On 19 November, India’s farmers triumphed after a year-long struggle, as Narendra Modi’s government announced it would repeal its neo-liberal agricultural reforms.
In January, at a high point of that struggle, working-class activist Nodeep Kaur was arrested, held for 45 days and subjected to violence and abuse by the police. She briefly shot to international prominence after Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, tweeted about her case. See here for a short background article on Nodeep’s family and her arrest and treatment in jail, and here for a longer one on her and her comrade Shiv Kumar, also jailed in January. (Nodeep pictured above, shortly after her release, demanding freedom for Shiv.)
A week before Modi’s retreat, Nodeep spoke to Sacha Ismail and Faryal Velmi. She will also be speaking at our "Building a new left" event on Saturday 27 November, at 3.40pm.
You became relatively well-known internationally, earlier in the year, because of the farmers’ protests, but you yourself are a worker. How did you become involved in the farmers’ movement?
Modi’s farm laws affect workers too. Without agricultural labourers, the farmers can’t produce anything. If the farmers don’t get a decent rate for their crops, the labourers suffer too. There is also a loss of jobs in the mandis [state-regulated markets where farmers sell their crops] — and for workers more generally, the reforms will increase the price of food.
I am from Punjab. I couldn’t finish university in Delhi because I couldn’t afford the fees; there wasn’t any work in Delhi so I ended up in Kundli [on the Haryana-Delhi border], working in a lightbulb factory. That’s how I came into contact with my organisation, Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan [MAS, Workers’ Rights Organisation]. Together with my comrades I worked to help the factory workers understand what the farmers’ protests were about. We built solidarity and mobilised workers alongside the farmers.
That did not please the authorities. And we were also organising protests outside many factories for workers’ rights, which the millionaires who own them did not like!
In January I was arrested, and my comrade Shiv Kumar was arrested a few days later. He was treated like a terrorist — arrested in his home by plain clothes police who covered his face, held a gun to his back and told him not to make any noise.
I was in jail for 45 days. For ten days I didn’t really hear anything, but then a protest movement started to snowball. I learnt there were not only protests here, but international solidarity, through social media, too. That had an important impact in India too, because it pushed some in the farmers’ movement who didn’t want to support me into doing so. Things snowballed and there was serious disruption by farmers, workers and students to demand our release.
Why were some in the farmers’ movement reluctant to support you?
There were voices saying that workers’ rights was a separate thing and the farmers’ movement shouldn’t mix itself up with other issues. We said that they have to be linked and that view became more widespread.
Tell us about your organisation, MAS.
The organisation is based in Haryana, which has thousands of factories, many in the Kundli industrial area. It was set up in 2018 by Shiv Kumar and others. We have campaigned on a range of issues. Very low wages, often much less than the minimum wage. Inequality of pay between men and women; for women workers there’s also a serious problem of rape and sexual assault by supervisors. Child labour. And the police and factory owners working in collusion with each other.
We have 300 factory workers who are members; but also some involvement from agricultural labourers and people who work in the streets. They are generally connected to the organisation less formally.
When a worker comes to us with an issue, we often give them a letter, with our stamp, demanding the employer sorts it out. Prior to our arrest, when the organisation was smaller, these letters were often ignored or even snatched off workers. Now because of the struggles we have waged we are stronger. Very often now the letters say we will organise a protest outside the factory, and the bosses know we are serious.
What is the latest in the farmers’ struggle?
On 26 November it will be a year since the farmers’ movement began. There will be a day of action, a day of solidarity, in every village, in every university and school. There will also be a new convergence on the parliament in Delhi, with farmers bringing their tractors.
In that last year 700 farmers have died taking part in the protests, and there is a lot of repression against the movement. The numbers protesting fell due to Covid, and also because of people’s need to work so they can survive. But still the battle continues. In many parts of the country, if a BJP politician goes to a village, they will be beaten up and chased out. And after a year, the farm laws have not been implemented yet.
Can you say more about the relationship between farmers and farm labourers in this struggle?
There are always conflicts and tensions. In a village if a labourer speaks up for their rights, or for instance goes off with a farmer’s daughter, they will very often be boycotted, their freedom will be restricted. But during the farmers’ movement we have built a lot of solidarity. Labourers know that they will be the first victim of the farm laws, farmers know they need labourers’ support. In some areas of the country, for instance Punjab, there is a tradition of farmer-worker solidarity, and this movement has strengthened that a lot. All this has an impact in everyday life.
