Why are the Indian farming protests a significant ‘watershed’ moment in history?


Buried under the heap of daily press reports and articles of the ominous  is another ominous event, the Indian Farmers protests.  Despite the peaceful protests dating back to September 2020, little British government and press attention has been directed at these troublesome events. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was even dubbed “absolutely clueless” when he confused Indian farm protests with the conflict between India and Pakistan.  Perhaps, pop-star Rhianna’s tweet that “why aren’t we talking about this?” was the match to spark press and social media interest in Indian affairs. 

The Indian government’s hasty passing of New Farm acts in September 2020 catapulted Indian farmers into putting their jobs, security, and life on the line by mass peaceful protest. Fear is the farmer’s primary motive for protest. Fear that the new acts would leave them at the “mercy of corporates.” In brief, these acts are to sell directly to private buyers, enable contract farming and remove the government Mandis, state established agricultural markets. Hailed, by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as a “watershed moment”, yet slighted by farmers as a “death warrant”, these acts have caused polarisation. With farmers like Mrs Kaur stating that “we will die for justice,” there are no signs that these tensions will cease soon. 

Government response to protesters borders on oppressive

The pictures plastered in the press of the cacophonous tractor parade demonstration on Republic day, 26th January resonate scenes of Tractorcade, a late 70s protest in Washington D.C. by the American Agriculture movement. Yet, the scope of the Indian protest now goes beyond agriculture. With half of India’s population relying on farming as an income, this is about survival. The government’s failure to maintain a minimum support price in the new acts, may result in the streamlining of farms which occurred in the USA. Where a “survival of the fittest” became prerequisite. Yet, streamlining which occurred in America, would be disastrous to India due to fewer economic opportunities beyond farming. Migration to urban areas would be destabilising and unimaginable to millions.

Lack of dialogue between the government and the farmers over the implementation of these acts, only heightened hostilities.  Government not asking for farmers consent is the final straw after farmers have seen rise in costs of fertilisers and seeds. It paints the government as draconian. Government response to protesters borders on oppressive.  Indian ministerial condemnation of the protesters as “leftist and Maoists” show that this protest is politically charged. The shutdown of internet and paramilitary violence as well as the arrestment of a journalist sparked Human Rights Watch to state that the Indian government were “presiding over a dangerous regression in free speech.” 

Hailed, by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as a “watershed moment”, yet slighted by farmers as a “death warrant”, these acts have caused polarisation

Nine Talks between the two sides have occurred but yielded inconclusive. Worries about escalation into violence are ever-present as the disputes continue. How the stalemate will be solved will deeply implicate India’s agricultural landscape and determine its future. Faith in the government is at an all time low after mishandling of the coronavirus and the longer this protest perpetuates, the weaker the government appears.  

Time will tell whether negotiation can occur between these groups. The latest scenes of burning photos of Greta Thunberg’s face by those against the farmer demonstrations suggest this protest may boil over into further violence. What is clear though is that the passing of these farm acts, has been a “watershed” moment in Indian history, but not in the way the prime minister, Modi intended.

Image: Felton Davis via Flickr

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