Reading Climate Justice through the Indian Farmers’ Movement

This piece originally appeared on Edge Effects.

Sitting at home for the last few months, I’ve reflected on what it would mean to listen to and amplify the voices of the farmers protesting in India without being at the protest site even once. People were doing their bit—tweeting and circulating information, materially supporting organizations that were distributing blankets on the ground, having a conversation with the neighbor who “stays away from politics,” signing petitions, organizing webinars to make academics aware of why it matters, and creating climate action toolkits. I see each of these actions as instances of quotidian organizing with value of their own while insisting on the power of consistent and sustained organizing that requires us to engage with the structures and systems that create inequities in the first place.

One such structure that I think has failed the current farmers’ movement in India is the mainstream media, which has portrayed the farmers’ movement in a fairly negative light. These mainstream media representations have ranged from depicting the movement as one of rich farmers to that of Khalistanis with a separatist agenda. Simultaneously, the arrests of journalists who are committed to ethical reporting and climate change activists intending to organize continue in an attempt to suppress dissent and narratives that do not adhere to the state-sanctioned ones. It is precisely in such a space where cultures of dissent are suppressed and misinformation is circulated that I find the potential of a grassroots and localized print culture.

First page of the Trolley Times newsletter about farmers' movement
First page of Trolley Times 1, no. 2 (December 22, 2020).
[Image description: Front page of a newspaper, name printed in Panjabi but the articles are in English. The cover story in the middle of the page includes artwork of people protesting, above it reads “O Martyrs, to fulfill your cherished dreams, We will give our heart and soul.”]

The print cultures emerging out of a protest movement make it possible to imagine freedom and invite us to think carefully about what parallel structures we can create that enable realization of that freedom. Creating such parallel structures requires an immense amount of labor, care, compassion, and empathy. Here I acknowledge the work of those engaged in building those parallel spaces, particularly the team of artists, activists, writers, and journalists dedicated to publishing the bi-weekly newsletter Trolley Times.

Although it is not officially affiliated with Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the primary coalition of about forty farmers’ unions, the bilingual (Hindi and Gurmukhi) four-page newsletter has already published eleven issues at the time of writing, covering an array of topics ranging from unionization to women’s participation in the movement and weaving stories that have been neglected by the mainstream media. The team at Trolley Times has also performed the critical labor of translating the newsletter into other languages such as Bangla and English, thereby not only gesturing at the necessary role of multilingualism in imagining just futures but also resisting the hegemony of Hindi that the current ruling party in India wants to impose. Besides being circulated digitally through their website and social media, there is a circulation mechanism in place that ensures that physical copies of the newsletter can be accessed by the farmers themselves and those organizing at multiple sites in the state borders.

In this article, I focus on Trolley Times to demonstrate how personal and quotidian acts of reading, giving massages, and cooking are at the heart of a bottom-up vision of climate justice. I argue that centering these affective acts in discussions of climate justice could radically shape our understanding of movement spaces as sites of joy and friendship.

Attention to stories that demonstrate what it means to be in community can go a long way in envisioning radical futures.

I position the current farmers’ movement within a conversation about climate justice because a significant demography of farmers in India are dependent on rainfall for the growth of crops; however, due to uneven rainfall patterns because of climate change, instances of drought and rainfall are frequent. This uncertainty about rainfall produces a sense of insecurity about crops. In such circumstances, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for certain crops not only ensures a safety net for farmers but also enables the farmers to have some control over the selling price of grains. One of the fundamental problems with the farm bills is this lack of recognition about MSP, which becomes more crucial because of climatic factors. In the absence of no clear directive about MSP, it is feared that corporations will control the buying price.

Secondly, as Omair Ahmad brilliantly argues in a recent article, “As climate change makes the availability of this water more uncertain, the country has to do water accounting in a way that makes sure it is using this precious resource optimally […] The climate crisis is forcing a rise in input costs to the point where farming is no longer profitable for a very large number of farmers.” Situating the farmers’ protest within a climate change conversation is all the more urgent because their success in repealing the farm bills would not only have a tangible impact on people’s livelihoods but also potentially shape India’s water and energy usage policy in a way that is cognizant of the needs of farmers.

Young woman wearing glasses reads a newsletter
A young woman reads an issue of the Trolley Times at a protest site. Photo from Indian Cultural Forum, 2020.
[Image description: A young woman with dark hair in a ponytail and wearing glasses, sitting crosslegged and reading an open newspaper in a sort of tent structure.]

The Trolley Times newsletter offers an intersectional understanding of the farmers’ movement and makes a case for why the global community committed to climate justice needs to be paying more sustained attention to the movement rather than engaging in disconnected one-off efforts. The form of the newsletter in itself is important because of the eclectic nature of the content, ranging from poetry, updates about the protest, cartoons, analytical reports, and even detailed instructions about a game that can be played at protest sites. It helps readers remain informed about the movement and, simultaneously, it reminds readers that building and making room for play, joy, and love is no less relevant in a movement space. Trolley, as the word suggests, is a mode of transportation for carrying produce, and currently a number of trolleys are present at the protest sites, often with colorful illustrations and used for a variety of reasons ranging from marches to taking shelter during cold winter nights. The trolleys are a material embodiment of the farmers’ struggle, a symbol of another future, and so it’s appropriate that the textual cultures emerging out of the movement—including the name of the newsletter itself—honor that space of possibility.

