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Mutual Aid and Self-Organization in Anti-CAA and Farmers’ Protests

Mutual Aid and Self-Organization in Anti-CAA and Farmers’ Protests


Pranav Jeevan P

توشاہیںہےپروازہےکامتیراترےسامنےآسماںاوربھیہیں- اقبالpranav

तूशाहीनहै,परवाज़हैकामतेरा ,तेरेसामनेआसमांऔरभीहै – इकबाल

You are a falcon, your purpose is to fly, there are still more skies for you to transcend – Ikbal

India witnessed two large scale protests in last 2 years which saw millions taking to streets against the oppressive laws passed by the Government. These were the Anti-CAA protests and the farmers protests. During the Anti-CAA protests, the loudest voices of dissent have been the women, from housewives to grandmothers, lawyers to students, women across India have been at the forefront of this struggle (Jeevan, 2021). This female-driven political awakening has been most jubilantly epitomized by the sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh, drawing a cross-generational, largely female crowd never seen in India before (Petersen & Azizur Rahman, 2020). Then came the farmer protests, where millions of farmers took to streets to force the government to repeal the farm laws and to highlight the issues of agrarian crisis which has been growing in India for the last few decades. In these protests, there is an unprecedented solidarity being displayed in the daily rallies that draw out thousands of people all over Indian cities crossing caste and gender boundaries. There are no visible leaders calling out to people to protest in one mode or another, yet the country has found a way to speak truth to power (Badwar, 2020).

Most of the women who came to Shaheen Bagh protest were first-time protesters, mostly Muslim homemakers, who were standing up to the government (Kuchay, 2020). Armed with thick blankets, warm cups of tea and songs of resistance, these women have braved one of the coldest winters Delhi faced in the last 118 years (Shaheen Bagh: The women occupying Delhi street against citizenship law – ‘I don’t want to die proving I am Indian’, 2020). They broke down the historically prevailing gender binary of patriarchy and took control. They also destroyed the popular imagination claiming Muslim women as powerless and lacking agency. Farmers protest also saw participation of women coming out to protest in large numbers. Women, who constitute one fifth of the protestors, were seen riding tractors from their villages and rallying to the protest sites. In a highly patriarchal society, this upsurge of women participation has great significance. The protests have also brought land owners, predominantly Jats and agricultural laborers, predominantly Dalits, together in an unprecedented show of unity. The coming together of these groups is an event of immense significance, made possible by the mass movement against the laws (Patnaik, 2021).

Autonomous self-organization is non-hierarchical i.e. there is no institutional or permanent leadership or authority. While people with some knowledge can act as advisors to the struggle and will be given the attention they deserve for their knowledge, they won’t be allowed to become leaders, because that would undermine the essential trait of self-organization which is horizontal communication and relationships, where we have people talking with each other, expressing needs and desires openly, discussing the problems they face together, finding solutions and developing strategies, without any leadership to conform this expression to a set line. This aspect of self-organization is visible in both Shaheen Bagh and Farmers protests (Landstreicher, 2009).

No political party or organization could claim to be leading these protests. Instead, Shaheen Bagh protest was fueled primarily by women who were residents of that working-class neighborhoods. Since it was a leaderless protest, it could not be terminated by a few prominent organizers (Sarfaraz, 2020). When they tried to “call off” the protest citing interference of political parties and security threats, the women of Shaheen Bagh rejected it and decided to continue the protests. The movement had no formal organizers and thrived on a roving group of volunteers and the local women’s tenacity alone. This lack of leadership also confused the police who are clueless on whom to approach to make these women vacate the site. Similarly, farmers protest is a decentralized leaderless protest by hundreds of farmer unions. Even though the negotiations with the government are being attended by representatives of 32 farmer unions, they act as mere spoke persons who present the collective demand of all farmers. Whenever Government introduces a new proposal, the representatives come back to the unions where they sit together, discuss, debate and decide the future course of action together in a democratic way, which is an example of participatory democracy instead of the few representatives deciding what is good for all farmers as we see in representative democracy. Farmers are also conducting Kisan Mahapanchayats (public meetings) which are attended by hundreds of thousands of people in villages around Delhi, UP, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana to discuss strategies and ways to put pressure on the government. It was this decentralization that made the protest robust and overcome the condemnation around violence during Republic day Truck Rally. Even though many farm union leaders called for ending the protest, the farmers remained steadfast in their decision to not go back till the laws were repelled.

Mutual aid is another core anarchist principle which involves voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid participants work together to figure out strategies and resources to meet each other’s needs, such as food, housing, medical care, and disaster relief, etc. while organizing themselves against the unjust and oppressive system that created these shortages in the first place. Mutual-aid groups are structured as non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic with all individuals controlling resources equally. They are egalitarian in nature and designed to support participatory democracy, equality and consensus-based decision-making. Since, these protests were against the government and the government actively tried to defame, attack and repress these protests, self-organization and mutual aid automatically emerged in them.

Solidarity, not Charity

The protesters of Shaheen Bagh were supported and coordinated by a diverse group of more than hundred volunteers, including local residents, students and professionals. These volunteers organized themselves around different tasks such as setting up makeshift stages, shelters and bedding; providing food, water, medicine, and access to toilet facilities; installing CCTV cameras, bringing in electric heaters, outside speakers and collecting donations (The volunteers of Shaheen Bagh, 2019). Collection drives for blankets and other essentials were organized through social media. Doctors and nurses along with medical students from different medical institutes and hospitals voluntarily joined to provide medical aid (Behind Shaheen Bagh’s Women, An Army of Students, Doctors & Locals, 2020).

