The mission of the group of Indian farmers sitting in a makeshift tent in a protest camp near the Indian capital of New Delhi is crystal clear.
Farmers have come together to reinvigorate their months-long fight against controversial new farm laws passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last year.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is “scared and defensive,” said Jasbir Kaur Natt, a member of Tikri’s border action committee which plans the local protests.
“We have decided to hurt the BJP and defeat it” in next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh, she said.
Kaur Natt is convinced of this after two events this month that galvanized protests by farmers after protests lulled as India battled a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring.
The first was a massive rally that organizers called the largest since the protest movement began last November, which saw tens of thousands of farmers gather in Muzaffarnagarin Uttar Pradesh.
The predominantly agricultural state is the most populous in India and has scheduled state assembly elections early next year, a fact that has not escaped the notice of farmers, who are bracing for a battle. The state is controlled by the BJP.
“We will intensify our protest by going to every town and village in Uttar Pradesh to send the message that Modi’s government is anti-farmer,” one of the most prominent union leaders, Rakesh Tikait, told the crowd gathered in Muzaffarnagar in September. 5.
Farm leaders are also calling for a nationwide strike on September 27, to draw more attention to their protest against the new laws.
For nearly 10 months, Indian farmers have been battling three new laws passed without consultation last year. Farmers say the laws will destroy livelihoods and leave small farmers vulnerable to crowding out by big business.
The Indian government insists that farmers will be better off with the new legislation, which relaxes the rules on how they can sell their produce. The government is also committed to improving incomes, but farmers want the laws repealed.
The sustained protests created a difficult situation for the Modi government. Farmers constitute a major electoral bloc in the country, with just under 60% of Indians depending on the agricultural sector for a living.
Numerous rounds of talks between government officials and agricultural union leaders have failed to break the deadlock and the protests are now well established, with near-permanent protest camps still located in three locations surrounding the region. from the national capital of Delhi. They materialized for the first time at the end of November 2020.
The camps are a “well-oiled system,” said Dalwinder Singh, a farmer from Haryana state who has lived at one of the sites for 10 months, leaving only occasionally to tend his crops.
He sees it as his duty to stay on the site to promote the broader goal of farmers: to keep the focus on the issue and to put pressure on the Indian government.
Singh was also present at the second protest that breathed new energy into the farmers’ movement this month: a sit-in that lasted for several days outside a government office in Karnal, Haryana state.
The city was the scene of a demonstration in August that turned violent, with police charging protesters with their batons. Ten people were injured, but anger at authorities escalated when a video went viral in which a government official was heard telling police to “beat the heads” of protesting farmers.
“The fight for Karnal was very important,” Singh told CBC News. “We had to prove a point.”
The farmers got what they wanted: an investigation will examine what happened and the bureaucrat seen in the video has been put on leave until the investigation report is released.
“We got justice,” Singh said. “It obviously gave us a big boost.”
“A major factor”
For agricultural policy analyst Indra Shekhar Singh, what happened in Karnal is a “litmus test” of the potential of farmers to disrupt local politics due to the speed with which the state government gave in to requests from farmers.
With five months before the Uttar Pradesh state election, he believes farmers have both the time and the will to influence voters.
“For the first time, farmers will be a major factor and a major pressure group in the elections in Uttar Pradesh,” said Shekhar Singh, former commentator for the National Seed Association of India.
“There is a very high probability that the BJP will face strong resistance.”
Resistance is building up at the Tikri protest camp, where Kaur Natt couldn’t keep the smile on her face as she recalled the past few weeks.
“A bullet in the arm”
“The Muzaffarnagar [rally] was a bullet in the arm, ”she said.
“We have been sitting here for 10 months,” she said, while quickly adding that the farmers have the time and the patience to continue. “One thing is clear: we will not move until these laws are repealed. “
That same determination is what keeps 90-year-old Mahender Sangar alive. He now spends his days living in a tent with nine other people.
“It’s my life now,” he told CBC. “You can’t afford to insult farmers like this government did, so I decided to make it my home until we win this fight.”
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