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Past Imperfect: The Future of India’s Farmer Protests

After the violence on January 26, many had claimed the months-long protest would die out. That seems unlikely.

By Monika Mondal for
Past Imperfect: The Future of India’s Farmer Protests

Protesting farmers react as tear gas shells explode at the border between Delhi and Haryana state, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

After several roadblocks, strikes and demonstrations, farmer unions protesting new agricultural laws commemorated two months of sitting at the borders of the Indian state of Delhi on January 26. A peaceful “tractor rally” by the protesting farmers was organized, parallel to India’s 72nd Republic Day celebrations inside the heart of the national capital, New Delhi. However, a dramatic turn of events, including the death of a young supporter, arrests, violence and the waving of a flag at the Red Fort quickly transformed the protest into a political maelstrom.

The protesting farmers remain apprehensive of the three farm laws passed last September by the Narendra Modi government, which according to them might lead to the dominance of the agricultural sector by big businesses to the detriment of small farmers. After 11 rounds of talks, the Modi government and farmers’ representatives have failed to find common ground. Dissatisfied by the laws, farmers from Punjab and Haryana have emerged as leaders in the protests; meanwhile farmers in other parts of the country have also continued to hold demonstrations.

As the Indian government fails to coax farmers, the latter remain adamant and clear on their demands: either repeal the three September laws or ensure, as a matter of law, minimum support prices (MSPs) for all agricultural commodities. In the long view, since protests erupted late last year, January 26 assumed signal importance for the movement but also for larger conversations in India about state interference, individual liberty and democratic dissent. Responding to the chaos on the streets of Delhi on January 26, the Indian government increased police surveillance, terminated services like internet access in many parts of neighboring Haryana, and increased security at Delhi’s borders, which affected the movement of people and traffic. However, the effect on the protests seems limited.

The Parallel Parade Day

Since early January, plans for a tractor rally on India’s Republic Day by protesting farmers were discussed. On  January 7, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) organized a dress rehearsal wherein over 5,000 tractors took part. Ten days later, with cooperation and permission from the Delhi police, the farmer unions announced a peaceful tractor parade parallel to the Republic Day celebrations. The parade was to take place on the outer ring road in Delhi, on a pre-decided and pre-approved route. However, sections of the protesting farmers deviated from the original route, which led the police to use tear gas shells and batons against them. Incidences of violence were witnessed around various parts of the city. By afternoon, images of a Nishan Sahib flag — a Sikh religious flag, often furled on gurudwaras – being hoisted by a protester in Delhi’s Red Fort (a 400-year old icon of Indian state power) captured the attention of every national television channel in the country.

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In the upheaval, a 25-year old supporter, Navreet Singh, was reported dead. The Delhi Police (which reports directly to the central government) as well as police in ruling Bhartiya Janata Party-controlled states swung into action as they sought to bring to task purported supporters of the January 26 melee, including filing criminal complaints against 37 farmer leaders, several journalists and a member of parliament from the opposition Congress Party. Delhi Police Commissioner S. N. Shrivastava stated 394 police personnel were injured as they pushed back protesting farmers. About 30 people were arrested and Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist, was sent for 14 days judicial custody on January 31 by the Delhi Police for allegedly “obstructing public service.” He was granted bail on February 2. Through February 2, over 44 criminal complaints were against protestors, supporters, and journalists, and 122 persons were arrested.

On one hand, the Delhi Police said in a statement about the chaos that unfolded on January 26: “There were preconceived and coordinated plans to break the agreement between the Delhi Police and the leaders of protesting organizations.” On the other hand, farmers complained of poor security standards and lack of administrative discipline on the part of the police. More than 16 protesters are still missing, according to SKM. 

A Speech That Moved the Crowd 

After the Republic Day clashes, security was tightened at all the protest sites on the outskirts of Delhi. Protestors complained of no access to basic services like water and electricity. As the police presence increased at the Ghazipur, Tikri and Singhu borders, two farmer unions withdrew their support from the protest and the crowd started to recede. Many feared police brutality as authorities gave an ultimatum to the protestors to vacate Ghazipur border by the night of January 28, and imposed restrictions on public gatherings there.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) spokesperson Rakesh Tikait refused to leave the site and addressed the media in tears on the night of January 28, referring to the incidents two days before as a “conspiracy to malign the peaceful farmers protest,” and raising important questions about police conduct. “I will not surrender even if I die. The farmers of the country have confidence and we will not move until the laws are taken back,” mentioned Tikait from the protest stage. However, Tikait also requested farmers continue the protest peacefully.

Jasdeep Singh is a young farmer from Haryana who has been participating in the protest since November. He says, “There was a sense of doubt and fear that the movement might halt after the Republic Day incident, however the speech by Rakesh ji has brought a new wave to our revolution. The tractors and trolley which were returning home, took a U-turn after January 28.”

