The World

What’s Next for India’s Protesting Farmers?

After months of clashes between protesters and the authorities, the two sides have settled into a painful stalemate.

A crowd of men raise their fists.
Mrinali Dhembla

DELHI—Since late November, farmers from throughout India have taken to the streets of the capital, vigorously protesting against three farm laws recently passed by the government. Millions of farmers in India have left their homes to carry out sit-in protests around the city, demanding a total repeal of the laws. Their protest sites have turned into makeshift townships: There are food pantries, trucks turned into lodgings, portable toilets, electricity generators, washing machines, local dispensaries, and libraries on the ground now. Despite these limited comforts, more than 100 protesters have died, due to suicide, hypothermia, medical emergencies, or unforeseen accidents.

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At the protest sites, one can see hundreds of tractors that have now been turned into shelters, parked next to one another. There are also tarpaulin tents that serve as temporary shelter homes, media rooms, or conference areas. To beat Delhi’s freezing winter, many farmers light fires using wood or coal, and huddle together around them on most nights, as they wait for a new morning to see their demands met by the government. In a reversal of typical gender roles, the men partake in daily chores with women and can be seen peeling vegetables, cooking food, serving meals, cleaning dishes, sweeping streets, and washing clothes. Some farmers jocularly call the protests a “mela,” a festival, bringing together Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh farmers to fight for a shared cause.

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Last week, the protests received international attention after pop singer Rihanna tweeted about them. Other international celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, have also chimed in. On the other hand, on Monday, when U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the phone for the first time since Biden assumed office, there was no mention of the farmers’ protests, according to the official readouts.

A crowd of people with a hazy sun in the background.
Mrinali Dhembla
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The protesters argue that the new farm laws, which dismantle provisions of government-backed minimum support prices on certain crops, will abet crony capitalism in the country and plunge small farmers into financial insecurity, as agribusiness corporations could stockpile their crops for cheap and release them into the market at unregulated, perhaps exorbitant prices. Furthermore, there is fear that, since the new laws push farmers to sell their produce to these same corporations, growers will be denied the credit services that the traditional system offered them. According to another provision of the laws, the farmers will have no access to legal counsel in this regard, as “no civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter.”

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In a bid to resolve the matter and end the deadlock between the government and the farmers, the Supreme Court of India passed an interim order in January staying the implementation of the three farm laws and recommending the formation of a four-member committee to hear petitions challenging the laws. As it happens, all four people appointed to the special committee have previously spoken in favor of the three laws.

Men speak from a stage.
Mrinali Dhembla
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The protests, which had largely been going on peacefully for months, have been met with escalating police brutality since an incident on India’s Republic Day (Jan. 26), which commemorates the anniversary of the adoption of the nation’s constitution. Every year on this day, a parade takes place ending at the Red Fort—a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built by the fifth Mughal emperor. This year, protesting farmers carried out a tractor rally on the roads of Delhi, but a faction of the protesters also breached the security at the Red Fort complex, as well as some of the barricades surrounding the city. Though the fort was expected to be tightly secured on Republic Day, protesters were able to storm onto its premises. Police resorted to using tear gas to disperse crowds and batons to charge protesters. Several rallygoers and police officers were injured in the clashes that ensued.

For many Indians, the Red Fort is a symbol of national unity and secularism: It was where India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, raised the Indian national flag on Aug. 15, 1947, marking the country’s independence from British rule. Leaders of the farmers’ movement condemned the Red Fort encroachment and allege that the country’s major media outlets have been maligning the image of the otherwise-peaceful protests, but the incident was still seized on by right-wing opponents.

It didn’t help that during the invasion, a Sikh youth hoisted a flag associated with Sikhism on the Red Fort, next to the Indian national flag. This gave Hindu nationalists a pretext to blame the protests on Sikh extremists.

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Since Day One, protesting farmers have been using the slogan “Kisan Ekta Zindabad” (“Long live farmer unity”) to advocate for their rights and have left little room for any communal divide among themselves. But since the flag incident, nationalists have taken to referring to them as “Khalistanis,” a term used for Sikhs who advocate for separatism, or even “terrorists.”

Protesters drive tractors down a highway.
Mrinali Dhembla
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After the upsurge of unrest on Republic Day, police presence was beefed up and paramilitary forces were deployed to the Delhi borders where farmers are camped out. The NH 24 road into Delhi, one of India’s largest highways, has been blockaded and now resembles a war zone, with multiple barricades and concertina wires established to keep farmers out. On another major protest site, police have blocked roads with concrete slabs fit together with iron nails; about a mile of incoming road has been dug up to make movement more cumbersome.

Apart from using state forces to instill a sense of fear among protesters, the Indian government has created other physical difficulties. It shut down water and electricity supplies to disrupt smooth functioning at major protest sites. Telecom and internet services were blocked in areas adjoining Delhi’s borders. Multiple Twitter accounts belonging to media outlets, journalists, and individuals supporting the farmers were suspended (though most of these were later reinstated). Many journalists have been detained while covering the protests, and other major reporters have had legal charges of sedition pressed against them.

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A crowd of people.
Mrinali Dhembla

Suppression of dissent is by no means a novel occurrence in India, particularly since Modi came to power. India also leads the world in internet shutdowns, often suspending internet services to stymie dissent. According to CNN, “shutdowns had almost doubled every successive year since 2014,” the year Modi came into power.

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What will happen in the days to come is hard to predict. Neither the government nor the farmers seem to have any intention of backing down. There have been about 11 rounds of talks between farmer leaders and the government, but the negotiations have been inconsequential and an ice-cold deadlock has set in. Rakesh Tikait, the leader of one of the largest protesting farmers unions, has asserted that he won’t engage with any talks with the government until all farmers arrested on Jan. 26 by the government are released. The Modi government’s clampdown on journalists and cavalier attitude toward the farmers’ demands have damaged the international image of the “world’s largest democracy.”

With increased suppression of dissent in India, finding a middle ground or a definite solution to the crisis won’t be easy.

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