Indian Farmers Made Modi Back Down

Narendra Modi has faced few serious barriers to his authoritarian, far-right agenda since taking office — which makes his backing down on proposed free-market agricultural reforms in response to mass protest from farmers all the more remarkable.

Farmers in India have been protesting for over a year, demanding the rollback of laws aimed at deregulating the farming sector. (Naveen Sharma / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

New Delhi: Inside a tin shanty, built right in the middle of the national highway, Hardeep Singh had stockpiled blankets and quilts as the winter began in New Delhi. He was glued to the TV, perched precariously atop an iron stand, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise media appearance on November 19.

Above his shanty, a mile board directs toward the state of Haryana. Singh has called this highway home since he marched toward New Delhi with hundreds of thousands of farmers, in a protest against the three new agricultural reform laws forced by the Modi-led government, last year.

After they were tear-gassed until they stopped at the capital’s borders, farmers braced through harsh winters, scorching summers, and flooding monsoons to become the biggest political challenge Modi has faced in office.

Backed by labor unions, farmers demanded total rollback of the laws, which were aimed at deregulating the farming sector. Farmer unions said that removing minimum support price (MSP) on crops would “leave farmers vulnerable to corporate wolves.” After eleven rounds of talks between the officials and farmers, the government fell silent for several months.

Then in his surprise morning appearance, Modi relented last Friday. Announcing that his government will roll back 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 the farmers despite our efforts.”

In the absence of a strong and coherent opposition, Modi has successfully ignored protests with numerous laws advancing his authoritarian, Hindu nationalist vision for India. But electoral threats in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Punjab, two of the seven states holding elections next year, have forced him to back out. After a sound electoral defeat in the state of West Bengal earlier this year, then losing a streak of by-elections in Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, and Rajasthan, alarm bells have rung within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bloc, prompting the government’s decision to accede to the farmers.

“You should return to your homes, fields, and to your families,” Modi begged protesting farmers in his address. “Let’s make a fresh start.”

Modi’s announcement, which came on Gurpurab, was bittersweet for farmers like Singh. Many have promised to make the protests bigger. Rakesh Tikait, a senior leader spearheading the movement, said that the farmers will not return unless the government secures their six demands, including ensuring MSP.

“You face a lot of difficulties in a movement, but this is a war,” said Singh. “We will not return home till we grab [Modi] by his collar and give him a fit of democracy.”

Dying on the Borders

India’s farmers have long demanded agricultural policy reforms. The major bone of contention that sparked the recent protests emerged as the government kept the stakeholders out of the loop on reforms that would privatize the sector and change the dealings of crops for farmers, then rushed it through an ordinance and a dubious “silent voting” in the upper house of Parliament whose telecast was muted and eventually cut off for viewers.

Even after Modi did his best to send India into a pandemic hell that killed millions, the hyper-nationalist rhetoric by the right wing — endorsed by the ruling BJP — has continued his agenda of criminalizing Muslims and caste-based minorities. Key to his politics has been a strongman image, as his government clamped down on civil liberties, dissent, and basic democratic values.

That makes the rollback of his farming laws a rare retreat for Modi, arguably his worst setback since becoming prime minister in 2014. “The ruling party has enforced a popular image; the farmers’ movement has managed to bend that image,” said Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi. The backtrack primarily shows that “if you have a sustained movement and are able to mobilize significant people,” the government can be left with no choice but to bend to that movement’s will.

During the year-long movement, more than seven hundred farmers, including thirty women, died of excessive weather conditions, accidents, and target killings, according to one independent study. A national memorial dedicated to the “martyrs” is one of the farmers’ demands for ending the protests. One of the study’s researchers, Lakhwinder Singh, said: “These deaths have had a large impact on people’s perception of the government’s handling of the protests.”

On October 3, a vehicle in the convoy of the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh rammed protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. The vehicle, driven by the son of a BJP-appointed minister, killed eight people, including four farmers.

“The government shivered because of that incident,” said Singh.

The state is due for election in perhaps ninety days. In another incident, a government official ordered the police to “break the heads” of protesting farmers in a Haryana village. “These incidents created immense pressure on the government to look for a solution for the problem.”