For obvious reasons, the government has tried very hard to divide the farmers and also to divide the farmers from the agricultural workers.
What is your assessment of India’s trade union movement? How effective is it?
In many workplaces across India there has been great solidarity with the farmers’ movement, but of course workers’ rights are being attacked by Modi too. The strikes unions have called about this, including in November last year, are very patchy.
There is a huge amount of repression in India against trade unionists and any workers who want to fight for their rights — from the hired thugs of factory owners and from the police. There is also an issue of corruption in some big unions, where they actually take money from employers and aid their oppression of the workers. My organisation is a lot more grassroots and a lot braver than many unions. There is also a problem of unions being divided politically, linked to different political parties, and of different unions failing to work together even for very basic demands like a higher minimum wage. I don’t just mean the unions linked to right-wing parties like the BJP, I mean even left unions refusing to work together.
Despite all that, there is a tradition of big trade union struggles in India, for instance in Mumbai, and there have been many victories over the years.
Can you say a bit more about unions linked to right-wing parties?
They use the same arguments as the parties, dangerous nationalist arguments. They say that workers and farmers who protest are against India, that they are terrorists, that they are linked to people in other countries conspiring against India. They call the farmers from Punjab Khalistanis [Sikh separatists].
These movements helped provoke [Hindu] workers to carry out nationalist actions, like the shameful killing of Muslims that happened in Gujarat [when Modi was chief minister there]. They make workers ignore the fact that their stomachs are growling by mobilising them for nationalism.
What is your experience organising as a young Dalit women? How does caste fit together with class in Indian society?
Women in India are treated terribly. They are seen as existing just to bear children, and in many cases are treated worse than animals. Dalits are seen as fit only to sweep up rubbish, to serve the needs of the higher castes. They believe god created us to serve them. So having someone like me standing outside factories, raising my fist to a rich factory owner, that is a huge protest against the status quo just in itself.
The ruling classes in India have woven class divisions and caste divisions together. Caste is used to divide working-class unity and solidarity. If workers in a factory are fighting for their rights, often the owner will use caste to divide the workers and stir up hostility, and often that works.
The most dangerous aspect of the BJP and their friends is their whipping up of hostility and violence against non-Hindus, particularly Muslims. They are also extreme religious fundamentalists. On Valentine’s Day, for instance, they go round attacking young couples.
Whenever there is a protest movement, the ruling class and the media try to give it a sectarian label, saying this is the movement of just one religion or one caste. But in the farmers’ movement the message is that we are all farmers, not divided by caste or religion. This struggle has opened the minds of many farmers and other people to understanding the divisive and sectarian nature of the BJP.
Does the issue of climate change come up in your struggles?
For a lot of workers and farmers in India, they are living hand-to-mouth, and just getting enough to eat can be hard work. It’s difficult to ask them to protest about climate change. However there are massive issues in India; for instance Delhi is extremely polluted, if you go there your eyes will constantly water and you will not stop coughing. Some better off activists in India, students for instance, have started to engage with these issues a lot more.
There needs to government-level action against the companies that are polluting and churning out emissions, and international action too. Individual workers and farmers are powerless to address this question.
Are you a socialist?
Yes, I am a socialist — I am influenced by Marxist ideas. I believe workers should not be divided by religion or caste; I believe the division of society into a working class and a ruling class is not natural. I want to see a radical social change. I have often been referred to as a Dalit activist, but I don’t call myself that, I call myself a labour activist.
We fight for workers’ rights but we also fight against privatisation and for public ownership. Both farmers and workers are fighting this battle against privatisation, it is the same struggle. It is an international struggle too — the companies we are taking on here in India are international companies.
Are there struggles in other countries that have influenced or inspired you?
The Black Lives Matter struggle in the US. I was also inspired by the international solidarity demanding my release.
How can we help now?
Social media support is really useful. So are donations. A great thing about the farmers’ movement is that it got financial help from the Indian diaspora all over the world, that’s one reason it has continued for so long. Donations to my organisation are welcome too, and would benefit us a great deal.
It is a very difficult task overcoming caste and other divisions, and fighting for workers’ rights. We are doing our best to organise and unite workers, agricultural labourers and farmers. The farmers’ movement has given a very good platform for our struggle.