The passing of the three farm laws in Parliament has triggered heated debate and conflict. Farmers have taken to the streets across the country to protest these laws, particularly in Punjab and Haryana. These protests appear to have the characteristics of a large-scale agrarian movement that seeks to offer pushback against what they feel are the Indian State’s attempts to undermine their interests. Political parties, unions have come into the fray and so has the Supreme Court.
Similar instances of agriculture reform-related political and legal churning have occurred throughout Indian history particularly in the 20th century. Agrarian movements have forced political parties, civil society and the then British government into negotiations over their interests and interestingly, these movements often folded themselves into the large independence and constitutional reform movements.
Agricultural reform was a key plank of the Indian National Congress’s constitutional and political agenda in colonial India. During the early 1920s, the Congress sought to provide leadership and support to peasant movements like the ones in Champaran (1917) and Kheda (1918) by mobilizing peasants to voice their grievances against British plantation owners. After the withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement, there was a decrease in such movements. Pressure from peasants forced the Congress to revive agrarian movements and launch land revenue Satyagrahas as part of the larger civil disobedience movement.
The Congress often reflected the demands of farmers in its constitutional and political documents. The Karachi Resolution 1931 and the Congress’s 1936 election manifesto touched upon issues of land revenue and rent. In the mid-1930s peasant unions like the All India Kisan Sabha became stronger and agrarian movements were becoming more organized and structured and were able to put pressure on political parties to pursue agricultural reforms: newly elected Congress provincial governments introduced legislation to protect farmer interests.
In a county like India where more than 50% of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector, the need to address agrarian issues and reforms through constitutional and political dialogues is imperative. India is no more a colonial entity; it is now an independent constitutional republic. Can India’s political parties, civil society and institutions do a better job of engaging with and protecting the interests of the agriculture sector within our constitutional framework, compared to what was achieved during British colonial rule?