Incidents like these have made the farmers I spoke with unwilling to speak favorably of the prime minister.

“We cannot say thank you to Modi. [Repealing laws] is not a favor,” said one of the protesting farmers on Ghazipur border. “Our brothers and sisters have martyred here: did he say a word for any one of them?”

For farmers like fifty-two-year-old Narendra Choudhary, Modi’s words offer no consolation. On January 1, Choudhary and his younger brother, Galtan, were sitting by the highway “as sheer cold waves slapped on our faces” on Ghazipur border, 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 a hospital,” Choudhary recalled.

Galtan’s body was taken back to his village in Uttar Pradesh, sixty-seven miles away from the protest site. More than a hundred people from the protests followed the body in respect. “His death fueled our passion for the movement,” said Choudhary, adding that he hasn’t been home since then. “We are protesting after everyone failed us. We are now fighting for our crops, our upcoming generations, and to save this country.”

Back at home, Galtan’s family now faces the pressure of debt that he had taken to work on his two acre land. All the farmers that died during the protest were small landholders, a rebuke to the claims from some of Modi’s supporters and party leaders that only a section of elite farmers were protesting.

The farmers’ movement was dragged through the mud by the Modi government before it relented, dismissing protesters by labeling them “anti-national,” “Pakistan-sponsored,” “foreign-funded,” or “a large conspiracy to defame India.” Ruling party leaders called the farmers “urban Naxals” (in reference to India’s longstanding Maoist insurgency, “Khalistanis,” and “hooligans.” The pro-government media channels — including Times Now, Zee News, and Republic TV — peddled false reporting and painted the protesters as part of a foreign-funded conspiracy.

Unsurprisingly, the movement’s leadership, headed by Punjab’s Sikh and Haryana’a Jatt communities and joined by dozens of smaller unions, assembled under the umbrella Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), has pushed back. “Till yesterday, my brother was a terrorist,” said Choudhary. “Today he is a farmer who ‘should return home’? Farmers are not going to forget this, ever.”

The wave of support for the farmers, apparent across multiple states, has strongly affected India’s national political mood. A few of the protests’ leaders could contest the upcoming state elections. But it is less likely that the movement’s base could be converted into direct political currency for those leaders.

“We are not looking for any election commitment right now,” Dharmendra Malik, national spokesperson of Bharatiya Kisan Union, a part of the SKM, told me in an interview. “We have a strong union now, and we will continue to fight for the farmers who face many other day-to-day issues in life.”

“This Is India Now”

India’s standing has taken punches across international reports in recent years. The US-based Freedom House downgraded India from “free democracy” to “partially free democracy”; Sweden-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 its policies and views. Compounded with the rise of Hindu nationalism, the space for political, religious, and cultural tolerance has shrunken considerably. India has moved away from being a secular country that treats its minority Muslim citizens as equals.

Before the farmers took to the streets, Muslims protested an Islamophobic citizenship act that changes the meaning of Indian by definition. In 2019, Modi’s government cleared the Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship to all refugees from neighboring countries — except Muslims. These laws can possibly make millions of Muslims in India stateless.

The template to delegitimize opponents was tried on the farmers’ movement too. “But this movement was mostly led by Sikhs,” said Apoorvanand, “so it was very difficult in Hindu imagination to portray it as anti-national. Natural bias that a common Hindu has for Muslim in India is absent in this equation.”

Shaheen Bagh, a site of large protest against the citizenship laws in New Delhi, became a symbol of resistance for Indian Muslims before it was uprooted as the pandemic hit. Fifty-two-year-old Mehrunissa was among the last women to leave Shaheen Bagh when police cleared the area.

Now she has found a new home: a tent next to Hardeep Singh’s shanty. Leaving a shop where she worked for $120 per 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 grin. “This is India now.”

The farmers’ victory should not be seen as a revival of democratic values in India. Modi’s government is increasingly criminalizing dissent, and with the upcoming elections in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, anti-Muslim rhetoric from the BJP is expected to rise as the party attempts to consolidate its vote. Modi seems to only fear electoral losses; without further mass mobilization like the farmers’, India’s marginalized will continue to lose in the desiccated democracy that India has become.