Participation in a non-divisive mass movement, i.e., one that is not directed against some other segment of the people, of which the struggle for improving the material conditions of life is a classic example, is the greatest teacher of the values of democracy and unity. This is why political revolutions, which are the highest form that such a mass movement can take, are occasions for immense social churning when people’s attitudes towards one another are also revolutionised. Indeed, this constitutes the very condition for the success of the revolution and people learn this elementary fact in the process of participating in the revolution itself.
While the pedagogic role of participation in such a mass movement does not need belabouring, its significance is immense and not always appreciated. The anti-colonial struggle was one obvious example. The fact that large numbers of people suddenly found themselves transcending caste and gender prejudices, and even got drawn into acquiring socialist or communist attitudes, was a result of their participation in the anti-colonial struggle.
True, the sweep of this struggle in India remained somewhat arrested, but India’s march to modernity, enshrined in a Constitution that promised equality for all citizens, that established democratic institutions and fundamental rights for all, and that separated the State from all religions, would not have been possible otherwise.
This was a profound change in a society characterised by millennia of institutionalised inequality and oppression in the form of the caste system, but this change was not the result of the benign blessings of M K Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru or B R Ambedkar, it was the product of the movement against colonialism that drew in large numbers of people and promised a new India, though, of course, individual leaders tasked with framing the Constitution, gave expression to this yearning of the people.
Philosopher Akeel Bilgrami gives a specific and quite striking example of the role of a mass movement in changing people’s attitudes. In the Bengal Provincial Legislative Council, a Bill providing for women’s suffrage had been defeated in 1921. Subsequently, however, the Khilafat Movement gathered steam, and many Muslims who were drawn into it experienced an attitudinal change. Many of them joined the Swarajya Party founded within the Congress by C R Das, who had advocated entering legislatures to introduce progressive legislation for change. When the same Women’s Suffrage Bill was introduced in 1925 in the Bengal Legislature, it was adopted, with the Swarajist Muslims voting in favour of it.
Overcoming gender prejudices typical of a traditional society was made possible within a short span of time because of participation in a mass movement that necessarily brought in important attitudinal changes. That movement itself, though anti-imperialist in its thrust, was inspired by a hopelessly traditional objective, of bringing back the Caliphate. Even so, however, it effected such important attitudinal changes (many of the early communists, incidentally, were recruited from its ranks).
Exactly a similar effect is being produced by the kisan movement today. A substantial number of the participants in this movement were swayed by the communal frenzy that was unleashed in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, which by creating a rupture between the Jat Hindus and the Muslims, had paid handsome electoral dividends to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Electoral hegemony in this region had eluded BJP until then, but in the wake of the communal riots and the ensuing polarisation between the communities, BJP not only entered this region, but on the strength of it obtained the lion’s share of Parliament seats from Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 elections, so that it acquired a majority on its own at the Centre. Even BJP’s subsequent victories in UP, whether in the Assembly elections or in the 2019 parliamentary elections, were founded upon this communal polarisation in Western UP.
But the kisan movement has overcome this polarisation and brought Muslims and Hindu Jats together against the three infamous farm laws. In fact, when the alleged instigator of the 2013 riots, now a member of the Union council of ministers, wanted to break the call given by kisan leaders not to hobnob socially with BJP bigwigs, by forcibly entering a village to attend a social occasion, his entry was opposed by villagers, some of whom were then roughed up by his entourage of goons. His claim that it was only members of a rival political party that opposed his presence was belied by the fact that the villagers gathered at the police station insisting on registering an FIR. It is clear that there is a sea change in the attitudes of the people because of the movement itself, where the old myths spun by BJP no longer work.
Likewise, the conflict between Jat peasants and dalit labourers has been a perennial feature of this region which has been a major impediment in the way of worker-peasant unity. Here the economic conflict between the employer and the employee has been compounded by the caste conflict between the dalits and Jat peasants. This simmering contradiction had come into the boil some decades ago in a village called Kanjhawala not far from Delhi, which had captured national attention at that time.
The current kisan movement, however, has brought the two groups together in an unprecedented show of unity. It is obvious to both groups, and indeed to all engaged in the struggle against the three farm laws, that the implementation of these laws will sound the death-knell of Indian agriculture as it exists today, to the detriment of all its classes. The coming together of these groups is an event of immense significance, made possible by the mass movement against the laws.
The third area where traditional attitudes are being transcended relates to the gender question. In a highly patriarchal society, the fact that women have been so extraordinarily active in the kisan movement is itself of momentous significance, something that nobody could have anticipated. There is an upsurge among women that has brought them into the public sphere and this has great significance for gender relations in future.
Then there is the relation between industrial workers of the area and kisans where again we find quite an unprecedented level of solidarity. The effects of the mass movement are also manifest in the symbols invoked, in the history recapitulated, and in the traditions of struggle recovered. There is, for instance, a recovery of the “pagdi sambhal” movement of 1906 in which revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s uncle, Ajit Singh, had been involved. The parallel between the current threat to Indian agriculture and what it had faced during the colonial period is thus underscored by the movement.
The democratising and unifying role of the kisan movement, therefore, is as unmistakable as it is significant (so much so that one does not even hear of Punjab’s drug problem, a product of acute alienation among its youth, any longer). It stands in striking contrast to the divisiveness and the authoritarianism introduced into the polity by the BJP government.
And here we come to the crux of the difference between mass movements on secular, bread-and-butter, issues, and the sort of movements that BJP is invariably associated with, which are essentially divisive. When BJP veteran L K Advani had launched his rath yatra, many commentators had referred to it as igniting a huge “mass movement”. What this description missed is that there is an ocean of difference between “mass movements” that bring attitudinal changes and the BJP-type movements that do not.
The reason why a “mass movement”, like the kisan movement brings about a transcendence of the given level of consciousness is because it unites people on a common secular cause. Movements such as what BJP gets associated with, far from uniting people to transcend their existing level of consciousness, play on the existing fault-lines of society. These reaffirm those fault-lines, accentuate the prevailing divisiveness, and strengthen the extant backward consciousness, instead of leading to its transcendence.
It is no accident that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS had remained aloof from the anti-colonial struggle. That struggle had been the basis of a new awakening in the country; the kisan movement has emerged as the legacy of that awakening and it is carrying that awakening forward.