[Written by Colin Thin (he/him)]
[Art by Ella Field (she/her)]
CW: Discussions of mental health and excessive or gratuitous violence
The farmers’ protests in India have recently been hitting the headlines of Western media, and they were even featured on Rihanna’s Twitter. These protests are not a recent phenomenon – there is a decades long history of suffering and exploitation behind them. Their origins may lie in desperation, but the protests have provided both a challenge to Modi’s authoritarian regime and a reason to hope for change.
Farming is a part of life for many people in India. Nearly half of the population is made up of small farmers and their families – 60% of them are reliant on agriculture as their primary source of income. Over the past few decades farming has changed drastically, and a major drive behind this change has been the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s. As a US funded program, it pushed the transition of Indian agriculture from traditional methods to industrial farming practices, with the aim of producing higher yields. Though these yields were achieved, the negative long-term consequences have been immense. Farmers have been pushed to purchase seeds from large agribusinesses, rather than keeping their own strains (bred for thousands of years to be suited to their environment). The seeds bred by these corporations are heavily reliant on pesticides and chemical fertilisers that, coincidentally, must be purchased from the same corporations. Since the 1960s, prices for pesticides and fertilisers have grown dramatically whilst government minimum crop prices have remained static, and Indian farmers have become ravaged by long term debt. This has significantly contributed to the horrific farmers’ suicide crisis, to which 10,000 farmers lost their lives in 2019.
There are also long term environmental and health impacts. Large scale irrigation made necessary by the abandonment of traditional farming methods has severely lowered the water table. Pesticides encouraged by the ‘Green Revolution’ have lowered the fertility of the country’s soil, whilst multiple studies have also linked the use of these pesticides to a shocking increase in cancer cases in the Punjab region.
This is the grim backdrop against which the Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, passed the controversial three farm laws. The laws are complex but in essence they are aimed at opening Indian agriculture to the global market, allowing increased access for global agribusiness and lower prices for consumers. A key objection that farmers have is that the laws will force them to negotiate contracts directly with large corporations. With 99.4% of farmers being low income or resource poor, most will not have the resources to come away with anything other than a very exploitative contract.
Many farmers also see the laws as a betrayal by Modi’s party, the BJP, that was elected in 2014 on a platform of reforms to aid farmers. Most of these promised measures have been only half executed or have failed to materialise entirely. Overall, the protesters see the laws as being designed to benefit large corporations and private interests over the farmers’. Modi is closely tied to India’s business tycoons, and the laws have been backed by both the International Monetary Fund and the US government (neither of which has a particularly clean track record in their support for economic reforms around the globe). All these considered, the farmers may well be right not to trust Modi when he says his intentions are ‘as pious as the water of Maa Ganga’ (the holy river Ganga).
The protests against the new laws began with farmers in the Punjab and have since spread into southern areas of India with both farmers and workers joining the movement. Their current iteration began in late November, when farmers’ unions planned a march on Delhi, with around 250 million workers engaging in a general strike in support. The farmers set up camp around the capital, blocking highways and engaging in hunger strikes in protest. Their encampments have become increasingly permanent, becoming miniature cities with large kitchens, libraries, medical clinics, and common places to gather and give speeches. When their water supplies were threatened by the police, the protesters responded by setting up their own plumbing systems and electricity infrastructure.
Modi’s government is obviously feeling the pressure, with the Indian supreme court delaying implementation of the laws in response to the protests. However, farmers aren’t willing to give any ground and are determined that their protest will stop only after all three laws have been completely scrapped. Despite these successes there remain difficulties within the protesters’ ranks. The movement is largely dominated by landowning castes, making landless labourers reluctant to lend their full support. Regardless, over the past decade, there have been increasing efforts (especially in the Punjab) by farmers unions to address this divide and incorporate farm labourers into a wider movement based on solidarity. Overall, and in spite of such challenges, the protests have been able to provide a real threat to Modi’s authoritarian government when it has previously appeared unassailable.
International attention became focused on the movement after the 26th of January, India’s Republic Day, when a huge farmers’ march took place in Delhi. The pre-approved route for the march was designed by authorities to avoid the celebrations in the centre of the city. However, a group of protesters broke away from the main protest, clashing with police, and ended up occupying the historic Red Fort. Although the clashes appear to have largely been sparked by the police’s heavy-handed tactics, the occupying of the Red Fort has been widely condemned within Indian politics. The fact that a protester raised the Nishan Sahib (a Sikh religious flag) at the fort has also added fuel to the government’s attempts to brand the farmers as Khalistanis (a Sikh separatist movement) and the event has been used to justify increasingly violent repression by police. Authorities have recently fortified the borders of the capital with concrete barricades, spikes, and barbed wire, whilst further attacking the protesters’ access to water, electricity, and the internet. The vast majority of protesters, however, remain determined to continue.
The farmer’s protests have significant difficulties to overcome, both within their movement and in how they will survive increasingly brutal repression. However, the huge numbers of people involved, and the incredible resilience they have displayed so far, show that this movement can go further, and those involved deserve our solidarity. The farmers’ protests are a fantastic example of how a grassroots movement can oppose Neoliberal policy, enforced by a Western-backed, authoritarian regime. Last year’s protests in Chile, the subsequent vote to overturn Pinochet’s constitution, and the monumental effort by the people of Bolivia in overturning their US backed coup, show how such movements can radically reshape a country’s politics. There’s still hope that the farmers’ protests can do the same in India.