India’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the repeal of three contentious agricultural laws, which had prompted a nationwide farmers’ protest that lasted more than a year. The Modi government’s climbdown is not only seen as a victory for farmers who remained steadfast in the face of a raging pandemic, brutal weather and state violence, but also has the potential to revitalise other rights movements in the country.
The scrapping of the agriculture laws is also being seen as Modi’s first sign of weakness, despite his carefully cultivated image as a populist strongman, a paragon of effective governance and a combative leader who is not afraid to take risks. This has given his political opponents a shot in the arm after they previously failed to galvanise public opinion against his regime.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government announced the rollback of the laws on the anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth. Nanak is the founder of Sikhism and is followed by many protesting farmers. During his televised speech, Modi urged the protesting farmers, who are camped outside the national capital, to return home.
Modi said these laws were expected to benefit Indian farmers, especially those with small landholdings. He also apologised that his government was unable to convince farmers of the benefits of the laws. “Even though it was only a section of farmers who were opposing, they were still important for us. We continued to convince them with all humility and open mind,” he said.
The constitutional formalities are expected to be completed in India’s Parliament during the winter session that begins on 29 November.
While farmers are pleased with the reversal, they do not intend to end their protest until the laws are officially abolished by parliament. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organisation of 40 farm unions, stated that their protest will continue until the government passes laws ensuring minimum support prices for all agricultural produce. They also said that the cases filed against demonstrators during the protest must be withdrawn, as well as compensation given to the families of farmers who died at the protest site.
Heavy human toll
Since last November, thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi’s borders demanding the repeal of legislation aimed at deregulating the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers outside government-regulated wholesale markets where growers are assured a minimum price.
In the wake of these laws, several farmers’ unions of the north Indian state of Punjab came together under the SKM umbrella. The protesters were met with heavy policing, including water cannons, baton charges and excessive force. The protest corridor formed near the Delhi-Singhu border and ran for many kilometres. Makeshift toilets, Sikh langars or free dining halls, medical dispensaries and other essential facilities kept the protest going round the clock. Unions from Punjab, communist parties and Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait galvanised farmers for the protests.
More than 700 farmers are believed to have died during the protests, many of whom were small landholders. Massive protests have also taken place in other states, including Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – all main agricultural regions due for elections early next year.
Some questions have been raised about the timing of the withdrawal of the farm laws, with many critics and opposition leaders saying that Modi’s about-turn on agriculture legislation was motivated by elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where the majority of the protesting farmers live.
“What cannot be achieved by democratic protests can be achieved by the fear of impending elections!” tweeted Palaniappan Chidambaram, a senior politician at the opposition Indian National Congress party and a former Indian finance minister.
The noted Indian economist Arun Kumar agreed. “The farm leaders must know that this move is due to the impending elections in north India and crucially, in Uttar Pradesh. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in its recent meeting, had advised the Bharatiya Janata Party that Uttar Pradesh is crucial and a solution needs to be found to the farmers’ protests to minimise the damage being caused,” he said, adding that the BJP also realises that if Uttar Pradesh is lost then its prospects in the national elections in 2024 would be damaged.
Many farmers also believe that the decision could be mere optics for the upcoming elections. “There is an increasing anti-BJP sentiment, especially in Uttar Pradesh. We have been protesting for the [past] year, so why was the announcement made today?” one farmer asked.
BJP’s key rival in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, has also expressed concerns that the Modi government may reintroduce the farm laws after the 2022 Assembly elections in the state. “Their intentions are not pure. The Bills will be brought back again,” the party said.
Some have argued Modi’s retreat was prompted by the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on 3 October. Eight people, including four farmers, were mowed down, allegedly by the son of a union minister. “The Lakhimpur Kheri deaths were a political disaster for the BJP,” wrote journalist Aditya Menon. “Farmers angry at a law is one thing. A minister’s son allegedly running over farmers is an entirely different issue and far more harmful.”
This is the first time in the second tenure of the BJP government that a decision was withdrawn in the wake of protests. The BJP has emerged as one of the strongest parties in the country’s history, ruling with iron-fist policies. It has shown little interest in the central or regional opposition parties.
“The passing of the farm laws was a manifestation of the Modi government’s contempt for the federal structure of the republic and for Parliament itself,” argued historian Ramachandra Guha, adding that the secrecy with which these laws were hastily passed aroused widespread resentment among the farmers. “The withdrawal of the farm laws was, therefore, a triumph of satyagraha, the force of truth, against arrogance and hubris. It is a rare, partial and perhaps reversible victory of democracy over authoritarianism, but a victory nonetheless.”
Apoorvanand, a political commentator who teaches at Delhi University, said the farmers’ victory will aid in countering the sense of loss that has persisted since Modi retook office in 2019. “This victory should give citizens courage and energy to resume righteous battles and start new ones.”
More than half of India’s population is directly linked with agriculture. But farmers in the country have been struggling for decades amid outdated laws, and droughts and floods brought on by climate change. Tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide for failing to pay debt in the wake of rising interest rates, crop failures, financial instability, mental stress, and a lack of social and political support.