The government barricaded the capital roads with cemented nails and trenches to stop farmers and cut off electricity, Internet, and water supply from the protest sites. But farmers created a network of mutual aid to overcome this scarcity imposed by government. Scores of langars, i.e. free community kitchens were set up by to meet the food demand of the hundreds of thousands of farmers in the camps that have sprung up on the borders of Delhi (Langar Tradition Plays Out in Farmers Protest, Students Use Social Media To Organise Essentials, 2020). The farmers came fully equipped to prepare mass meals in these community kitchens with supplies coming from their villages daily. These langars work round the clock and provide free food without distinction of caste, class, or religion. Social media was used to collect blankets and other essentials for these protests who are braving the harsh winter and coming summer. Volunteers have set up solar-powered mobile charging points, laundry stalls with washing machines, medical stalls for medicines, arranged doctors and nurses, dental camps and brought foot massage chairs for elderly protesters (Sinha, 2020).

If protests are “public display” of different political and cultural values, then protest art is significant in articulating those alternative views. Protest art encourages use of public spaces to address socio-political issues and encourages community participation as a means of bringing social change. Art was used extensively as voice of resistance in the both protest sites, which were decorated with paintings, murals, graffiti posters, banners and installations (Venkataramakrishnan, 2020). Public participation activates individuals and communities to become catalyst for change as participation becomes an act of self-expression by the entire community. Creative expression empowers individuals by creating a space in which their voices can be heard and they can engage in a dialogue with one another about the issues that matter to them.

Educate, Agitate, Organize

Libraries and reading areas were set up with hundreds of crowd-sourced books as well as writing materials (Thakur, 2020). A nearby bus stop was converted into the Fatima Sheikh-Savitribai Phule library, which provided material on the country’s constitution, revolution, casteism, fascism, oppression and various social issues (Ameen, 2020). A makeshift school was set up for children from underprivileged families who are unable to attend school due to financial issues and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Farmers also installed CCTV cameras to keep a watch on the protest site and keep a record of what is happening and ensure safety of the protestors.

Speeches, lectures, rap, DJ, and shayari readings were held every day (Chakrabarti, 2019). Activists, artists and social workers came and gave talks on various issues faced by farmers, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, the disabled, LGBTQ people, minorities and all those who are oppressed. Musical and cultural events were also conducted in solidarity with anti-CAA protests. These occupy protests provided an example of how to create a community without government support by voluntary association and mutual aid, make decisions in a democratic way where everyone takes part and decentralize power by having no organizers or leaders who control everything (Jeevan, 2021).

Anarchism tries to create institutions of a new society “within the shell of the old,” to expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination, but always, while doing so, proceeding in a democratic fashion, a manner which itself demonstrates those structures are unnecessary (Graeber, 2004). Anarchists observe what people are already doing in their communities, and then tries to tease out the hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions and tries to make sense of it in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of. They look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are already doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions (Graeber, 2004). They understand that people are already forming self-organized communities when the state has failed them and we can learn a lot about direct action and mutual aid from these communities.

Direct democratic decision making, decentralization of power, solidarity, mutual aid and voluntary association are the core principles of anarchist organizing. Anarchists employ direct action, disrupting and protesting against unjust hierarchies, and self-managing their lives through the creation of counter-institutions such as communes and non-hierarchical collectives. Decision-making is handled in an anti-authoritarian way, with everyone having equal say in each decision. They participate in all discussions in order to build a rough consensus among members of the group without the need of a leader or a leading group. Anarchists organize themselves to occupy and reclaim public spaces where art, poetry and music are blended to display the anarchist ideals. Squatting is a way to regain public space from the capitalist market or an authoritarian state and also being an example of direct action. We can find elements of these in these two protests and that is the reason for their robustness and success. It bursts the myth that you need a centralized chain of command with small group of leaders on top who decide the strategies and a very large group of followers who blindly obey those decisions for the sustenance and success of large scale organizing. All these protests were leaderless protests where people themselves decided and came to a consensus on the course of action to be followed in a democratic way. When people decide to take decisions themselves and coordinate with each other in small communities by providing aid to each other, it creates the strongest form of democracy and solidarity (Jeevan, 2021).

The fact that these protests happened, with so many thousands of people collectively organizing and cooperating, for such a long duration, shows us that we can self-organize and create communities without external institutions and it can be civilized and more democratic than the autocratic bureaucracy and authoritarian governments which concentrate all power and oppress people. These protests were driven by mostly by uneducated women, poor farmers and people from other marginalized communities, who showed that they can create communities which are more moral and egalitarian, than those that exist in hierarchical societies with the affluent and highly educated. They showed that people who are oppressed and underprivileged can organize themselves into communities of mutual aid and direct democracy which eliminates a need for coercive hierarchical systems of governance which exist only to exploit them (Jeevan, 2021).

What these occupy protests show us is that we can form communities and collectively organize various forms of democratic decision making simultaneously providing everyone their basic needs. There protests show us models of community organizing in large scales comprising hundreds of thousands of people. Even though they are not perfect, we can learn the ideas these protests emulate – of solidarity, mutual aid, direct democracy, decentralization of power and try to recreate these in our lives and communities.

We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.

― Errico Malatesta

This article is draws heavily from (Jeevan, 2021) which introduced anti-CAA and farmers protests to an international audience.



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Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.