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How protesters forced 'stubborn' Modi government, refusing criticism, to the table

Counterview Desk 

On 26 May, global civil society alliance CIVICUS launched its annual “State of Civil Society Report 2021”, which shows that protests matter – even during a pandemic. “Our report describes the massive people’s mobilisations that swept Asia this past year, leading to breakthroughs in democracy and human rights. It features the creativity of protesters in Thailand, the resilience of activists in Myanmar and the determination of farmers in India, among others”, a CIVICUS spokesperson said in an email alert to Counterview.
India part of the report, ‘Farmers make their voices heard’, shows how the success of collective action demonstrated that in India, the “largest coordinated strike in world history forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to negotiate on agricultural reform laws which would threaten farmers’ livelihoods.” While tens of thousands of farmers took to the streets to protest at the legislation, they were “joined” by over millions of workers from a wide range of industries.”
“Modi, who initially dismissed farmers’ demands, was forced to listen”, it says, adding, “Talks would not have happened without the protests. Protesters have forced a government that normally stubbornly refuses criticism to the table. In a country where the government has worked to repress dissent, the farmers’ protests came to serve as a vital space where people sharing a sense of dissatisfaction, of being left out and not listened to, could come together and find common cause.”


India has in recent years been home both to mass protests and heavy state repression. In 2019, the focus was on the struggles of people against discriminatory new citizenship laws that targeted India’s sizeable Muslim minority, and the repression of the formerly semi-autonomous region of Jammu and Kashmir. In 2020, those struggles, and the state backlash against them, continued as the stridently Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stood accused of making high-handed decisions that were out of step with many people’s everyday realities. The trigger for the latest acts of mass protest was the introduction of three new laws on farming.
The laws, passed in September after little parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with farmers, removed many regulations on the sale of farmers’ produce, changing tightly regulated markets that have for decades ensured farmers a place in which to sell their goods, in the form of statemandated wholesale markets, and at set prices. The government positioned the changes as giving farmers the opportunity to increase their profitability by being able to negotiate higher prices, sell in a wider range of markets and cut out intermediaries.
For many farmers, however, the new laws seemed to offer a direct threat to their way of life. India’s ‘Green Revolution’, introduced in the late 1960s with the northern state of Punjab at its core, saw the introduction of higher-yielding crops, the intensive and subsidised use of irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides, state training of farmers and guaranteed purchasing at minimum prices through wholesale markets. Its aim was to make India more self-sufficient in its food production but also, it has been argued, it helped prevent potential demands for more radical change.
The policies of the ‘Green Revolution’ enabled a class of small farmers to just about sustain themselves. Over 40 per cent of India’s population work in agriculture and around 86 per cent of India’s farmland is cultivated by small farmers. They have however faced considerable challenges in recent decades, including mounting debt, impacts of heatwaves and droughts and soil degradation caused by intensive farming methods. From the 1990s onwards, rates of suicide soared among farmers, reaching almost 300,000 since 1995.
While the climate crisis and the ways intensive practices have stripped soils of nutrients suggest a need for reform of some kind, the proposed changes did not speak to those needs. There seemed to have been no attempt to listen to farmers, understand their concerns and work with them before announcing the changes. Instead this was a top-down approach seeming to symbolise a high-handed governance style from a government that thinks it always knows what is best. 
The laws even removed the possibility to seek legal recourse over disputes. For many small farmers, the government’s changes threatened to undermine further their already precarious livelihoods. In the time of the pandemic, when so many people were struggling and worried, they questioned why the government saw fit to make such sweeping changes, and at such speed.
They saw in the new laws an irreversible transfer of power away from small and medium farmers towards vast corporations. With reduced regulations, large companies would have the power to demand aggressively lower prices and greater discounts and build up stockpiles, against which small farmers would have little negotiating power.
Protesting farmers therefore saw the changes as working in the interests of wealthy business owners, including those close to the Modi regime; anger focused on the Adani Group and Reliance, two large corporations headed by tycoons with close links to the Prime Minister. Many farmers switched their mobile phone provider from a Reliance-owned company to other firms as part of their protest. After two months of holding local-level protests and not being listened to, farmers decided to take their concerns directly to India’s capital, New Delhi.
In late November tens of thousands of farmers from Punjab and other northern states marched on Delhi, in what became the largest farmers’ mobilisation in modern-day India, picking up sympathy, solidarity and support as they went, including from many people other than farmers. When they reached the perimeter of the capital, they were prevented from going further by security forces who used teargas and water cannon. As farmers waited outside Delhi and blocked roads with their tractors in protest, a solidarity strike mobilised.
The strike, held on November 26, saw over 250 million workers from a range of industries, including banking, telecoms, transportation and oil and gas production, down tools to express their support for the farmers. It was reported to be the largest coordinated strike in the world, with various farmers’ unions working together to coordinate the action.
Following the strike, the protesters were allowed to cross the city limits and occupied a protest site on the outskirts of Delhi. The farmers articulated clear demands in relation to their cause, including for a special parliamentary session to be called to repeal the three farm laws and a retention of the established produce sales system and minimum pricing.
But reflecting the broader connections of solidarity the movement had established, other issues of everyday concern were articulated, including over fuel and power prices, minimum wages and the loss of labour rights. In a country where the government has worked to repress dissent, the farmers’ protests came to serve as a vital space where people sharing a sense of dissatisfaction, of being left out and not listened to, could come together and find common cause.
More political issues were also articulated, including demands for the release of detained activists and human rights defenders, and for the reining in of central government powers over India’s component states. People protesting against the citizenship law marched in solidarity with the farmers. The movement represented arguably the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Modi and the way he runs India since he won power in 2014.
