How Indian farmers pushed back Narendra Modi

NEW DELHI – Om Prakash relied on his relatives and neighbors to take care of his wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by sup...


NEW DELHI – Om Prakash relied on his relatives and neighbors to take care of his wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by supporters at home and abroad. When he felt feverish, he turned to volunteer medical workers huddled like himself by a noisy overpass for months, through heat and cold and a deadly viral outbreak.

Now his year away from his farm and his family has finally paid off.

Mr. Prakash was one of thousands of farmers in India who used their organizational skills, extensive support network and perseverance to force one of the country’s most powerful rulers in modern history to a rare retreat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said lawmakers would repeal new farm laws that protesting farmers feared would make them vulnerable to large companies rapacious and destroy their way of life.

Their victory will not help India solve the deep inefficiencies plaguing its agricultural sector, problems that leave people undernourished in some places even while grains in other areas are unused or exported. But it showed how a group desperate to maintain its grip on a middle-class way of life could successfully challenge a government more accustomed to stifling dissent than reckoning with it.

“It is power, it is strength, it is the struggle, it is the sacrifice of more than 700 farmers on these borders that forced Mr. Modi to come down to repeal these laws,” said Darshant Pal. Singh, one of the nine leaders of the agricultural protest. .

Farmers, who camped on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi for a year, endured more than the elements. A vicious second wave of Covid-19 roared through the city in the spring. The movement also saw two violent episodes that resulted in the deaths of protesters, one in New Delhi in January and a second last month in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which increased pressure on the group to he gives up.

But the farmers’ insistence on lobbying their campaign, their support for a global network of allies and the non-violent nature of the protests have proven to be the keys to their success, according to their supporters. Despite the deaths and a few other incidents, the farmers’ protests were largely peaceful. Other recent protest movements, such as the one against a law that expedited citizenship for certain groups but excluded Muslims, were in the throes of violence.

The effort is not yet over. Farmers have vowed to continue their protests until the government submits another demand, guaranteeing a minimum price for nearly two dozen crops. Rather than retreating now, they feel an opportunity to push even harder on a prime minister who nervously watches his party’s poll numbers plunge into a string of states with elections next year. The government has announced that it will form a committee to look into the matter.

India’s agricultural system has yet to be fixed, a fact that even many protesting farmers recognize. Started at a time of widespread famine in the 1960s, the system created centralized markets where farmers could sell their crops. Part of the proceeds is donated to farming communities through infrastructure projects, pensions and programs providing free technical advice on issues such as seeds and fertilizers.

Today, this system has contributed to inefficiency: the government subsidizes water-intensive crops in drought-stricken land. Agriculture focuses on staple grains while more nutritious crops, like leafy vegetables, are neglected.

Most of the country’s 60 percent employed in agriculture earn a living from subsistence farming. While some farmers lead middle class lives, aided by modern aids like tractors and irrigation, many others see no profit and are indebted. With city and factory jobs hard to find in a country still struggling with poverty, many farm children migrate to find better lives.

Mr. Modi’s laws were aimed at more private money agriculture and make it more responsive to market forces. Mr. Singh, the leader of the protest, said many farmers would prefer subsidies to a wider range of production.

“The root of the agricultural problem in India is that farmers are not getting the fair value for their crops,” Singh said. “There are two ways of looking at reforms: giving land to companies, to the big guys, to the capitalists. The other is to help farmers increase their yields.

The movement started in the Punjab, which is home to a large community of Sikhs, the religious group, and some of the country’s richest farmlands. The leaders of the protest relied on the two to organize and finance their one-year protests.

Financial support, especially from Sikh temples and organizations outside India, has been critical to the movement’s sustainability, said Baldev Singh Sirsa, a farm leader.

The organizers relied heavily on the Sikh diaspora in Punjab. Large charities like Khalsa Aid International, a British aid group, raised money for the protesters. Smaller ones, like the Midland Langar Seva Society, also based in Great Britain, also participated.

Protesters made sure their grievances were heard abroad. Supporters braved the freezing temperatures in Toronto and Montreal to hold signs outside Indian consulates in Canada. Protesters marched in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York. The campaign worked: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, and Rihanna, the pop singer, spoke out in solidarity.

The organizers also cited the philosophy of Sikhism, which emphasizes support for victims of injustice and the value of community on the individual. The agricultural movement’s sprawling protest camps – which have fed and clothed thousands of people daily and provided clean water, sanitation, and even hairdressers and tailors – reflect the Sikh value of self-sufficiency, have they declared.

Members of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, called the protesters Khalistanis, a term for separatists who years ago campaigned and even fought to create an independent Sikh state. In response, protest organizers tried to calm spirits while looking for ways to ensure they were seen and heard.

This self-discipline has sometimes been put to the test.

In January, as India celebrated Republic Day, a national holiday, some farmers drove tractors on police barricades in New Delhi, resulting in the death of a protester. Political analysts have declared the movement dead. But organizers retreated behind barricades and resumed peaceful protests during the harsh winter, a devastating wave of coronavirus, a scorching summer and into fall.

Then, in October, a BJP convoy hit a group of protesting farmers, resulting in the deaths of four protesters as well as four others, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation in connection with the episode.

This incident, which came after protesters decided to follow BJP campaign officials to draw cameras, may have been a turning point. BJP poll numbers quickly fell in Uttar Pradesh, where the deaths took place. Party officials began to fear losing the state in elections slated for early next year.

In the aftermath of Mr. Modi’s surprise announcement, the mood was grim near Singhu, a village in Haryana state bordering the capital. Religious music and political speeches blared from loudspeakers through the makeshift bamboo hut village, where people peddled T-shirts and flags that said, “No farmers, no food.

Outside one of the huts serving a free vegetarian lunch, Mr Prakash, the farmer, described sleeping in cold weather and in the rain next to a busy road, leaving his farm in the care of the children of his brothers.

Mr. Prakash, who lives off his pension after 20 years in the Indian Air Force, does not need the farm to survive. Instead, keeping the seven acres he and his siblings inherited from their parents allows them to maintain a middle-class life in a country where the vagaries of the economy often push people back into poverty.

Mr Prakash said the family farm supported his ambitions and he wanted the same for his children.

“To save our homeland,” he said, “we can stay here for another two years. “

Hari kumar contributed reports.

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