The Spatiality of Civil Resistance Movements: Reflecting on India’s Farmers Protests

Author: Mayank Mishra

From the much known ‘Occupy Wallstreet’ movement in 2011 in Zuccotti Park, New York City against economic inequality to the much topical ‘George Floyd Square’ as an ongoing occupation protest and memorial site after the vicious killing of an Afro-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis, the US, by a white police officer; a common aspect in the stated leaderless civil resistance movements is the role of ‘space’. In the context of South Asia, the ongoing Farmers Protest in India against the contested three Farm laws–passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020 to liberalize how and to whom farmers can sell their produce– makes the role of space conspicuous. The rise of occupy movements have highlighted the role and significance of space in social movements.

As a consequence of the controversial Farm Laws passed in September 2020, farmers from the north Indian states of Punjab and Haryana marched to the Indian Capital, New Delhi, demanding the government to repeal the laws. The protest organized in November 2020 was touted as the biggest organized 24-hour general strike in human history as around 250 million people participated in solidarity at its peak. More than 200,000 men and women camped for months, are still camping in a few places, on the roads leading to New Delhi, barricaded by concrete walls, nails on the road, trenches and concertina wires. Three temporary settlements were erected on the periphery of Delhi at Singhu (near Punjab), Tikri (near Haryana) and Gazipur (near Uttar Pradesh).

Barriers erected at Ghazipur (border between Delhi and the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh) to stop farmers entering the Capital New Delhi. Source: Twitter.
Barriers erected at Ghazipur (border between Delhi and the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh) to stop farmers entering the Capital New Delhi. Source: Twitter.

Farmers’ protest of this scale is not new in India. On October 25, 1988, nearly 500,000 farmers took over the heart of the Capital occupying the power center of New Delhi, the North and South block of the Indian Parliament. An absence of social media and private news broadcasters rendered the people of Delhi clueless about the vast gathering of farmers led by the Bhartiya Kisan Union. The government, however, left no stone unturned to relocate the protest from the center of power. Nevertheless, the undeterred resolve of the protesting farmers did not go unnoticed as public sympathy gradually gravitated towards them.

Camps erected at the New Delhi border by the protesting farmers. (Source: Abhinav Saha, The Indian Express).

In a span of over three decades, from 1988 to the 2020s, what remains unchanged is how villages and towns are used as mobilization spaces to occupy spaces that evince power, the Capital in the stated case. Despite the IT revolution and the penetration of social media in India, physical space still plays a crucial role in movements as one-on-one confrontation has a motivating and powerful impact. Furthermore, a similar aspect that transcends temporality in both the farm protests are these movements’ autonomy from mainstream political leadership. This de-platforming of political parties from these movements is independent of any electoral political vested interests. Only stakeholders, farmers, led the spaces of such resistances with extended solidarity by the political parties and people. Such autonomy, however, got contested as the movement progressed. In the Farmers’ Protest of 2020, the ruling dispensation headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) deemed the protesters corrupt and violent and ascribed their protests as a plot to dent India’s global image. The incumbent government shifted the discourse from agricultural reforms and economics to political contestations. Likewise, the opposition sought to use the movement to spring back to the electoral arena dominated by the ruling BJP. However, such spatial mobilization proved that civil resistances such as the farm protests could be impactful without the bonhomie of the political parties.

Barriers filled with concrete at the Singhu Border near New Delhi (February 1, 2021) Source: Press Trust of India.
Barriers filled with concrete at the Singhu Border near New Delhi (February 1, 2021) Source: Press Trust of India.

A state produces and uses political space as a privileged instrument to impose its rationality. As space is one of the fundamental attributes of the state, spatial assertion or occupying space becomes a prominent tool to challenge state power. However, space herein does not limit to mere physicality but manifest power and experiential dimensions as well. The occupation of traditional state-controlled spaces as sites of mobilization challenges state hegemony and signals democratization of political processes as public spaces belong to the public but are controlled by the state. Thus, the borders leading to the Indian Capital were converted into spaces of resistances, with tent cities being established to cater to hundreds of thousands of protesters with community kitchens, medical camps, book shops, laundry facilities, portable toilets and such facilities that would make participants stay. Such setups often fuel and sustain movements as they create a fervent atmosphere that keeps the spirits and momentum of the people high creating a sense of place. The spatial occupation for demonstrations traditionally controlled by the state enhances the bargaining power of the protesters as such spaces also work as mobilization places. The 2020 Farmers’ protests witnessed on-site art performances, protest songs in vernacular languages, airing their demands and making the public aware of causes of the resistance through leaflets, posters and videos. The protest sites even had its four-page tabloid called Trolley Times capturing the moods of the protesters and providing updates of the protests at the Delhi borders. The protesters launched a dedicated YouTube channel called Kisan Ekta Morcha and a Twitter account to dole out exclusive updates and voice their concerns after pro-government channels commenced delegitimizing the protests as a global conspiracy to defame India and tagging protesters as ‘anti-nationals’. Such online social networks have played an incremental role in sustaining the offline ‘space’ as a potent instrument of civil resistance. Such a sense of space ameliorates and strengthens the participants’ sense of identity and enthusiasm (Wang, Ye & Chan, 2019).

Spatial resistances also create political spaces and facilitate a political culture that perpetuates the democratization of politics (Alvarez, 2018) by bringing in the publicness to the personal concerns of everyday life. A spatial reading of occupy movements thus helps gauge movements’ resistance to unilateral discipline, spatial homogeneity, and state hierarchy. The spaces occupied for demonstrations convert such urban spaces into private spaces that impugn the state’s power and creates a physical and political space for reasserting the power of the people.

The views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Mayank Mishra is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. He has completed his MPhil from the School of International Studies at JNU, New Delhi, India and has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Delhi, India. His research focuses specifically on state space, political economy and South Asia.

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