establishment over decades. Punjab is the second largest producer of wheat and the third largest producer of rice in the country.
So the farmers and the working class cannot afford to underestimate the dangers of divide and rule strategies, violence, and repression from the political establishment and the capitalist class. The Indian working class needs to urgently develop a political program, and strategies and tactics, to build maximum unity on a principled basis, including by actively building movements against specific oppressions like caste discrimination and caste violence, ethnic and regional oppression, and rape and sexual violence, and actively rejecting the divisiveness of the identity politics that ends up playing into the hands of the ruling classes.
Modi last year won the national elections. Earlier this year he brought Trump and Bolsonaro to India. How has the reactionary BJP gained ascendancy in India, and how does it connect with the consciousness of the masses in India?
Whether it is Trump or Bolsonaro or Modi, the rise of right populism and reactionary regimes is in no way inevitable, nor is it because in any sense the working class prefers the right-wing.
The Indian working class understands that the BJP are just as much of an agent for capitalist exploitation as other bourgeois parties, with the added poison of Hindu fundamentalism and heightened caste and religion based violence.
The electoral victories of the right-wing BJP have come after decades of pro-capitalist rule in India, with the Congress Party and other ruling-class parties having offered no alternate future for the vast majority of Indians.
The February 2015 assembly election in the capital city of Delhi, in which all the ruling parties including the BJP suffered humiliating defeats, could have been a turning point away from the BJP. This election came after 3 years of repeated mass strike actions by trade unions, and also a historic, nationwide mass movement against rampant rape and sexual violence triggered by a gruesome bus gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. But there were no alternatives to the bourgeois parties.
And Modi and the BJP’s resurgence last summer’s elections was sandwiched between two historic general strike actions, one in January 2019 – in which “Modi Out” was the main slogan – and the second in January this year. These two general strikes were the largest labor mobilizations in world history.
The opportunity to build a massive workers and youth struggle has undoubtedly been present in India.
What has been missing is a real political organization, a party, of and for the working class and the oppressed, that can provide an alternative basis for a united political struggle against the wealthy classes and big business and the parties that represent big business. It is similar to the situation in the United States, where the Democratic Party is as tied to Wall Street interests as the Republicans are, despite differences between the two parties, and so a new party for the working class is needed.
In order for this to happen, we in Socialist Alternative in the United States, and the International Socialist Alternative globally, take seriously our task of building a genuine Marxist leadership capable of not repeating past mistakes, uniting the oppressed on a class struggle basis, rejecting caste-based and ethnic- or region-based identity politics, while at the same time developing a program for the emancipation of caste-oppressed people, indigenous people, and women, that can cut across communal divisions, and win over the many ethnic groups and nationalities within India to a fighting, internationalist, working-class program.
In closing, what would you say is needed not only for the farmers to succeed in their current protests to dismantle the deeply unjust laws, but for a long-term liberation from the cycle of debt and poverty?
The role of the Indian working class is central alongside the farmers’, because the working class has the ability to shut down the capitalist profit-making machine. It’s crucial that January 8 is resoundingly successful in putting the Modi regime on the backfoot. India’s labor movement and rank and file members of the urban working class should also launch democratically-organized action committees that are accountable to the rank and file masses, and not to the sections of the movement’s leadership that are tied to the various ruling-class parties. These action committees need to build more days of general strike actions, both regionally and nationally, to further sharpen the pressure on the BJP regime. The movement and the left must also prepare to defeat escalated tensions and divisions based on religion, caste, or ethnicity, which is more likely as the BJP government will ruthlessly look for avenues of divide and conquer to break the back of the protest movement.
We need to keep building international solidarity as much as possible. If you are watching this and you’re a union member, it does not matter which country you are in, we should push for unions to release public statements in solidarity with the January 8th general strike.
Defeating the new laws will be a huge victory for the farmers. But that will still not be enough. We have to call for cancelling the debt of the millions of small farmers. Winning debt cancellation will absolutely require a powerful and militant mass movement – it will be anything but easy. But we will need to go even farther. Cancelling debt on the continued basis of capitalism, even if we won it, would mean the farmers would start from zero debt but begin accumulating new debt, because the underlying conditions that led to the indebtedness in the first place would remain unchanged – the stranglehold of agribusiness and the rapacious banks, the deep oppression of the masses.
Ending the cycle of debt and poverty cannot happen without addressing the fundamental reality that under capitalism, most of society’s wealth gets grabbed by a small elite. We will need to take the giant agri-corporations and big banks into democratic public ownership, under the democratic control of the workers and farmers, so that the latest advances in technology can be harnessed for food production that can serve the needs of the majority of the population, not line the pockets of a few super-wealthy.
It is becoming increasingly clear that capitalism means misery and hunger for the Indian masses. This system is a system of crisis, even without a pandemic, economic depression, or the threat of climate catastrophe. Capitalism is unable to take humanity forward. There is a need for a complete overhaul of the system. The hundreds of millions of workers in India, including in the labor movement should build solidarity with the rural masses to become a formidable army against the capitalist class and to fight for socialism in India. And the best way for us to help this happen in India is for workers and the labor rank and file, for Marxist and revolutionary activists internationally to organize ourselves in order to lay the foundations for the socialist change that is urgently needed around the world!