“Organic farming is the only true way out of famine, illness and the pollution of the earth. Only by cultivating their original seeds, by not using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers can the Indian farmers free themselves from the spiral of dependence on multinationals corporations”
-Professor MD Nanjundaswamy
Obituary republished from The Guardian
The scholar activist Professor MD Nanjundaswamy, who has died aged 68 of cancer, was India’s leading advocate of farmers’ rights, and a vociferous critic of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and multinational companies in developing countries. While he failed to throw even one western firm out of India, he became a key figure in the international debate, and gave peasant farmers around the world a voice on the global stage.
He seldom travelled out of India – in 1999, he was refused entry to Britain to accompany a caravan of 500 protesting Indian farmers – but his scathing criticism of global trade liberalisation policies endeared him to a generation of international activists.
A passionate Gandhian, Nanjundaswamy was among the founders, in 1980, of the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS), a farmers’ group which opposed the corporatisation of agriculture and the entry of multinational corporations into India. At its height, in the mid-1990s, the KRRS had up to 10m members – one in four of the southern Indian state’s farmers – and the professor was frequently able to attract a million people to his famous rallies.
The slight, bespectacled figure, usually seen wearing green to symbolise solidarity with farmers, advocated “direct democratic action” where passive forms of negotiative democracy had failed. Over 10 years – well before Genoa, Seattle and other western anti-globalisation protests – he and his supporters stormed and ransacked the offices of the giant seed company Cargill’s, wrecked a KFC outlet, burned Monsanto genetically modified crops and took on Pepsi, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
Western companies, and indeed local and national governments, were frequently apoplectic at Swamy’s tactics, charging that he was a “pseudo- Gandhian”. But he argued that destroying inanimate property that was being used to “deny the true development of people” did not violate Gandhian principles. Western multinationals, he said, were a new form of colonialism, and he summarised his struggle as “people-power vs money-power”.
Very few KRRS demonstrations were, in fact, remotely violent. The professor, who had an impish humour, once organised 10,000 people to sit down outside Bangalore town hall and do nothing but laugh at “democracy”. The state government reportedly caved in to their demands. But he also advocated arrest and taking responsibility for actions; on one occasion, 37,000 of his supporters were arrested in one day. He himself was frequently arrested, once being charged with attempted murder, looting and violence.
Protests were important, he said, but his real work was in creating a sustainable society based on Gandhian principles and ecological common sense. This meant not just opposing the patenting of seeds and liberalisation policies imposed on the Indian subcontinent by the WTO and the International Monetary Fund, but also educating farmers and developing social awareness.
Born in Mysore, Swamy was the son of a farmer-turned-lawyer and socialist parliamentarian. He read science and law at Mysore and Karnataka universities, and did postgraduate work at the Hague Academy of International Law in Holland. After studying constitutional law in West Germany and France, he returned to India in 1964 to become professor of law at Mysore and Bangalore universities.
Swamy’s intellectual antagonism to western development models was based not just on Gandhi’s work but also on his experiences in Europe. It was further informed by his observations of the green revolution which, in the 1960s, introduced India to the principles of large-scale agribusiness. He believed the revolution had seriously damaged Indian agriculture, and had led to irreparable ecological and social decline.
What taught him true development, Swamy said, was practising traditional Indian organic farming on his family’s 20-acre farm. Those who had adopted the green revolution technology, he argued, became debtors as their crop yields declined. Above all, he feared for the Indian peasant farmer, whom he saw being thrown off the land, like western farmers. In India, he said, there was no safety net for the vulnerable.
In 1989, Swamy was elected as an independent to the Karnataka state parliament. He advocated the complete decentralisation of state power down to village level, and rejected the western development model, under which industry took control and people became mere onlookers and objects of development. Instead, he proposed “total participation”, with villagers becoming the masters of their resources.
In recent years, he became the managing trustee of Amrita Bhoomi, an international centre for sustainable development, conserving indigenous seeds and promoting sustainable agriculture, and worked closely with the Third World Network based in Malaysia. Together, they helped set up village seed banks and collected 500 varieties of traditionally used seeds.
Swamy’s wife, daughter and son survive him.