When I first turned the pages of Trolley Times, I was struck by the intimacy of encounters and the sociality of those encounters in the protest space. These moments were neither exceptional nor fleeting. These moments were reminders to care, to love, to give oneself permission to slow down and yet never to forget what the driving force behind a movement is. It is essentially a recalibrating of momentum, while being cognizant of what it means to be human, and a form of preparation for a long struggle. Consider this example from Navkiran Natt’s reporting from the Tikri Front:

“Sister, when I first arrived here, I did not even know how to knead dough. Now see how the rotis I am making are puffing up,” a 23/24-year-old young man told me while handing me a warm roti, “they just aren’t perfectly round yet.”

“But brother, when will Modi agree to our demands?” another guy asked, sitting nearby forming dough balls.

“The day this one starts making round rotis, ” retorted a 45-year-old Bai.

The juxtaposition of the warmth and excitement at rotis puffing up with an acute awareness that their demands at repealing the farm laws will not easily be accepted by the government brings together the everyday act of making rotis with a future that looks unstable. Yet there is scope for humor, a sense of pride at being able to make rotis though they are not perfect. There is hope that indeed it will be possible for the young man to get his rotis right someday, also signaling a time in the future when their political demands will be met.

However, in the same issue, when I read about Kulveer Kaur, a 23-year-old girl explaining why she cannot go to the protests—“We Dalits are a political fraction without privilege to act on our wishes. People will ‘talk’ if I go”—I cannot help asking: Who has access to spaces of joy and friendship in a movement space? Whose stories get told? Whom do we exclude when we tell these stories? How do we understand participation in protest movements? As I reflect on these questions, I find the narratorial voice of Sangeet Toor, who interviewed Kulveer, popping in, “Their desire is their participation.” The thing with desire is that it is not often visible and sometimes it is actively concealed. Yet it’s an intangible form of feeling that slowly makes its way into history of movements, revealing a more nuanced and textured way to understand climate justice, mediated by markers of caste, class, and gender.

Centering these affective acts in discussions of climate justice could radically shape our understanding of movement spaces as sites of joy and friendship.

I move on from Kulveer’s story and meet Sukhha, who has a board displayed: “In support of farmer’s protest, Muslim brother Sukhha aka Mohammed Irshad, hairdresser, Patiala, provides massages to aged protesters.” Sukhha reflects that in honor of the Sikh community, who has been protesting, he has not cut his own hair and has shifted to providing massages instead of haircuts. An act like providing massages is not only immensely tactile but also very intimate and caring in nature. It requires one to be aware of a body’s requirements and what a body is capable of taking at a certain point of time. It is reminiscent that being at a protest site is a deeply embodied experience where the body undergoes a lot of stress. I wonder if masseurs like Sukhha will ever be written into the history of climate justice movements for their labor or if they will always be relegated to a footnote in the diplomatic strategizing about carbon emissions. Sukhha made space for cultivating joy and friendship, yet again a reminder of what helps movement spaces to thrive and what is sustainable.

Screenshot of a newsletter. Image shows an elderly man hunching over  a newspaper. Headline, "Yearning to Read."
Screenshot from the Trolley Times 1, no. 1 (December 18, 2020).
[Image description: Screenshot of a newspaper article, depicts an older person sitting by themselves with the paper close to their eyes as they try to read it. Below, it reads “Yearning to Read” and “Author: Jassi Sangha, Singhu Site.”]

In another issue of Trolley Times, I come across a photograph of an elderly man straining his eyes hard to read a document. On reading the report that accompanies the photograph, I realize that he was trying to read a short leaflet from the Joint Farmers’ Front, but as he told the reporter Jassi Sangha, “I don’t know how to read very well. I only recognize the letters, connect each of them and some of the words appear!” Sangha mentions that though she read the leaflet aloud to him, he was the one who explained to her what the words actually meant. In fact, once the conversation was over, the man asked Sangha for her address so that he could visit her sometime. A moment of acquaintance turned into a promise of future meetings. Being trained in a form of organizing that prioritizes “study and struggle,” I am struck by how Bapu Ji’s approach to reading transcends the words of a leaflet, making space for multiple literacies. To study in this context is to be acutely aware of the material circumstances that shape what we read, how we read, and in what ways “reading” is mediated.

In the context of climate justice, Bapu Ji’s example raises key questions. As scholars and organizers committed to social change, how do we make space for multiple forms of “reading” practices? How do we choose what we read? The last question is of particular importance for many of us who think of knowledge production and the conditions under which it is produced. When we assign texts for our syllabus on climate change, it calls for a careful reflection of what we include. Do we just restrict ourselves to books published by university presses in the Global North or should we make a serious commitment to teach texts (such as the leaflet or even Trolley Times) published by grassroots organizations and written by local organizers? Without such publications, everyday acts of cooking, massaging, and reading would largely remain written out of climate change conversations. Turning attention to such stories that demonstrate what it means to be in community and show how our frameworks for understanding climate justice require a paradigm shift from the event to the granular can go a long way in envisioning radical futures. Another world is indeed possible.

*Cover image: Reading the Trolley Times. Detail of photo from Indian Cultural Forum, 2020.

[*Cover image description: Two men sitting on some clothes next to some heavy machinery. One of them is wearing a pink turban and holding a newspaper in Punjabi.]