The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Grapes of Wrath: Farmers’ Protests Spin Out of Control in Indian Capital

The events of January 26 – India’s Republic Day – demonstrate two key weaknesses that plague the Modi government.

Abhijnan Rej
Grapes of Wrath: Farmers’ Protests Spin Out of Control in Indian Capital

A Sikh man hangs on to a pole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farm union flag at the historic Red Fort monument in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Supreet Sapkal

As India celebrated its 72nd Republic Day on January 26, protestors agitating against new agricultural laws ran amok the streets of New Delhi, at one point partially capturing an iconic location and hoisting a religious flag there. At the time of filing this article, an uneasy peace has returned to New Delhi with the internet shut down in several parts and protestors – one of whom was killed in an accident —  still inside the city and camped out on its outskirts.

The episode simultaneously highlights two troubling and interrelated things: the increasing chances of a large-scale breakdown of civil order in parts of India with the erosion of space for democratic dissent, and a fundamental inability of the Narendra Modi government to see ahead and discern looming trouble. Left unaddressed, both point to dark days ahead for the Indian republic.

Right around the time the Republic Day celebratory parade at Rajpath — with the Indian president, prime minister, and other dignitaries in the audience – was winding down, news started flowing from Delhi’s borders with neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh that protestors had deviated from a preexisting agreement with the police to hold protests along certain roads in the capital, and were heading straight to the heart of the city, a sprawling area housing political leaders, senior members of the bureaucracy, and central ministries.

News also started breaking about a large group of protestors who had raucously congregated at the Red Fort – a nearly 400-year old symbol of Indian state power used by prime ministers to deliver their August 15 Independence Day speeches. One of the protestors climbed up an unused flagpole to hoist an insignia considered holy in Sikhism. The television visuals of the spectacle were rendered twice as jarring by the fact that only hours before, President Ramnath Kovind had hoisted the Indian flag a little more than 10 kilometers away, following which India, as is customary on the occasion, displayed the country’s military and cultural prowess.

Indian TV channels, juggling between broadcasting the Republic Day celebrations and covering the protests, also showed Delhi police using tear gas to disperse protestors, fearful that they’d be overrun. At one point, a rioter was seen using a tractor to chase policemen in front of the Delhi police headquarters – a veritable fort in the heart of the city – highlighting the utter precariousness of the situation, and reminding many of scenes outside the U.S. Capitol just 20 days before.

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Last September, the Modi government had passed three new agricultural laws in order to boost the perennially sclerotic sector’s productivity and to enable a greater role for private companies in it. However, many farmers maintain that the laws have paved the way for the Indian government to reduce its support for Indian farmers and allow large conglomerates to effectively reduce their bargaining power. (CSIS analyst Kriti Upadhyaya has written useful a backgrounder on the new laws and the principal issues of contention around them in these pages.) Thousands of farmers, especially from Punjab and Haryana, have camped outside Delhi’s borders in biting cold over the past couple of months; they have refused to back down despite a January 13 Indian Supreme Court ruling staying the implementation of the new laws pending further review and the Indian government offering to hold off their implementation for a year and a half on January 20.

Complicating an already politically volatile situation – the farmers’ protest arguably marks the first instance when the Modi government, despite its overwhelming electoral mandate, finds itself in a corner – is the fact that a large fraction of the protesting farmers happen to be Sikh. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, in the past, rather crudely suggested that the protests are being engineered by Sikh separatists.

In the 1980s, India saw a bloody Sikh insurgency, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh terrorists, and an ensuing pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere carried out by Congress Party workers – events that have left an inedible scar on the community’s psyche.

With this deeply troubled history in background, suggestions that a renewed campaign for Khalistan (an independent homeland for Sikhs, as proponents describe it) is ostensibly being dressed in the guise of farmers’ protests can quickly color what is essentially a secular campaign with sectarian overtones – to uncertain effect, and with potentially serious internal security implications.

Today’s incident – on the back of protests and rioting last winter in New Delhi – also highlights what happens when regular parliamentary discourse and debate is set aside by the ruling party purely on the basis of a clear parliamentary majority, which enables it to pass laws without engaging the rest of the parliament and becoming attuned toward their views. The BJP’s stunning 2019 election wins have effectively allowed it push legislation through – whether they pertained to Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, a controversial amendment to India’s citizenship law in December 2019, or the new laws pertaining to farmers in September last year. In case of the last, the Modi government was in no mood to give in to the opposition’s demands to send two of the laws to a parliamentary committee for further scrutiny or allow greater debate on them on the floor of the parliament.

Judging by the record of the past year or so, the ruling party here in New Delhi seems to have forgotten that allowing open debate on its policies – whether that be in the parliament or civil society or academia – is far from being an act of altruism. On the contrary, such debate and engagement, unsullied by accusations of treachery against the Indian state or the country’s Hindu majority, is a safety valve that, by allowing for vocalization of alternate views and grievance, ensures that they don’t spill over to the street.

Which brings me to my second point: The Modi government, especially in its second term, seems to be unable to (a) gauge the higher-order consequences of their decisions, and (b) take stock of looming crises and diffuse them before they blow up. Instead, the ruling dispensation in India seems to be rather complacent in seriously addressing problems as they arise, preferring perfunctory engagement with the hope that the crises resolve themselves in due course. This has been crystal clear in terms of how the Modi government sought to deal the China crisis in eastern Ladakh, first opting for denial and then unsteadily fumbling for diplomatic and military solutions, with the net effect that nearly nine months later, things remain unchanged on the ground.

Something similar is at play here with the farmers’ protests: First the Modi government played hardball and then, realizing the protests were not going to die down anytime soon, took steps that came across as abject capitulation for many of its supporters. This pattern of behavior sits atop a colossal failure of its security agencies (and the Delhi police, under central control) to gauge the direction of the protests leading up to the events of January 26, in another echo of the Ladakh crisis.

To what extent the Modi government changes course on the farmers protests going ahead – if it does, that is – or whether the chaos in the streets of Delhi today would provide it the political ammunition it needs to double down remains to seen.