Beyond Borders and Farmers

After the January 26 demonstrations in Delhi, another march and Chakka Jam (roadblock) was planned. However, after the violence, the February 1 farmers’ march during the budget session of the parliament was called off. Nevertheless, after the emotional speech by Tikait on January 28, new arrangements started to appear. Many maha panchayats and khap panchayats (village council meetings) were organized overnight in various parts of the country Roadblocks by protesting farmers was later organized in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Karnataka and Kerala. Panchayat meetings about the new farm laws in many districts across the country continue to be held.

A social media war erupted around the farmers’ protests after a few international celebrities tweeted about the issue. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs interpreted tweets as foreign interference in India’s domestic issues and produced a statement with hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. From the Republic Day incidents through February 4, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, ordered Twitter to either block or suspend 1,200 accounts, citing “threat to public order due to misinformation,” under the Section 69 (A) of the Information Technology Act. However, Twitter refused to block a few accounts, especially those belonging to journalists and activists, stating the platform’s commitment to free speech as a fundamental right.

Funding and Help Continues to Pour In

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After the Republic Day violence, the Enforcement Directorate initiated a money laundering investigation on the funding of the protests. According to media reports, after the January 26 incidents funding for the protest decreased. However, the farmer unions do not see it as a result of the violence. “We saw only a slight difference in funding. However, this has little to do with Republic Day incident,” says Harinder Singh, media coordinator, SKM. He adds: “The farmers have put this out clearly that the movement will be extended. Because of this as well, people are saving to contribute later during the critical times. We have never asked anyone for any financial contribution categorically and everything that we have received until now is voluntary. We are requesting people to participate and extend help in any way.”

Ranbir Singh runs a voluntary medical camp at the Tikri border. According to him, “the movement slowed down only for a day or two after the January 26 incident. However, now the movement has augmented, and one can see more people taking part than before. Women and children have also returned to the grounds.” Most of the volunteer medical camps at protest sites run on donations from local medicine shops.

Debanjan Roy, came to the Tikri border from Madhyamgram, on the outskirts of Kolkata to show solidarity with the farmers. “I would do as much as I can as an artist,” says the 47-year old Roy. He has been making sculptures and paintings at the protest site. His sculpture of Baba Ram Singh — who committed suicide at Singhu border in protest — stands in the middle of the Tikri protest ground. Roy left for Kolkata on January 26 and returned on February 8. According to him, “The number of people has only increased here since then.”

Trampled Rights

After the violence of the Republic Day, the Delhi borders were sealed through high security measures. People have to walk 5-6 kilometers to reach the protest site at both Tikri and Singhu borders, and many journalists are being denied permission to enter the premises. Police chains, high cement walls, iron spikes, and barbed wires have been laid down at entry points at the Delhi-Haryana and Delhi-Uttar Pradesh borders. For journalists like Kapil Kajal, who has a press card, it was comparatively easy to access the protest site in the Singhu border, traveling from within the Singhu village. But for freelance journalists like Jaishree Kumar, “It was scary to be at the protest site.” Fencing and strict security has also made it difficult for food trucks and water tankers to reach the protest sites.

Internet connectivity was restricted in about 14 of 22 districts in Haryana and many localities around the Delhi border complained of network issues in the immediate aftermath of the Republic Day protests. “For the first few days after the January 26 incident, it was difficult for us to arrange water and milk. The electricity was also disrupted. We could hardly charge our mobile phones…But after the morning of January 29, things appeared to be as before,” says farmer Jasdeep. On February 6, a nationwide roadway and highway block was organized against the internet ban. “The internet resumed on the evening of February 6,” adds Jasdeep.

“This is a clear violation of fundamental rights and everyone has a basic right to participate in protest,” mentions Bangalore-based advocate Vinay, who works on the issues of urban governance and is organizing discussions on the farm laws around parts of the country to educate the public.

What Lies Ahead?

Although agriculture is a state matter according to the Indian constitution, the central government interpreted the farm laws as a concurrent subject (under the jurisdiction of both central and state governments) since it dealt with production, supply and distribution of agricultural produce. States like  Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have tried to bypass the new laws by passing their own regional legislation, which makes buying produce at a price lower than the one assured through the MSP guarantee an offense. The bills however are yet to receive governors’ assent, without which they cannot become laws. “On matters related to MSP, the states have only limited power due to their financial constraints” says Nachiket Udupa, member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). West Bengal also passed a resolution against the farm laws, becoming the sixth state to do so. Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Kerala are other states which have supported the farmer protests.

The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the laws on January 12. However, Modi reiterated his commitment to agricultural reforms — of which the new laws are an integral part, according to his government. Where on one hand, the government seems determined to stay on course, protest leaders like Tikait have made their position clear by stating: “We will only go back once the farm laws are repealed.” To further intensify the movement, SKM had organized a nationwide Rail roko (railway disruption) program on February 18.

Since the beginning of the protest, more than 200 farmers have lost their lives at protest grounds outside Delhi. Nearing three months of agitation through the cold Delhi winter, protestors now are gearing up for the equally harsh summer ahead. New arrangements for mosquito nets, colder tents and summer drinks have started to appear at the protest grounds, signaling the unrelenting determination of the protesting farmers.

Monika Mondal is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Her areas of focus are sustainability, environment and agriculture. More of her work can be found here.