By Mohan Sen
Nodeep Kaur, the jailed Indian trade unionist and farmer solidarity activist whose case we have covered in recent issues of Solidarity, has finally been released on bail. So has climate activist Disha Ravi.
But Kaur’s comrade Shiv Kumar, one of the founders of her union Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan (Association for the Empowerment of Labourers), is still in jail and has been tortured. A medical examination conducted after the regional high court ordered it found “right foot swelling and tenderness of left foot nail, beds of right second and third toe are broken and underlying skin is reddish in colour, discoloration of nails of the left thumb and index finger”.
Shortly after her release Kaur spoke at a press conference, saying: “Shiv Kumar is in jail even today. No one is talking about him. He is innocent. He was severely beaten up by the police, his bones are broken. I request people to raise voice for his bail as well.”
Kumar is, like Kaur, a Dalit (a member of the “lowest”, most oppressed caste), making him extra vulnerable to violence by the Indian state.
The two were arrested in connection with mobilising low-paid, precarious workers to demand their rights, including unpaid wages; the wider context is their support for the surging farmers’ protests against the Modi government’s neo-liberal agricultural reforms.
The farmers’ movement continues to gain momentum, holding meetings and protests in new areas of the country and building new alliances, including with Dalit organisations.
On 21 February a hundred thousand farmers and farm labourers rallied in the Indian state of Punjab to oppose Modi’s farm laws, mobilised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union, the largest farmers’ organisation involved in the protests, and local allied labourers’ organisation Khet Mazdoor Union.
A third of the population of Punjab, the strongest centre of the farmers’ struggle, are farm labourers, and they are mostly Dalits.
Obviously the interests of even poor farmers and farm labourers are not necessarily or always the same. Workers’ organisations need to make alliances on the basis of class independence, and we are not really able to comment on how things stand in this movement. Still, the suggestion that further opening up of agriculture to big corporations will hit labourers even harder than farmers seems plausible.
The gathering saw a large turnout of women, with a prominent woman farmers’ leader denouncing Modi and co’s desire to “keep us women under their feet. We won’t let them.”
Speakers signalled their intention to defy further repression and intimidation. One BKU leader told any attendees who received summons from the police to ignore them and go straight to the union’s legal team, adding that the police should not dare to enter the villages to make arrests.