Importantly too, given the often toxic environment that women’s rights activists face in India, women farmers were for the first time visibly in the forefront of these protests, challenging their invisible status as people who often work land but do not own it. They were part of the protest camps, and not just in supporting roles.
When in January 2021, India’s Chief Justice appealed for women to leave the protest camps and go home, the answer he got was a resounding no as women asserted their right to be there and be part of the struggle (see also this report’s chapter on challenging exclusion and claiming rights). The government seemed surprised by the scale of the mobilisation and the sympathy it attracted.
It had managed to weather and downplay the previous waves of protest over its discrimination against Muslims and its attack on freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir. But this was different, because it tapped into the sympathies many Indians feel for farmers, the role farming still plays in national identity and the family ties many people have with farmers. It was a new threat to the government because many of the farmers protesting had not previously opposed the government; many had even likely supported the BJP until then.
Modi initially dismissed farmers’ concerns as misplaced and blamed them on opposition parties spreading misinformation. But as the protest pressure continued, he was forced to negotiate. Talks came that would not have happened without the protests. The government offered concessions on minimum price guarantees, but this did not go far enough for the farmers, who continued to demand the repeal of the laws. This meant that as the negotiations continued in December, so did the protests.
A further day of action on 8 December saw people shut down public transport, block roads and close down their shops. As awareness spread of the farmers’ protests, solidarity protests rallied in other countries. In the USA, the grassroots Jakara Movement, a Punjabi Sikh organisation, organised protests in the city of Oakland and outside the Indian consulate in San Francisco. Solidarity protests mobilised in several cities in Canada. Thousands protested outside the Indian High Commission in London, UK.
In other cases pre-emptive repression obstructed solidarity protests; in Singapore, the police investigated people for social media posts that appeared to show them gathering in support of the farmers, and warned that protests for political causes in other countries would not be permitted. The repression continued in India too. Bilkis Dadi, one of the leaders of the anti-citizenship law protests, tried to march in solidarity with farmers, but was stopped from joining protesters, detained and returned home. Several union heads and opposition leaders were prevented from joining the protests. Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, who opposed the new law and the harsh action taken against protesters, was barricaded in his home to stop him joining protests.
For the farmers, frustrations came to a head on India’s Republic Day, January 26, when farmers, many riding tractors and horses, broke through police barricades and took their protest into the heart of the city, close to where the Republic Day parade was taking place, forcing their way into Delhi’s iconic Red Fort. Violent clashes broke out between protesters and police, who fired teargas and water cannon and hit protesters with batons.
It was reported that one protester died, and that several police officers were injured, while many protesters were detained. Protest organisers insisted that those committing violence had been a small minority. These events, in which protesters effectively gate-crashed the government’s attempts to use Republic Day as an opportunity to project itself as a modern democracy and economic superpower, made global headlines and communicated both the seriousness with which protesters saw their plight and the government’s intransigence.
Images of brutality went round the world, showing police in riot gear hitting defenceless farmers, many of them of advanced age, with batons. The government mobilised a swift backlash to this humiliation. Heavy charges of sedition and terrorism were brought against protesters, activists and journalists. Numerous protesters were reported to be missing days after the Republic Day events.
In February, a series of simultaneous raids were carried out on premises of the NewsClick news portal, which provided extensive coverage of the farmers’ protests. A further international outcry was stoked in February, when the police arrested young climate activist Disha Ravi, a leader of India’s Fridays for Future climate strike movement, allegedly for sharing an online protest toolkit. She was charged with sedition and bailed after spending 10 days in detention.
The message seemed to be that even highprofile critics of the government were not safe. The government ordered protesters to vacate the protest camp they had occupied since December, cut off the water and electricity supplies and sent hundreds of police in riot gear to try to clear the camp. But the events of Republic Day had also served to recruit even more protesters, and many more farmers were reported to be on their way.
The riot police backed down, although protest camps continued to face threats from Hindu nationalist groups. The authorities shut down internet access in many areas on Delhi’s northern perimeter where groups of farmers had gathered and put up fortified barriers around protest camps, leaving the city looking like a war zone. 
The international spotlight continued to focus on the protests, as prominent figures including Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeted their support, provoking a nationalistic backlash and government accusations of sensationalism for doing so. Ruling-party-supporting celebrities, who had said nothing about the farmers’ protests, were duly mobilised to insist that only Indians could talk about India, using hashtags such as #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.
In the immediate aftermath of the Republic Day violence, the government demanded that Twitter block hundreds of accounts, not only of protesters but also of journalists and media companies. Twitter initially complied but then quickly reversed many of the bans following a backlash. The government and Twitter remained in a tense stand-off, with the government threatening legal action that could result in jail terms. BJP politicians flocked to an alternative platform to Twitter, Koo, which was quickly revealed to be rife with hate speech.
At the time of writing the battle lines seemed more drawn than ever. Protesters were dug into their camps, encircled by security forces, for the long haul, with many vowing not to leave until the laws had been repealed. Protesters had at least forced a government that normally stubbornly refuses criticism to the table, and the government had offered to delay implementation of the new laws, but what compromise may eventually result remained unclear.
But beyond even this dispute and its potential to affect so many farmers’ lives, bigger issues have been made clear, of a top-down and high-handed government that sees any dissent as treachery, and a ruling elite evidently driven by the pursuit of the generation of wealth for an associated economic elite. India’s government needs to issue edicts less and listen more. It cannot do that by continuing its crackdown on dissent and attempts to suppress civil society.

