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Revolution takes over the Modi regime

Farmers' protests go louder despite the government's pushback

On January 26, tens of thousands of protesting farmers in Delhi planned a tractor rally on India’s Republic Day. They descended on the Red Fort, the historic site of an annual address from the Prime Minister. Despite plans for peaceful protests in the nation’s capital, police tear-gassed protesters, with the violence leaving one protestor killed and dozens injured. The scale and coordination of these protests, which have been ongoing for two months, make them part of a real revolution that presents a clear threat to Modi and his right-wing agenda.


One of the flags hoisted at the Red Fort was the Nishan Sahib, a religious Sikh flag. This furthered rumors vilifying the protesting farmers as “Khalistanis” (Punjabi separatists). The government’s crackdown is using a classic scapegoating tactic framing the farmers as a national security threat. This sentiment was echoed by media likening the events of Republic Day to the January 6th storming of the Capitol in the U.S. In response to the violent clashes at the Red Fort, the Modi government cut off mobile Internet in three locations outside Delhi. The government has also filed suits against journalists and activists in authoritarian desperate attempts to quash the movement. While Twitter temporarily blocked a number of accounts in India that were linked to the protest, they ended up unblocking them after widespread condemnation. Shortly thereafter, international celebrities including Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeted out support for the farmers, raising the profile of the protests and adding pressure to the  Modi government.

Origin of the Protests

At the end of November, India witnessed the start of the largest protest in human history, with over 250 million people (led by Punjab and Haryana) blocking entry points to Delhi and participating in an ongoing general strike against a set of amendments to farm laws. Over sixty farmers have died in the protests due to weather conditions (with unofficial numbers putting this number at 170), illness (exacerbated by the pandemic), and suicide. Farmers have called these amendments, passed hurriedly and against parliamentary procedures, death warrants. As of now, eleven rounds of negotiations have stalled, and the government has put the laws on hold for 18 months while farmers are still agitating for total repeal. By directly occupying entry points into Delhi, the strike has caused significant disruption and delays in supply chains that were already slowed due to Covid-19.  Various unions and groups throughout India have engaged in nationwide bandhs (strikes) in solidarity. This is all occurring amid the crisis of Covid-19, which has left 27 percent of the Indian population unemployed.

The three amendments serve to expand the role of the free market by deregulating existing protections. Under the previous mandi system, farmers were protected by floor prices and sold in markets controlled by the government. The new amendments, by allowing farmers to sell directly to the private sector at a market price, strip away this pricing regulation and effectively block small farmers from the market. According to BBC Punjabi, “This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates.” In the past, the government has cracked down on farmer protests with police brutality. It is likely that the government deliberately passed these laws during the pandemic, when farmers are already facing tremendous hardship - unsuspecting of this large-scale, organized pushback.

To date, the agrarian sector remains the largest in India, employing over half of the workforce. While some economists argue that the amendments offer farmers increased flexibility and more options to sell, the reality looks much more bleak. With the existing regulatory frameworks stripped away, big agribusiness can now occupy larger portions of the market, pushing prices below the existing floor and cutting into the already meager profits afforded to farmers. 86 percent of farmers are small landholders who are likely to be cut off from the market. These small farmers support 60 percent of the country’s livelihood. People’s lives are at stake in multiple ways. In India, farmer suicides comprised 11 percent of all suicides in 2015.

The Brookings Institution reports that the government’s policy response (which includes special packages to alleviate or mitigate debt) has been woefully inadequate, and reactionary rather than preemptive. They also report that media sensationalization has contributed to a suicide contagion among farmers in India. This plight has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19. With lockdowns, many have been driven out of the urban economy as desperation has continued to cause poverty-driven suicides. These deaths amount to blood on the Modi government’s hands, and are preventable with sound policy aimed at directly serving the people.

Marginalized Identities

Farmer suicides leave families and women, who are not always allowed to own land, in particularly dire straits. Many women are leading the charge with protests around rural India as well as managing the farms and land. Three-quarters of working rural women are farmers in India, although they face unequal pay and only thirteen percent own the land they farm on. 

Furthermore, it is critical to remember the interlinked nature of caste and class Dalits, comprising 32% of Punjab’s population, own 2.3% of the agricultural land. Equality Labs’ analysis reminds us that “Dalit farm labourers not only face oppression from the government, but often are abused, underpaid, and harassed within farming communities.” As landless Dalits stand in solidarity with protesting farmers, this revolution has an undeniable caste dimension. The linkages of solidarity between women, Dalits, and other marginalized communities show a true revolution with the masses coming together to resist Modi’s government. 

The Revolution Moving Forward

Rana Ayyub writes in the Washington Post, “The farmers are demanding a real resolution. But this regime isn’t interested in that - it only cares for grandiose public relations events for its brand.” The real revolution has been the farmers’ unwavering spirit and refusal to compromise on their livelihoods. Farmers of all castes, classes, and genders have shown the resolute spirit of Chardi Kala, an expression used in Sikhism to convey eternal optimism and a revolutionary spirit. With calls of solidarity from the diaspora rising as well, this truly diverse coalition of the masses presents a real threat to the Modi government - and a profound example for laborers across the world to emulate. 

About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz



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