How the farmers who forced the repeal of three farm laws drew inspiration from the freedom struggle

What was accomplished in 1928 by the Bardoli satyagraha has been replicated in 2021 by the farmers’ movement, forcing the ruling dispensation to concede to the demands of the protesting farmers. Drawing a parallel between the two, S.N. SAHU explains, on Constitution Day, how the protesting farmers, through their unparalleled movement, have upheld the Constitution.


A peep into history reveals that constitutional methods were adopted by farmers during the Bardoli satyagraha launched in 1928 against the decision of the British rulers to enhance land revenue by 30 percent without consulting stakeholders. Only when the callous British regime remained unresponsive to the issues raised, did the farmers resort to direct action by eschewing violence. However, the colonial rulers made every attempt, including the employment of divisive politics, to scuttle the Satyagraha.
Gandhi described those coercive methods as a manifestation of a frightful doctrine. The colonial authorities could not succeed in their methods. The bizarre demonstration of majoritarianism by the Modi regime and the ruthless persuasion of polarised politics to deal with the farmers’ movement against the farm laws is reminiscent of the policy of divide and rule.

Divide and rule

Consider the paragraph reproduced below:
The Government in their wisdom and in order to emphasize the fact that this rule is sustained by the policy of divide et impera have drafted in the midst of an over-whelmingly large Hindu population Mussalman officials and Pathan hirelings. As satyagrahis the people can easily checkmate the Government. Let them treat the officials and the Pathans as friends. Let them not distrust or in any the slightest manner fear or molest them. They the officials are our countrymen, the Pathans are our neighbours. Ere long the Government will discover their mistake and know that the honour of a Hindu is as dear to a Mussalman as to a Hindu and vice versa.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote the above passage in Young India on May 17, 1928 for exposing the British regime’s devious policy to break the Bardoli satyagraha. The said satyagraha was set in motion after, in the words of historian Bipan Chandra, the peasants took “… oaths in the name of Prabhu (the Hindu name for god) and Khuda (the Muslim name for god) that they would not pay the land revenue. The resolution was followed by the recitation of sacred texts from the Gita and the Koran and songs from Kabir, who symbolized Hindu-Muslim unity.” It resonates in the present-day farmers’ movement marked by recitation of religious slogans celebrating unity in diversity and upholding composite culture.
Also Read: Why Are Landless, Marginal and Small Farmers the Backbone of the Delhi Protest? 
The British colonial rulers sought to break a broad-based and inclusive Bardoli satyagarha, affirming religious pluralism and India’s syncretism, by deliberately employing divisive strategy based on Hindu-Muslim binaries. The deployment of Mussalman officials and Pathan hirelings in the largely Hindu dominated areas, where the satyagraha had gained momentum, had the objective of causing religious feuds and concomitant violence and bloodshed.
Gandhi, with his uncanny understanding of the diabolical polarising agenda of the British officials thoughtfully observed, as mentioned above  that “…the Government will discover their mistake and know that the honour of a Hindu is as dear to a Mussalman as to a Hindu and vice versa”. He further added: “The people of Bardoli have the chance of demonstrating this in a concrete manner. Let them vindicate the law of satyagraha which is also the law of Love and they will melt even the stony heart of an autocratic Commissioner.
Also Read: Gandhi devised Satyagraha to usher in a just world order
What was done by the British rulers to break the Bardoli satyagraha of the farmers by deviously provoking the Hindus against the Muslim officials and other Pathan mercenaries, who were purposely posted there, was also done against the peaceful farmers’ movement by the leaders of the Modi regime and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). So, there is a strong parallel between the divisive strategy adopted by colonial rulers against the Bardoli satyagraha and the polarised politics, very craftily used by the Modi regime to defame and damage the cause of the agitation of the farmers against the farm legislations enacted in 2020 without following the deliberative and consultative process of law making.
It is instructive to note that the year-long farmers’ movement of 2020-2021 has been launched by farmers of all faiths.  The BJP leaders described the movement as the handiwork of Khalistanis and in doing so, they gave a religious colour to a secular, non-violent and peaceful agitation which is unprecedented in the history of India.
Senior journalist Jagtar Singh, who wrote ‘Rivers on Fire: Khalistan Struggle’ said that, “This is the first ever secular mass mobilisation against the Modi government in the country”. He proceeded to add that, “They are scared that the protest can shake the divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar, hence they are dubbing Sikh farmers as Khalistanis.”
The retired army officers were not spared from communal slurs for supporting the movement of farmers. For instance, a retired Major was dubbed as a ‘Khalistani,’ ‘madrassa chhap’, and ‘sickular’ for taking a stand in favour of farmers opposing the farm laws.
A mischievous and twisted Pakistan angle was given to the farmers’ movement by the BJP National General Secretary and the Uttarakhand state unit in-charge Dushyant Kumar Gautam when he falsely asserted that “pro-Khalistan and pro-Pakistan” slogans were chanted in the sites where farmers were protesting.
Union Minister Piyush Goyal made a preposterous claim that anti-national forces infiltrated the farmers protesting against the farm laws. Such narratives rooted in the Pakistan angle were deliberately framed by the BJP leadership and circulated by the “Godi media” to generate perception among people that separatist tendencies are being fanned by the farmers.
The Pakistani angle is invoked to target Muslims and, thereby, causing religious division in an otherwise non-sectarian, secular and peaceful agitation organised by exercising the constitutional right to protest, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Allahu Akbar – Har Har Mahadev!