Another year of repression in India

The Indian government’s attempts to restrict the protesting farmers’ dissent went hand in hand with its continuing efforts throughout the year to clamp down on those who opposed changes to the citizenship law and demanded rights in Jammu and Kashmir. In February, scores of people were killed in deadly religious riots in Delhi, when, in reaction to protests against the citizenship law, Hindu mobs attacked Muslim groups, fuelled by hate speech by ruling-party Hindu nationalist politicians, and with the active assistance of the police.
In May, two members of a women’s rights collective were arrested and detained after taking part in an anti-citizenship law protest. In August, on the first anniversary of the government’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, security force violence was once again unleashed against protesters in the region, which also remained home to a long internet shutdown.
Attempts to stop civil society scrutiny and advocacy saw nine simultaneous raids carried out on the offices of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the media and the houses of human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir in October. Meanwhile, in September, the government further tightened its already restrictive law on the ability of CSOs to access foreign funding, making it even harder for CSOs to receive and transfer money.
Such was the level of intrusion that in September Amnesty International announced that it was suspending its work in India after the government froze its bank account, as Mrinal Sharma, who until the closure worked for Amnesty International India, relates:
Amnesty International India was forced to shut down in retaliation for its publication of two critical briefings that underlined the human rights situation in Kashmir and highlighted the role of the Delhi police in the riots that took place in north-east Delhi in February. Shortly after it released these briefings, all its bank accounts were frozen.
The government did not provide any prior warning, notice or reason for freezing the bank accounts. Strapped of the funds that it had raised locally, with the help of ordinary Indians, Amnesty International India was forced to halt all its work and let go of all its employees. Harassment and intimidation for its human rights work is not new for Amnesty International India. It has faced a relentless smear campaign by the government and government-aligned media outlets since 2016.
In 2018, it endured a 10-hour-long raid by the Enforcement Directorate, following which it was forced to let go of a number of staff, adversely affecting its work in India, including with excluded communities. Although the court granted an interim relief to the organisation, a malicious media trial and reduced capacities made it difficult for it to function properly. It is important to note that no formal charges have been filed against the organisation.
A year later, in November 2019, amid rumours of impending arrests of top officials, the offices of Amnesty International India and the residence of one of its directors were raided again, this time by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s premier investigative agency, placed under the central government. However, it continued to work, defying all the malice thrown against it and its employees. But this time, it was more vicious.
The immediate impact of the shutdown has been borne by the employees of Amnesty International India – researchers, campaigners, fundraisers – who lost their jobs overnight without any compensation during a period of economic recession that has been worsened by the pandemic. The extensive research projects and campaigns that Amnesty International India was running have all ground to a halt.
Taking everything into account, it must be clarified to the government that in the name of holding a ‘foreign entity’ accountable, the Indian government has deprived many of its own citizens of their livelihoods. Most importantly, there is now one less voice to hold the Indian government accountable for its excesses and inactions. The year also saw numerous arrests of journalists who criticised the government’s pandemic response, while farmers’ rights activists were arrested for reporting corruption in the distribution of emergency food supplies.


How come the farmers agitation has not erupted from all the states of India and it is confined to only Delhi? How many of the agitators who have been protesting in Delhi, are the real farmers, so much so, the real farmers cannot afford to spend time in protests and agitations instead of keeping themselves busy in their farming activities.
There has to be an accountability, transparency and responsibility in organizing protests particularly during the current health emergency times when entire world has been the victim of Corona invasion.


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