Photo by Randeep Maddoke from Wikimedia Commons
By Isana Raja
Since August of 2020, thousands of farmers across India have taken to the streets in protest. Sleeping on the side of the road in their tractors, enduring the cold, rain, and retaliation from police, has not deterred these farmers. Though the heart of these demonstrations is located in the capital of New Delhi, the movement has permeated every major city. The Indian Farmers Protest started as a few small-scale protests in the state of Punjab. It only took a month for farmers unions across the various states of India to join in on the demonstrations, marching in solidarity to Delhi. The movement calls for the repealment of three agriculture laws passed by Prime Minister Modi in September. The protesters believe these agricultural reforms aim to prioritize corporate interests, in turn, hurting small farmers and their livelihoods.
Currently, farmers are ensured Minimum Support Prices (MSP) for their crops, and can easily trade with arithia, or middle-men. Essentially, these reforms—The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation), the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act— want to eradicate both the MSP and arithia, and have farmers sell directly to companies instead. Additionally, these laws will give private companies the opportunity to stockpile essential goods to sell in the future.
The government reasons that with these amendments, farmers have more liberty when it comes to selling directly to buyers and other states. The motive to implement these agricultural laws lies within the prospect of industrialization. Essentially, the new policies aim to modernize the system by encouraging more private-sector competition. As India’s economy took a significant hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PM Modi looked towards deregulation as a remedy.
However, farmers themselves dispute this claim, arguing that the new laws encourage their exploitation by large corporations. Large buyers could drive down prices, undercutting the meager amounts farmers already make. The farmers’ main demand is for these new agricultural reforms to be reversed, but the big picture reveals a larger desire for support and representation from the government. Already, farmers feel that the statutes in place barely help them scrape by. For as much as they contribute to the country, they simply feel like their voices aren’t being heard. This idea is only supported by the rushed manner in which the laws were passed. There was very little debate in parliament, undermining the farmers’ inputs.
More than sixty percent of the country’s population depends on agriculture for a living, making farmers absolutely vital to India’s workforce. Many Sikh minorities front the movement, hailing from the northern agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana. These farmers have been struggling, as COVID-19 has only exacerbated years of poverty, instability, and insufficient crop yields.
Demonstrations remained peaceful since the conception of the movement in August 2020. However, the movement witnessed an upsurge in violence between protesters and the government in January 2021. What started as a peaceful farmers’ tractor parade on the Indian Republic Day (a national holiday), January 26, quickly turned sour. Thousands of farmers stormed Delhi’s iconic Red Fort, scaling the palace and hoisting flags sacred to Sikhs. A clash ensued. Protestors and police officers became indistinguishable as the haze of tear gas and flash grenades shrouded the crowds. As a result of this brash violence, one protester was killed, 200 detained, and at least 300 officers were wounded. In response, the Indian government cordoned off the streets of New Delhi with barbed wire and barricades. To curb mass mobilization and communication via social media, they shut down the internet in many parts of the city. The government claims that this shutdown was to “maintain public safety.” Indian citizens are no strangers to internet blackouts; the Modi government has frequently employed them as a means to quell resistance, highlighting the irony of the world’s most populous democracy leading in internet shutdowns. But more than anything, it reveals a troubling pattern of government repression of free speech and communication.
The riots shook the nation, and the harsh crackdown on protestors has only made attempts at reconciliation more difficult. Over ten negotiation talks have been held, yet all failed. The government has met with the leaders of more than thirty farmers unions, but these talks inevitably go nowhere. Modi has even delayed the implementation of the laws for eighteen months, yet this simply isn’t enough. The staunch determination of farmers underscores the severity of the cause; they will stop at nothing short of the reforms’ repealment.
The government’s reaction has sparked outrage worldwide. Prominent international figures, such as Greta Thunberg and Rihanna, have spoken out on social media, raising awareness for the struggle. In December, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau came out in support of the farmers, asserting that Canada would “defend the right of peaceful protest.” Trudeau’s reliance on the vast Canadian Punjabi diaspora for votes influenced his stance on the matter, despite causing friction between the two governments. Already, thousands of people worldwide have been championing the cause for Indian farmers. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada—countries with a large Indian diaspora— have all taken part.
Despite the international support, there has been considerable slander against the movement and those who support it. Counter-protesters in Delhi burned photos of Thunberg and Rihanna for their tweets, symbolically reaffirming the current divisiveness in Indian society. Many right-wing Hindu nationalists continue to frame the protesting farmers as enemies of the state. Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut tweeted out in accordance with this belief, calling the farmers “terrorists.” Many other stars have taken a similar pro-government stance, rallying against the so-called sensationalist propaganda in support of the farmers. To this extent, Bollywood stars have been criticized for being “puppets” of the Indian government.
Nevertheless, the movement perseveres. If anything, the 24-hour strike on November 26 illustrates the fortitude of the protesters. 200-250 million people and over 450 farmers’ unions and organizations participated in the protest; it has been speculated that this may be the largest protest in world history. Looking forward, it is unlikely that the farmers will simply pack up and go home any time soon. This current stalemate might just drag on, unless there is capitulation on the part of the government with Modi meeting their full demands. From interviews with many protestors, it becomes apparent just how determined and passionate the farmers are. As Jhajjan Singh, an 80-year-old farmer in Ghazipur puts it, “We will keep fighting till our last breath.”
As of now, the government seems set on maintaining the status quo. The issue has become extremely politicized, with Modi and the right-wing BJP on one end and the farmers on the extreme other. With Modi’s success largely coming from supporters of the BJP, he must tread carefully as to not agitate them.
The power behind the movement lies within the notion that this is not just a farmers issue. Instead, it represents the larger complexities of the Indian government’s relationship with human rights.