India’s Modi Withdraws Controversial Farm Laws After Yearlong Protests
(NEW DELHI) — In a surprise announcement, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday his government will withdraw the controversial agriculture laws that prompted yearlong protests from tens of thousands of farmers and posed a significant political challenge to his administration.
The decision is a major climbdown by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government, which enjoys a brute majority in Parliament but has been often accused by opposition leaders and constitutional experts of ramming through laws without enough consultation. The decision also came ahead of key elections in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when Sikhs, who made up most of the protesters, celebrate their founder Guru Nanak’s birthday.
Modi made the announcement during a televised speech that was broadcast live, a medium he has chosen over the years to make public some of his government’s most landmark, sometimes contentious, decisions. Modi urged protestors to go home, and said that the Constitutional process for repealing the laws would begin when Parliament meets in December.
“While apologizing to the nation, I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that maybe something was lacking in our efforts that we could not explain the truth to some of our farmer brothers,” Modi said during the address. He then went on to say: “Let us make a fresh start.”
The laws were passed in September last year and Modi’s party refused to extend the debate despite repeated requests from the opposition.
For a year, the government defended the laws, saying they were necessary reforms to modernize India’s agricultural sector and boost production through private investment. Farmers protested and claimed that the law would ruin their incomes by ending guarantee pricing, making it harder for them to sell their crop to companies at lower prices.
Farmers were terrified by the potential threats to their livelihoods. Nearly two thirds (23%) of these farmers own less that 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres).
The legislation prohibited farmers from litigating contract disputes before a court. This left them without any other recourse than government-appointed bureaucrats.
As protests escalated last November, farmers settled down in New Delhi on the outskirts. There they have remained for close to a year, including during a severe winter and an outbreak of coronavirus that hit India earlier this month.
While the protests have been largely peaceful, demonstrators in January broke through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort in the capital’s center. One protester was killed and many others were injured in clashes with the police.
“At last, all of our hard work paid off. Thanks to all the farmer brothers and salute to the farmer brothers who were martyred in this battle,” said Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farmers’ leader.
Many farmers lost their lives due to suicide, weather-related problems, or COVID-19 in the events that attracted international attention from activists and celebrities like Greta Thunberg (climate activist) and Rihanna (singer).
Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of farm unions organizing the protests, said it welcomed the government’s announcement. But it said the protests would continue until the government assures them guaranteed prices for certain essential crops — a system that was introduced in the 1960s to help India shore up its food reserves and prevent shortages.
In an initial engagement with farmers, the government offered to suspend laws for 18 mois in order to resolve the greatest challenge facing Modi. Farmers continued their demands for full repeal of the laws and demanded strikes in all parts of the country.
Modi’s decision is seen as a political masterstroke ahead of key state polls, particularly in northern Punjab, where the Sikh community was facing growing alienation because of the laws. Already, Modi’s government faces criticism for not responding to the crisis and struggling economic conditions.
Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Ashoka University, said the announcement was very significant but the government will find it hard to convince the farmers that it repealed the laws for reasons other than electoral gains.
“It is highly unusual for the Modi government to retreat or backpedal on a major political decision,” said Verniers. “The government is likely to spin this as the PM listening to the people, but after a year of hard protest, acrimony and violence, it’s going to be difficult to make that notion adhere.”
Initially, Modi’s government had tried to discredit the Sikh farmers by dismissing their concerns as motivated by religious nationalism. Some leaders in Modi’s party called them “Khalistanis,” a reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland called “Khalistan” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These allegations were a backfire, further angering farmers.
The farmers were praised by the opposition leaders who, in the past, called the laws oppressive and supported protests.
“The country’s farmers, through their resistance, made arrogance bow its head,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi from India’s main opposition Congress party. “Congratulations on the victory against injustice!”
India’s largest voting bloc is made up of farmers. Politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them, and farmers are particularly important to Modi’s base. His party rules Northern Haryana, and other states that have large farmer populations.
Krutika, Associated Press reporter, contributed to this article.