On November 22, thousands of farmers gathered for a rally in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to press their demand for extension of the minimum support price (MSP) not just to rice and wheat but to all agricultural produce.
Only three days earlier, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced in a televised address that his government will repeal three contentious farm laws that had inflamed a year-long agitation by millions of farmers.
His announcement sparked celebration among thousands of farmers who have been camping on several roads at various entry points into New Delhi for over a year now. However, leaders of several farm organizations pointed out that their struggle was not over. The protests, they said would continue until the government introduced a law that would guarantee minimum prices for all crops.
In late September 2020, when the Modi government enacted the three controversial farm laws, farmers’ protests, which had hitherto been low-key, snowballed into nationwide protests.
Farmers from some of northern India’s largely agrarian states, the key producers of wheat and rice, blocked railway tracks and highways, and held demonstrations protesting the new laws. For over a year since then they have blocked highways leading to the capital New Delhi with trailer trucks, tractors, and tenements, where they lead a lifestyle of protest.
Farmers feared that the combined effect of the three new laws would be a corporate takeover of their livelihoods as it would permit agricultural conglomerates to dictate everything about how they farm, from the choice of crop to the pricing. They feared that this would eventually devastate their livelihoods. The farmers demanded a legal guarantee on the MSP for their crops, to protect them from the full force of the free market.
Over the past year or so, the protesting farmers have suffered immensely. At least 500 farmers have been reported dead in clashes with the local police.
While announcing the decision to repeal the laws, Modi urged the farmers to leave the protest sites and return home. However, he made no mention of the farmers killed in police brutality. He was silent too on the cases filed against hundreds of agitating farmers. While some have been charged with vandalism, several face charges under India’s anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) as well as sections of the Indian Penal Code dealing with sedition.
Following Modi’s announcement, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait, who spearheaded the farmers’ movement, stated that the agitation has not ended. Across the three protest sites at Ghazipur, Tikri, and Singhu border, farmers have heeded Tikait’s call and have refused to vacate the three sites.
Many are skeptical of the government’s promise to repeal the laws. Shambhu, a farmer at the Tikri site said: “They have lied in the past, they can lie again. Until the laws are legally rolled back, we are not leaving.”
Ballu, another farmer at Tikri, pointed out that issues relating to the MSP, legal cases against farmers, and electricity bills are yet to be resolved. The government’s stand on these issues remains unclear, he said. Ballu has been protesting at Tikri since January this year.
Revocation of the farm laws is bound to have deep political and economic implications. Several states, including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, will be voting in elections for state assemblies next year. Winning the Uttar Pradesh state assembly is very important for Modi and the BJP. How will Modi’s volte-face on the farm laws impact how Uttar Pradesh’s farmers vote?
At farmers’ rallies over the past year, Tikait and his followers have often vowed to not vote for the BJP again. Tikait’s stature has grown remarkably; indeed, he is now western Uttar Pradesh’s “undisputed kisan neta [farmer leader].”
Amid the calls for the revocation of three black laws, farmer leaders are also asking for the legal guarantee of MSPs for 23 agro-commodities. Their success in getting the three laws revoked has emboldened them to demand MSPs for a larger basket of commodities.
The farmers’ protest has borne fruit after over a year of struggle. However, their efforts were not linear. The protesting farmers were labelled “anti-national” and Khalistani (Sikh separatists), even accused of receiving funds from anti-India forces. They were beaten by batons, tear gassed, and faced water cannons. Many were arrested and several hundreds were even killed. They braved extreme heat, bitter cold, and even the coronavirus pandemic. Nothing curved the spine of the Indian farmers.
Their non-violent struggle against the might of the state has resulted in success.
It has prompted discussions about other large-scale protests in India.
Between December 2019 and March 2020, Shaheen Bagh in Delhi saw thousands of people gather to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). There were concerns that a large number of Muslims would be driven out of the country if they failed to provide documentary evidence of Indian citizenship. Muslims but also several secular Hindus were apprehensive that the CAA was an anti-Muslim law being brought in by the pro-Hindu Modi government.
During the Shaheen Bagh protests, women, men, and children of all religions came together to force the Modi government to roll back its discriminatory citizenship law and other policies that were heavily loaded against Muslims, putting members of the community at a disadvantage on several fronts. Furthermore, Muslims were at the receiving end of hate speeches and anti-Muslim remarks, even genocidal warnings by BJP leaders. In February, mobs chanting Hindu slogans unleashed violence against Muslims, their shops and places of worship, killing around 40 people and injuring many more.
Can those protesting the CAA hope for success too? The success of the farmers has inspired several politicians to take up the cause of the Shaheen Bagh protestors.
The Trinamool Congress, which defeated the BJP in recent elections to the West Bengal assembly, is hoping to carve a larger role for itself on the national level. Its leaders plan to hit the streets soon to protest against the CAA and the related National Register for Citizens. Likewise, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) plans to mobilize against the CAA. It is “the turn of the Muslim community to force the central government to withdraw the CAA,” the AIMIM’s leader Asaduddin Owaisi said at a rally soon after Modi’s announcement on the farm laws. These parties want to unify the Muslim vote ahead of the upcoming assembly elections.
In the farmers’ battle against the Modi government, the latter blinked. Will the Modi government blink again on the citizenship issue? Or do Muslims not qualify for the successful exercise of their right to protest by virtue of their being Muslim in a nation that is increasingly becoming anti-Muslim under Modi’s shadow?