It is refreshing to note that the farmers’ movement only intensified and gained renewed momentum, in spite of the attempts of powers that sought to divide its momentum on religious lines. In fact, it has bridged the religious division caused by the BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 when farmers professing the Hindu faith moved away from those following Islam and a bloody riot ensued, causing deaths of farmers of both the communities.
Their unity was amply demonstrated in the massive Kisan Mahapanchayat organised in Muzaffarnagar on September 5, 2021. During this event, when Rakesh Tikait, leader of the farmer’s representative organisation Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), recited Allahu Akbar (God is Great), the other leaders and participants responded by chanting Har Har Mahadev (“’Everyone is Lord Shiva”); the Sikhs present there invoked Wahe Guru (“the true Guru/ One God” in the Guru Granth Sahib). Social activist Medha Patkar, who was a leading participant in that mahapanchayat, raised the slogan “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai, apas mein sab behen bhai (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are sisters and brothers).
Also Read: The Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat rekindles hopes for the reclamation of the Constitution

Secularism: part of the Basic Structure of the Construction

Such religious pluralism evidenced in the chanting of those multiple slogans in a colossal gathering of farmers represented the unity and solidarity of “We the people”, and underlined the victory for secularism enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution and held by the Supreme Court in the S.R. Bommai judgement in 1994 as a basic feature of the Constitution.
Also Read: The Journey from S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India to Javed vs. State of UP
In fact, in the judgement, the Apex Court observed:
How are the constitutional promises of social justice, liberty of belief, faith or worship and equality of status and of opportunity to be attained unless the State eschews the religion, faith or belief of a person from its consideration altogether while dealing with him, his rights, his duties and his entitlements? Secularism is thus more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions. This attitude is described by some as one of neutrality towards religion or as one of benevolent neutrality. This may be a concept evolved by western liberal thought or it may be, as some say, an abiding faith with the Indian people at all points of time. That is not material. What is material is that it is a constitutional goal and a basic feature of the Constitution as affirmed in Kesavananda Bharati and Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narain. Any step inconsistent with this constitutional policy is, in plain words, unconstitutional.

Ghulam Mohammad Jola fondly recalled the legacy of Mahendra Singh Tikait, who on the occasion of a rally of farmers in Hardwar, asked Jola and other farmers professing Islamic faith to offer Namaz in Har ki Pauri as the nearest mosque was located at a distance of eight kilometers.

Some aspects of equal treatment of religions manifested in the chanting of those slogans was a significant development in the context of Uttar Pradesh and particularly, the western part of it where, in 2013, the BJP triggered immense polarisation based on religion and the unity between the Jat and Muslim farmers was broken.

The vision of Ambedkar and Gandhi

Apart from preaching a plurality of religious slogans, Tikait and other leaders of the BKU have been involved in practical action meant to unite people. They have travelled to several villages, mobilised both Hindu and Muslim farmers, and convinced them to overcome the rift caused by the riots.
The meetings they organised in the streets in an effort to convince others to join their cause embody Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s call to “Educate, Agitate and Organise”.
The unity of the farmers’ protests also mirrors the eighteen points outlined by Gandhi in his Constructive Programme wherein he argued that communal unity does not mean political unity, but an unbreakable unity of the hearts. In forging unity among farmers professing diverse faiths by reciting multi-religious slogans, an attempt has been made for the cause of  unity of hearts among them.

The historical context 

It is worthwhile to recall the historical context of the recitation of Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev. It is not for the first time that these chants are being recited at farmer rallies. Its legacy dates back to Mahendra Singh Tikait, who led the farmers of different faiths and fought for their rights.

Gandhi wrote in his book Young India that, “..the Government will discover their mistake and know that the honour of a Hindu is as dear to a Mussalman as to a Hindu and vice versa”.

During one protest rally of farmers in the early 1980s, two farmers Akbar Ali, a Muslim, and Jai Pal, a Hindu, fell to police bullets and breathed their last. Farmers belonging to the BKU, led by Mahendra Tikait, gathered around the dead bodies of their colleagues and spontaneously shouted Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev. That was how the practice of chanting those religious slogans commenced. The farmers in their gatherings carried it forward to signify their common bond transcending their religious affiliations and affirming their religious pluralism and secular credentials.
It has become clear over the last many months that the agitation of the farmers against the three farm laws, and their retrieval of our Constitution’s secular legacy, are lessons that others can use in their journey to reclaim the Constitution and its accompanying constitutional morality, both of which have been under assault since 2014. It is important that this momentum be sustained in order to ensure the eventual defeat of divisive politics.

The farmers of Bardoli, through their satyagraha in 1928 against increase of land revenue, not only succeeded in getting their grievances redressed but also foiled the attempts of colonial rulers to divide them on religious lines. What was accomplished in 1928 by the Bardoli satyagraha has been replicated in 2021 by the farmers’ movement, which literally forced the Modi government to concede to their demand for repeal of the farm laws. The movement itself has salvaged the secular ethos of the farming community. The larger meaning of it is that the farmers through their unparalleled movement, have upheld the Constitution.

(S.N. Sahu was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India KR Narayanan. The views expressed are personal.)