First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

India’s Agony: Farmers’ protest set to test governm...

Maverick Citizen


India’s Agony: Farmers’ protest set to test government commitment to Gandhi’s non-violence

Indian farmers listen to a speaker during a protest against new farm laws on 11 December 2020 at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

A symbolic show of strength by farmers is being planned for India’s Republic Day. The day, traditionally used as a platform to celebrate the government’s military might with a display of its arsenal of battle tanks, missiles and jets, will also see a parallel ‘farmers’ parade’ of tractors in New Delhi.

As the protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farming reforms enters its third month, farmers and farm hands remain steadfast in their opposition to laws they say will disenfranchise them and destroy their way of life – amid calls for a strong-arm response.

For about 60 days now, caravans covered in slogans of a tenacious farmers’ uprising have blocked three of the highways leading into New Delhi, India’s national capital. The longest of these caravan towns, consisting of rows upon rows of tarpaulin trailers, stretches over a distance of 20km.

The trailers are home to tens of thousands of farmers and farmhands, who endured police batons and water cannons on their way from India’s northwestern provinces of Punjab and Haryana (the country’s food bowl), to the outskirts of Delhi two months ago.

Ever since, they have sat on New Delhi’s borders in protest, demanding from India’s federal government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that it repeal Three Farm Laws it had pushed through as ordinances in June, and subsequently in the country’s parliament in September. 

In June, and again in the run-up to the passage of the bills in September, farm unions had accused the government of failing to consult any of them, including the 472 unions supporting the protest. 

Indian farmers sit on a major highway blocked by them during a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)
Farmers raise their phones with the torches on as they participate in a vigil on New Year’s Eve remembering the 40 farmers who lost their lives during the protest on a highway leading to Delhi on the Gaziabad border on 31 December 2020. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images)

A fate worse than death

The first of the laws provides for setting up a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their produce outside government-run grain markets. The federal government initially claimed this would end the role of intermediaries, who “exploited” farmers. 

The second law is to allow farmers to enter contract farming, and the third amends an existing law to free food grains, pulses, edible oils and onion for trade except in crisis.

The protesters say they would rather die on the outskirts of New Delhi than leave without winning this battle. Many protesters understand that the battle isn’t merely against the laws – they believe they are in the midst of a struggle to preserve food democracy in India and to halt the complete collapse of their way of life.

It is a battle many have lost against creeping urbanisation, a takeover of agriculture by big corporates, and of ecological destruction wrought by the “Green Revolution”, the vagaries of which the farmers of Punjab have already come to experience.

The protesters are convinced that the plots of land they own, however small, are their only insurance against falling into abject poverty – a fate increasingly befalling many of their ilk in the rest of the country.

They argue that the laws are intended to benefit a couple of big corporate groups, especially the Adani Group and Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries. They fear the implementation of these laws would eventually lead to a monopoly of these companies in the purchase of their agricultural produce and lead to further indebtedness and dispossession of their lands. 

An Indian farmer holds a placard during a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)
Farmers prepare to retire for the day as they decide on no celebration on New Year’s Eve on a highway leading to Delhi on the Gaziabad border. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images)

Hardship and sacrifice

More than 70 protesters, many of whom were elderly, have died in this non-violent “siege of Delhi” in the past two months. While most succumbed to the elements as they slept in tents or tarpaulin-covered trailers – New Delhi experienced sustained rainfall and one of the harshest winters in recent years – nearly half a dozen sacrificed themselves to the cause. 

The protests, which initially started in Punjab in September, spreading to provinces of Haryana, Rajasthan and parts of Uttar Pradesh, have gathered support from all corners of India and from the Punjabi diaspora across the world. Well-known artists, singers and even sportspeople drop by regularly to show support.

The international community has also sat up and taken notice. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, more than a hundred British MPs and dozens of academics and intellectuals from across the world have asked India’s federal government to heed the farmers’ calls.

The protests are neither led nor backed by any of the mainstream political parties of India, and have remained non-violent. Any violence that has taken place in the 130-odd days since the protests first started in Amritsar in Punjab was perpetrated by police and paramilitary forces, who dug trenches and blocked roads with concrete boulders to stop the protesters from reaching New Delhi.

Indian farmers during a protest against new farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

Learning from the diaspora

The experience of the Punjabi, especially Sikh, diaspora in North America has significantly shaped the understanding of the farm laws. The first Punjabi farmers landed in North America over a century back, and have witnessed first-hand, especially since the 1970s, how rural life was transformed as small farmers were edged out because of increasing indebtedness.

They see in the laws an attempt to replicate that “failed” model in India. There is also a good understanding among the leadership of the urban bias in policy making in India. For example, the need for crop diversification in Punjab has been spoken of for years. But according to one estimate a measly sum has been spent on it by governments in the past three years while purse strings are liberally loosened for construction of dozens of flyovers and erecting of statues.

The tenets of Sikhism have been a source of strength for the protesters. Founded in the 16th century as a reaction to the caste system of Hinduism, the dominant religion of India, Sikhism stresses the breaking of caste barriers.  

Indian paramilitary soldiers sit next to their chained barricades on a blocked highway to stop the farmers protesting against new farm laws at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)


The battle remains unequal. The mainstream media in India, a few honourable exceptions aside, tends to toe the official government line. In the initial weeks of the protest, a concerted effort was made to paint the protesters as separatists or militants, supported by India’s enemies.

