Farmers in India have been protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agricultural deregulations for over five months. The policy is leaving about half the population of India without a steady income.
While India has been experiencing one of the most massive protests in human history since this past September, most of its publicity in the U.S. came from tweets by Greta Thunberg and Rihanna. While the added exposure was certainly appreciated by the Indian population, many people still do not completely understand what is going on, or why it matters. These protests are going on half a year later, and it has been a lengthy and complicated story leading up to the point where even international figures and celebrities are acknowledging it. One cannot understand why this is happening without going back to September of 2020.
Protests almost immediately began in September with the passing of India’s ‘Farm Bills,’ which are a set of far-right deregulations passed by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the biggest criticism of which is the removal of all price floors for farmers selling their crops. A crop price floor is a law guaranteeing farmers will be able to sell their product for a minimum set price. This provided farmers with a guaranteed profit and steady income, and provided more equal economic power between corporate farms and farm-owning families and individuals.
Price floor regulation has been a common occurrence throughout history, especially in times of economic crisis such as war and recession, including several times in the U.S., and as recently as 2014. Taking these regulations away all at once, especially during a recession, immediately shifts the power balance much more in favor of large corporations and their farms, and leaving overwhelmingly poor, Indian farmers without a stabilized and reliable source of income.
As for why these protests are so massive, the majority of Indians (58 percent) are farmers, so the passage of this legislation negatively impacted citizens already suffering through a pandemic and recession, while helping large companies and the rich. Many protesters are also especially concerned about these new laws with the looming threat of climate change. Severe swings in weather make it more difficult to predict crop output, leading to even less stability in income, and the power corporations would hold over farms would lead to greater pollution and environmental damage. This also comes as the complete opposite of one of Modi’s campaign promises, as he and his party won office by promising to raise farmers’ guaranteed prices by 50 percent if he won.
Such a law, not surprisingly, triggered protests instantaneously and quickly became some of the biggest ever seen worldwide, rallying most of the nation’s left-wing parties together (even the communists!). The protest’s peak was arguably in November of 2020, where protesters and activists organized a nationwide, two-day general strike. A general strike, again, for reference, is different from a regular strike by calling on everyone, regardless of occupation, to strike in solidarity, not just the laborers involved. By this point, American activists had also taken notice of the protests, which was extensively written up by leftist publications, namely the Jacobin. Approximately 250 million people participated across India, possibly making it the largest in human history. Their demands not only included restoring economic protections for farmers, but stronger assistance during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent recession at a time where India had overtaken Brazil for second-most COVID-19 cases in the world. In addition, this general strike and protest had roots in women-led protests taking place before the pandemic started over new laws defining Indian citizenship that were accused of being Islamaphobic and stripping Muslim residents of the rights of citizens.
However, the response to these protests has been less than stellar. The Indian government has drawn international condemnation for violating protesters’ human rights by shutting off the Internet to stop activists and protesters from organizing, a right recognized by the United Nations since 2016. International media has called these shutdowns “invisibility cloaks,” and points out that these shutdowns have only become a reality since Modi took office. This, in general, has created concern that, while India did not have strong democratic institutions in the first place, these actions, alongside the silencing of journalists, imply Modi might form an authoritarian regime. This is not entirely far-fetched, as directly harming almost 60 percent of the population, while helping corporations and the rich, is a surefire way to lose your next election. Attempting this comes off as political suicide in a country with free elections. This is also a worry Indian Americans have been sharing, as many have noticed President Biden refused to bring up the protests and general strike in his first meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, which may suggest that he is not very concerned with the general population’s plight, or Modi’s human rights violations.
Regardless, the outcome of these protests remains to be seen. The backlash will have been going on for a continuous six months in March, and there does not appear to be an end in sight, and neither side becomes willing to back down. As of Feb. 3, 147 farmers died as a direct or secondary result of these laws and the nonstop protesting. One can only hope peace can be reached as soon as possible.
Featured image: Courtesy of Photo courtesy of Altaf Qadri/ AP Photo.