New Delhi: Inside a tin shack, built right in the middle of the national highway, Hardeep Singh had stacked blankets and quilts in early winter in New Delhi. He was glued to the television, perched precariously on an iron stand, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise media appearance on November 19.
Above its slum, a mile sign points to the state of Haryana. Singh has called the highway home since marching to New Delhi with hundreds of thousands of farmers, protesting three new farm reform laws imposed by the Modi-led government last year.
After receiving tear gas until they stopped at the capital’s borders, farmers braced themselves for harsh winters, scorching summers and monsoon floods to become the biggest political challenge Modi has faced. been faced with power.
Supported by the unions, the farmers demanded a complete rollback of laws, which aimed to deregulate the agricultural sector. Farmer unions said removing the minimum support price (MSP) on crops would make farmers vulnerable to corporate wolves. After eleven rounds of talks between officials and farmers, the government remained silent for several months.
Then, during his surprise morning appearance, Modi gave in last Friday. Announcing that his government would rescind the laws, he apologized to citizens and said: We have not been able to explain to some farmers such a sacred thing which is absolutely pure and for the benefit of farmers despite our best efforts. .
In the absence of a strong and consistent opposition, Modi has managed to ignore the protests with numerous laws advancing his authoritarian and Hindu nationalist vision for India. But electoral threats in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Punjab, two of the seven states holding elections next year, forced him to back down. After a solid electoral defeat in the state of West Bengal earlier this year, followed by a series of by-elections in Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka and Rajasthan, the alarm bells have sounded within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bloc, pushing the government’s decision to join farmers.
You should go back to your homes, your fields and your families, Modi pleaded in his speech to protest the farmers. Let’s take a fresh start.
Modis’ announcement, which arrived in Gurpurab, was bittersweet to farmers like Singh. Many have promised to intensify the protests. Rakesh Tikait, a senior official leading the movement, said the farmers will not come back until the government responds to their six demands, including securing PSM.
You have a lot of difficulty in a movement, but it’s a war, Singh said. We won’t come home until we get it [Modi] by his collar and give him a fit of democracy.
Indian farmers have long called for agricultural policy reforms. The main bone of contention that sparked recent protests came when the government kept stakeholders away from reforms that would privatize the sector and change the crop trade for farmers, then rushed it through by means of a prescription and a dubious “silent vote” in the upper house of parliament, which was cut off and ultimately cut off for viewers.
Even after Modi did his best to send India into pandemic hell that killed millions, the hypernationalist rhetoric of the right backed by the ruling BJP continued its agenda of criminalizing Muslims and caste-based minorities. Key to his policies has been a strongman image, as his government clamped down on civil liberties, dissent, and core democratic values.
This makes rolling back his farm laws a rare retreat for Modi, arguably his worst setback since becoming Prime Minister in 2014. The ruling party has imposed a popular image; the farmers’ movement has succeeded in distorting this image, said Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi. The flashback mainly shows that if you have a sustained movement and are able to mobilize important people, the government may have no choice but to comply with this will of the movements.
In the year-long movement, more than 700 farmers, including 30 women, died from excessive weather conditions, accidents and targeted killings, according to an independent study. A national memorial dedicated to the martyrs is one of the farmers’ demands to end the protests. One of the study’s researchers, Lakhwinder Singh, said: These deaths had a big impact on people’s perceptions of how governments handled the protests.
On October 3, a vehicle from the convoy of the Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh crashed into farmers demonstrating in Lakhimpur Kheri. The vehicle, driven by the son of a minister appointed by the BJP, killed eight people, including four farmers.
The government shuddered over the incident, Singh said.
The state is to be elected in maybe ninety days. In another incident, a government official ordered police to smash the heads of farmers protesting in a village in Haryana. These incidents created immense pressure on the government to seek a solution to the problem.
Incidents like these have made it difficult for the farmers I spoke to speak favorably about the Prime Minister.
We cannot say thank you to Modi. [Repealing laws] is no favor, said one of the farmers protesting at the Ghazipur border. Our brothers and sisters have martyred here: did he say a word for one of them?