The protesters took to social media to dispel the misinformation, and even embarrassed some of the private TV networks hostile to them by boycotting them publicly. When the attempts to defame the protests failed, the federal government renewed talks initially started in October. The tenth round of talks took place on 20 January 2021. The government offered to put the laws in abeyance for 18 months for a committee to study them.

But the farmers’ leaders insist that the laws should be repealed, believing that the government has negotiated in bad faith.

Earlier this month, an attempt by the Indian Supreme Court to form a committee to resolve the crisis failed to take off when it became apparent that most of those nominated to the committee had previously expressed their support of the farm laws.

A symbolic show of strength by farmers is being planned for India’s Republic Day. The day, traditionally used as a platform to celebrate the government’s military might with a display of its arsenal of battle tanks, missiles and jets, will also see a parallel ‘farmers’ parade’ of tractors in New Delhi. 

As the protest over contentious farm laws continues to intensify, farmer unions on announced that they will observe a hunger strike. (Photo: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images)

Private sector investment

India’s federal government has tried to make the three laws acceptable by arguing that these would unshackle the country’s agricultural sector, opening it up for much-needed private sector investments. It has said the move is akin to the economic reforms of 1991.

However, there already exists a widening trust deficit between farmers and the federal government. The Modi government has more than once in the past six years promised to double farm incomes, and even announced measures seemingly to achieve that objective, but failed to deliver.

The farmers have witnessed how urban areas have suffered in the past couple of years because of economic decline, and know that the land they own is what separates them from joining millions of migrant labourers, many of whom had to walk home hundreds of kilometres during the coronavirus lockdown.

The farm laws come in the wake of economic decline, a dip in consumer demand and industrial production, and increasing joblessness since November 2016, when Modi demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, which jolted the Indian economy.

An underprepared goods and services tax regime rolled out seven months later in July 2017 hurt any hopes of an economic revival. According to surveys conducted by non-governmental organisations, the lockdown between the third week of March 2020 and June pushed millions into poverty.

At the protest sites, the narrative is that these three moves were meant to uproot smaller businesses to benefit the bigger players, and the farm laws have been brought in to replicate the model in the agricultural sector. 

Farmers shout slogans as they participate in a protest at the Delhi-Singhu border. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images)

It’s not the middlemen 

Farm leaders are convinced the real objective of the farm laws isn’t to rid the government-run grain markets (operating mostly in Punjab, parts of Haryana and Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh) of “middlemen”, but to completely destroy them.

Farmers in these regions bring their produce of wheat and paddy (the unmilled rice crop) to the markets, and get an assured sum of money per quintal, called the minimum support price (MSP). They know how farmers in the eastern province of Bihar suffered once the government-run grain markets were discontinued there in 2005-06, and the lot of the farmers in the rest of the country where such markets do not exist.

India, suffering from food grain scarcity and having to import grains for its fast-growing population in the 1960s, turned to American agronomist Norman Borlaug’s model of the so-called Green Revolution, focussing on high-yielding varieties of wheat and paddy.

The region chosen for the model to be rolled out was the well-irrigated province of Punjab and nearby areas. To encourage farmers of the region to grow wheat and paddy, the government promised MSP, which meant they would not have to rely on the vagaries of an open market. 

A farmer weeps as he mourns the death of his relative in a candle light vigil on New Year’s Eve in Delhi, India. (Photo: Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images)

Deep distrust

Now, the backers of the farm laws argue that farmers of the region should get out of excessive wheat and paddy cultivation as the country’s godowns (warehouses) are bursting with grains. However, few are convinced of the genuineness of the federal government’s intent.

Farmers, leaders and activists say the farm laws are a ploy to pave the way for corporate groups to take over farming by weakening the government-run grain markets. This, they believe, would enable the revenue-starved federal government to exit its responsibility of paying MSP amounting to nearly three trillion rupees to the farmers. There are increased misgivings about the fact that one corporate group, known for its proximity to the governing party, has already taken to buy land and godowns in Haryana from 2017 onwards.

There have been suggestions, including in the country’s mainstream newspapers and TV networks, that the protest should be crushed.

India honours Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as the “father of the nation”. We shall soon know if its rulers can bring themselves to honour the Mahatma’s method of non-violent protest, or Satyagraha, which he perfected in South Africa more than a century ago. DM/MC

Archis Mohan is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on Indian politics and current affairs. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has worked as the political editor of Business Standard, a daily newspaper, and has had stints with The Telegraph and Hindustan Times.


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 1

  • It is ironic that a BJP dominated government that proclaims the ideals of MK Gandhi (who struggled valiantly for the cause of the ‘small farmer or tenant’ during his activism days) should continue to ignore the please of these pacifist farmers. That is because the ruling party is the antithesis of Satyagraha. It is reflected in its leader who is engaged in vanity projects like the building of the ‘biggest’ statue in the world disingenuously if not sarcastically called the ‘statue of unity’. That is while the real founder of that credo disavowed such hyperbole and fawning veneration. Not unlike the American quest under Trump to “make America GREAT …again!”. Bringing into confluence a largely fawning media plus a largely uncritical religious majority into that hype… helps to promote that fantasy of ‘greatness’. In a pictorial display of that contradiction (in another article on India) is that of a ‘namaste’ version of Modhi in a glistening silk outfit, followed by another of the finger-wagging and hectoring one, which he is particularly fond of ! His many ‘followers’ have happily adopted this strategy of dealing with dissent or difference. Against this background, the tribute to MKG is nothing but a political sham … or as Trump would have had it …’fake’.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted