How India’s farmers brought Narendra Modi to retreat


NEW DELHI – Om Prakash relied on relatives and neighbors to manage his wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by sympathizers at home and abroad. When he had a fever, he turned to volunteer medical workers who, like him, had huddled near a noisy flyover from heat and cold and a deadly virus outbreak for months.

Now his year without a farm or family has finally paid off.

Mr. Prakash was one of thousands of farmers in India who used their organizational skills, wide support network, and sheer persistence to force one of the country’s most powerful leaders in modern history into a rare retreat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday that lawmakers would repeal new agricultural laws that protesting farmers feared would leave them vulnerable to large-scale predatory business and destroy their way of life.

Your victory will not help India resolve the deep inefficiencies that plague its agricultural sector, problems that leave people undernourished in some places while grain is wasted or exported in other parts. But it showed how a group desperate to maintain their bourgeois way of life can successfully challenge a government that is more used to repressing dissent than counting on it.

“It’s the power, it’s the power, it’s the struggle, it’s the sacrifice of more than 700 farmers on these borders who have forced Mr. Modi to come down to repeal these laws,” said Darshant Pal Singh, one of nine peasant protest leaders.

The farmers who camped on the outskirts of the Indian capital New Delhi for a year endured more than the elements. A malicious second wave of Covid-19 roared through the city in the spring. The movement also witnessed two violent episodes that resulted in the deaths of protesters, one in New Delhi in January and a second last month in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which increased pressure on the group to give up.

But the farmers’ insistence on pushing their campaign forward, their support from a global network of allies, and the non-violent nature of the protests proved to be keys to their success, their supporters say. Despite the deaths and a few other incidents, the peasant protests were largely peaceful. Other recent protest movements, such as one against a law that accelerated citizenship for some groups but excluded Muslims, have been plagued by violence.

The effort is not over yet. Farmers have vowed to continue their protests until the government accepts another demand to guarantee a minimum price for nearly two dozen harvests. Rather than pulling back now, they see an opportunity to push even harder on a prime minister nervously watching his party’s polls fall in a number of states in next year’s elections. The government has announced that it will set up a committee to deal with the matter.

India’s agricultural system has yet to be repaired, a fact that even many of the protesting farmers acknowledge. The system was launched in the 1960s during a period of widespread starvation and created centralized markets where farmers could sell their crops. A portion of the proceeds will be returned to farming communities through infrastructure projects, pensions, and programs that provide free technical advice on topics such as seeds and fertilizers.

Today that system has contributed to inefficiencies: the government subsidizes water-intensive crops in drought-stricken countries. Agriculture focuses on staple foods while neglecting more nutritious crops like leafy vegetables.

Most of the 60 percent of the country employed in agriculture make a living from subsistence farming. While some farmers lead a bourgeois life, supported by modern aids such as tractors and irrigation, many others see no profit and are in debt. Since there are hardly any jobs to be found in the city or in factories in a country that is still struggling with poverty, many peasant children emigrate to find a better life.

Mr. Modi’s laws were aimed at bringing more private money into agriculture and making it more receptive to market forces. Mr Singh, the leader of the protests, said many farmers would prefer subsidies to a wider range of production.

“The root of the agricultural problem in India is that farmers are not getting the fair value of their crops,” said Mr Singh. “There are two ways of seeing reforms – giving away land to corporations, big players, and capitalists. The other is to help the farmers increase their yields. “

The movement began in Punjab, home to a large Sikh community, religious group, and some of the richest agricultural land in the country. The protest leaders relied on both of them to organize and fund their year-long demonstrations.

Financial aid, particularly from Sikh temples and organizations outside India, is critical to the movement’s resilience, said Baldev Singh Sirsa, a farm manager.

The organizers relied heavily on the diaspora of the Punjabi Sikhs. Large charities such as Khalsa Aid International, a UK aid organization, raised money for the demonstrators. Smaller ones, such as the UK-based Midland Langar Seva Society, have also participated.

The protesters made sure that their complaints were heard abroad. Supporters braved the freezing temperatures in Toronto and Montreal to post signs outside Indian consulates in Canada. Protesters marched outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. The campaign worked: Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, and Rihanna, the pop singer, showed solidarity.

The organizers also cited the philosophy of Sikhism, which emphasizes support for victims of injustice and the value of community over individuals. The peasant movement’s sprawling protest camps – which fed and dressed thousands of people every day, and provided clean water, sanitation, and even barbershops and tailors – reflected the Sikhs’ value of self-sufficiency, they said.

Members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called the protesters Khalistanis, a term referring to separatists who fought and even fought for the creation of an independent Sikh state years ago. In response, the protest organizers tried to suppress the spirits, although they tried to find ways to ensure they were seen and heard.

This self-discipline has sometimes been put to the test.

In January, as India celebrated Republic Day, a national holiday, some farmers drove tractors across police barricades into New Delhi, killing one protester. Political analysts pronounced the movement dead. But the organizers withdrew behind the barricades and continued their peaceful protests through the harsh winter, a devastating wave of coronavirus, a scorching summer and well into autumn.

Then, in October, a BJP convoy rammed a group of protesting farmers, killing four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of a minister belonging to Mr Modi is under investigation in connection with the incident.

This incident, which occurred after protesters decided to shadow BJP officials’ campaign to draw cameras, may have been a turning point. In Uttar Pradesh, where the deaths occurred, the BJP’s polls soon fell. Party officials began to worry that they might lose the state in the elections scheduled for early next year.

The day after Mr. Modi’s surprise announcement, the mood was gloomy near Singhu, a village in Haryana State, which borders the capital. Religious music and political speeches boomed from the speakers of the makeshift village of bamboo huts, where people praised T-shirts and flags that read, “No farmers, no food.”

Outside one of the huts that served a free vegetarian lunch, Mr. Prakash the farmer described how he slept next to a busy road in cold weather and rain, leaving his farm in the care of his brothers’ children.

Mr Prakash, who has been living on his retirement with the Indian Air Force for 20 years, does not need the farm to survive. Instead, sticking to the seven acres he and his siblings inherited from their parents ensures they can lead a middle-class life in a country where the vagaries of the economy often pull people back into poverty.

Mr. Prakash said the family business supported his ambitions and that he wanted the same for his children.

“To save our motherland,” he said, “we can stay here for two more years.”

Hari Kumar Reporting contributed.


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