For farmers like Narendra Choudhary, 52, Modis’s words offer no consolation. On January 1, Choudhary and his younger brother, Galtan, sat by the side of the highway as sheer cold waves slapped us in the face at the border of Ghazipur, another protest site. Galtan soon complained of heartburn. It turned out he was having a heart attack. We lost him before we could take him to the hospital, recalls Choudhary.
Galtan’s body was returned to his village in Uttar Pradesh, sixty-seven miles from the protest site. More than a hundred demonstrators followed the body with respect. His death fueled our passion for the movement, Choudhary said, adding that he had not been home since then. We protest after everyone has let us down. We are now fighting for our crops, our future generations and to save this country.
Back home, the Galtans family are now facing the pressure of the debt they incurred to work on their two acres of land. All the farmers who died during the protest were small landowners, a criticism of the claims by some Modis supporters and party leaders that only some of the elite farmers were protesting.
The farmers’ movement was dragged through the mud by the Modi government before it gave in, sacking the protesters as anti-nationals, Pakistan-sponsored, foreign-funded or “a grand conspiracy to defame India “. The leaders of the ruling party called the urban farmers Naxals (in reference to the Indies long-standing Maoist insurgency, Khalistanis ”, and hooligans. Pro-government media channels including Times Now, Zee News, and Republic TV peddled false reports and painted the protesters as part of an overseas-funded plot.
Unsurprisingly, the movement’s leadership, led by the Sikh communities of Punjab and Haryanaa Jatt and joined by dozens of small unions, united under the aegis of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), has retreated. Until yesterday, my brother was a terrorist, Choudhary said. Today is a farmer who should go home? Farmers will never forget that.
The wave of support for farmers, apparent in several states, has strongly affected India’s national political mood. Some of the leaders of the protest could contest the next national elections. But it is less likely that the base of the movements can be converted into direct political currency for these leaders.
We are not looking for any electoral commitments at the moment, Dharmendra Malik, national spokesperson for Union Bharatiya Kisan, part of SKM, told me in an interview. We now have a strong union and we will continue to fight for the farmers who face many other daily problems.
India’s position has taken some hits in international reports in recent years. The US-based Freedom House demoted India from free democracy to partially free democracy; The Swedish-based V-Dem institute called it an “electoral autocracy”; and the Economist Intelligence Unit described India as a “flawed democracy” in its Democracy Index.
Modi deserves the blame. His government has jailed activists, journalists and academics for opposing his policies and opinions. Combined with the rise of Hindu nationalism, the space for political, religious and cultural tolerance has shrunk considerably. India has moved away from being a secular country that treats its minority Muslim citizens equally.
Before the farmers took to the streets, Muslims protested an Islamophobic act of citizenship that changes the meaning of Indian by definition. In 2019, the Modis government approved the Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship to all refugees from neighboring countries except Muslims. These laws can eventually render millions of Muslims in India stateless.
The model of delegitimizing opponents has also been tried on the farmers’ movement. But this movement was mostly led by Sikhs, Apoorvanand said, so it was very difficult in the Hindu imagination to portray it as anti-national. The natural prejudice that a common Hindu has for Muslims in India is absent in this equation.
Shaheen Bagh, a major protest site against citizenship laws in New Delhi, became a symbol of resistance for Indian Muslims before being uprooted when the pandemic struck. Mehrunissa, 52, was one of the last women to leave Shaheen Bagh when police cleared the area.
Now she has found a new home: a tent next to the Hardeep Singhs slum. Leaving a store where she worked for $ 120 a month, Mehrunissa joined the farmers’ movement last November. They called me a terrorist [during the Shaheen Bagh sit-in]. They called me a Maoist. Now I’m a Khalistani, she said with a smile. It’s India now.
The victory of the farmers should not be seen as a renewal of democratic values in India. The Modis government increasingly criminalizes dissent, and with the upcoming elections in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is expected to increase as the party tries to consolidate its vote. Modi seems to fear only electoral losses; without more mass mobilization like the farmers, the marginalized Indies will continue to lose in the parched democracy that India has become.
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