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The Caste Angle: 2020–2021 Indian Farmers' Protest

Updated: Jan 4, 2022




The farmers’ protest against the three farm laws have been simmering for over a year now and has become the poster child for unity. “Our unity is an eyesore for them,” Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan, general secretary of BKU Ugrahan told The Indian Express -- as he expressed how farmer’s unions with different ideologies stand united against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the farmer’s unions have merged their forces, caste divisions and class interests are still inherent to the uprising.


The protests were fueled when the Hindu Jats joined them in large numbers in order to protect their independence as farmers. Jats fall at the nexus of the farmers’ protest. They are an ethnic group that is organised in clans with each clan residing in a cluster of villages. Their social and political lives are dictated by the khap system; under which Chaudhuris and wazirs head the clan. Jats are mainly involved in agriculture and usually own big farmlands.


Many other castes and non-Jats are BJP supporters who pillory the farmers’ protest. Their hostility has especially increased after the violence at the Red Fort on Republic day. “While they use the terms ‘farmer’ this agitation is actually 90% Jat,” a Brahmin saloon owner from Karnal’s Barota village told Scroll. “Non-Jats in Haryana silently support the BJP. But they can't speak openly, since they aren’t very powerful. Jats are very powerful and very valuable in Haryana since they have land,” he explained.


In Babarpur village in Haryana, people from the Khatri caste are staunch opponents of the protests. They are Punjabis whose descendants were partition refugees. Their pro-BJP stance and opposition to the protests are not unique to them, it is mostly unanimous across all non-Jats in Haryana. They also say that they have been facing issues selling their vegetables due to the protests and road blockades.


The BJP had capitalised on the divide between the Jats and non-Jats to come to power in Haryana, and the farmers’ protest has followed the same trajectory. The non-Jats are either against the protests or simply impassive.


The Hindu Jats also have a history of dominance over Dalit labourers under the feudal caste system. These social relations have managed to retain themselves in the present day in semi-feudal societies such as Punjab.


The landless Dalit labourers own barely three per cent of the land in Punjab -- even though they are paramount to the agricultural sector. Their conditions are precarious due to unfair wages or debt-ridden, marginal landholdings. The farm laws are a threat to them as the corporatisation of agriculture will only worsen their conditions. However, Dalit workers are underrepresented in numbers in the protest as they have to go to work every day, unlike the land-owning farmers.


The social make-up of the movement across caste and class lines has evolved through the course of the protest. There is blooming solidarity between the Jats and Dalits at least at the protest sites with slogans mentioning Kisan and mazdoor at once.


The farmer’s union also celebrated Guru Ravidas Jayanti, a festival to cap the caste differences between the Jats and Dalits. Moreover, The Samyukta Kisan Morcha along with the trade unions campaigned against the labour codes -- giving rise to a rare alliance between producers, farmers and workers. The caste and class relations are still fragile so the outcome of this coalition is yet to be determined. However, their efforts are a clarion call against capitalist frameworks that seek to exploit the vulnerable sections of our society.


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