IIt is not often that Narendra Modi gives a televised address to the nation and he is greeted with relief, not dismay. Previous chilling acts of determination by Indian prime ministers have included announcing a full lockdown with just four hours’ notice last year and withdrawing 85% of the country’s currency overnight in 2016.
This most recent onscreen address was completely different. When Modi announced that his government intended to withdraw three controversial farm laws after one of the most protracted protests on record in India, in which hundreds of people died in the face of violence from the State, this aroused great jubilation. Laws originally passed in a chaotic voice vote in parliament last year, when television the broadcast was cut viewers therefore could not hear that the opposition was seen as a tool to encourage the corporatization of agriculture and weaken state protections for farmers. Supported by the Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund Gita Gopinath, the US State Department, from right-wing economists and much of India’s pro-Modi and pro-industry media, the laws have met with mass opposition among Indians, nearly half of whom, according to the most recent census, found work in agriculture.
This is a rare descent by the Modis government, and perhaps the most significant. But it would be too ambitious to take the farmers’ victory as a sign of things to come. The space for dissent in India has shrunk dramatically in seven years as heavyweight Modi has continued and emboldened Hindu nationalism; people found each other imprisoned, journalists have in the face of police action and a muslim comedian had to cancel concerts in the face of threats. Despite Modi’s promises early in his tenure that he would protect free speech, parts of India’s media now look like a propaganda wing.
The central issue of protection of agricultural protests and fair prices for farmers has received genuine mass support. While led head-on by agricultural leaders from Sikh communities in Punjab and Uttar Pradeshs Jat, the protesters had women and men from across the country in their ranks. Those too poor or too old to make the trip to Delhi have staged demonstrations of solidarity locally, capturing the popular imagination with their courage, camping the streets for months and standing firm in the face of the violence of the State.
The number of protesters is a testament to the immense reach and deep roots of agricultural unions in India, more than 40 of them have come together to organize. While led by farm organization veteran Rakesh Tikait, the movement was not overshadowed by one figure; factional differences did not divide it either, and consensus on the issues remained strong. When some of the protesters turned violent, the condemnation of the management was swift. While political support for opposition parties was cultivated and encouraged, the group kept them at bay. The Sikh diaspora across the world, including the UK, has gathered significant support, including, unexpectedly, by Rihanna.
Once the protesters demonstrated to Modi that public opinion was with them, and that the time and effort his government had devoted to trying to discredit the protesters had not gone much beyond the TV studios in Delhi, the specter of a potential electoral defeat has been felt as Modi has seen his polls drop in states where elections are due next year.
But that doesn’t mean that all mass protests in India will have the same impact. In December 2019, the Modis government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which could grant citizenship to illegal immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but only if they were not Muslims. Simultaneously, the government began work on a National Citizens Registry (NRC), a version of which it rolled out in the northeastern state of Assam, imposing immense hardship and misery on those unable to produce documents. documents proving their Indian ancestry. Taken together, the CAA and the NRC were widely seen by Indian Muslims as an attempt to force them into statelessness and sparked massive protests nationwide.
The anti-CAA-NRC protests had something in common with the agricultural protests: they blocked part of Delhi, were creative, energetic and sustained, and had satellite protest sites across the country. But there was one notable difference, it was a Muslim problem in a country that exhibited an increasingly muscular majoritarianism, and the Indian media were extremely mean in their coverage of the protests. Then, in March 2020, the country entered pandemic containment and the protests dispersed. If the government begins to act on the NRC again, it is unclear whether the farmers’ victory will energize Muslim protesters and their non-Muslim allies, or whether they will encounter a more angry state apparatus.
For now, Indian farmers and their supporters will relish this victory. The wider democratic place remains surrounded, but perhaps a crack has let in a little light.
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