Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a coalition of several farmers' organisations, declares the end of protests in New Delhi.

Muslims, Hindus & Sikhs
India's anti-BJP groundswell

In November 2021, the Modi government assured India's protesting farmers that it would withdraw three pieces of controversial agricultural legislation. Upcoming state election results, due in February and March in protest strongholds Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, have rarely been so eagerly awaited. By Dominik Muller

The farmers' key demand was a legally guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for selected crops. The government promised to set up a committee with the participation of farmers' organisations for this purpose. So far, however, no attempt has been made to do so. Many people eagerly anticipated the announcement of the new federal budget on 1 February. Would it reflect the demands of the historic farmers' protests? Yet, even in the draft budget, there is no indication that India's government intends to address those demands or offer solutions to the farmers' fundamental concerns, such as rising costs for resources.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already announced in late November that he would revoke the three controversial laws. The timing was not random, with elections in the populous states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh coming up in February and March. The elections in these two states are traditionally considered critical for the future direction of the country as a whole and both states have been strongholds of the farmers' protests. "Despite several attempts to explain the benefits to farmers, we have failed," Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the press.

In fact the farmers, who achieved a remarkable victory, understood all too well what the laws were all about: they were designed to open the floodgates to other market players, including large supermarket chains. Fruit and grains would then be sold directly to interested buyers rather than through regulated wholesalers. Experience from other countries shows that this strategy serves to incite price wars among the cheapest suppliers, as well as outright price dumping. Sooner or later, the buyers, with their immense market power, end up dictating prices. "Grow or get out" becomes the order of the day.

In addition to guaranteed minimum prices for their crops, the farmers demanded that all lawsuits against farmers who had taken part in the protests be withdrawn – and compensation paid to the families whose relatives had died in the protests. Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organisation made up of more than forty farmers' associations that joined forces in November 2020 to coordinate civil disobedience against the agrarian laws, cites a total of 714 deaths. Many were caused by the heat and the second COVID wave, yet some area also attributable to the brutal violence with which the protests were suppressed.

Farmers celebrated in the megacity of Amritsar in Punjab state in November after the government's about-turn (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Too soon for rejoicing? Farmers celebrate in the Punjabi megacity of Amritsar in November 2021, following the Modi government's about-turn. "The government promised to set up a committee with the participation of farmers' organisations for this purpose," writes Dominik Muller. "So far, however, no attempt has been made to do so. Many eagerly anticipated the announcement of the new federal budget on 1 February. Would it reflect the demands of the historic farmers' protests? Yet even in the draft budget, there is no indication that India's government intends to address those demands or offer solutions to the farmers' fundamental concerns, such as rising costs for resources"

Using SUVs against farmers

This violence, which reached its sad climax last October with several deaths, reveals how explosive the situation in India is – and the ruthlessness with which members of the ruling BJP party are prepared to take action against their critics. Eight people were killed in a farmers' protest at a rally held by the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Keshav Prasad Maurya (BJP) in Lakhimpur near the Nepalese border when the son of a federal minister drove his SUV into a group of farmers. He denied the charges, but was arrested. The incident sparked nationwide outrage.

And that was not the only attack: SUVs were also used as weapons in at least two other farmers' protests shortly thereafter. Three women were killed at the protest site in Tikri, which borders on Delhi, the national capital. A farmer in the state of Haryana suffered severe injuries after a car ploughed into him and other protesters. It was part of BJP MP Nayab Saini's convoy. Instead of arresting the driver, the police took three farmers into custody. In Haryana, the mood was particularly threatening: Manohar Lal Khattar, the state's acting chief minister and likewise a BJP member, called at a party meeting for groups of several hundred supporters to form and "take up clubs " against the protesting farmers. The attackers need not be afraid, even if they went to jail for three to six months as a result: "You will be great leaders, your names will go down in history," the chief minister promised them.

Rakesh Tikait, national spokesman for India's largest farmers' association, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), condemned the violence against farmers, saying that the government was showing "its cruel and undemocratic face". Apparently, he said, the regime is willing to resort to any means to crush the movement against the agrarian legislation. If the BJP government does not mend its ways, Tikait threatened, "farmers will ban party leaders from entering their villages".

By the scheduled mid-January deadline, the government in Delhi had yet to convene the committee on minimum crop prices or even set a date, nor had it compensated the families of the dead farmers. Speakers from the SKM association are saying they have been "deceived".

Elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh

So far, no government in India has succeeded in ruling against the will of the rural population. Farmers already "withstood the might of Mughals and the British government," says BKU spokesman Tikait. This history could also have an impact on the upcoming elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

Harvesting maize in Bangalore, India (photo: Mamunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)
A farmer harvesting maize in Bangalore. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to modernise India's agricultural production system with three agricultural reform bills that were whipped through the country's lower and upper houses during lockdown. However, farmers saw the dismantling of regulations, price controls and the public purchase and distribution system of staple foods as a threat to their livelihoods. After massive protests, Modi announced in November 2021 that he would roll back the agricultural legislation

The core of the BJP's identity is Hindu nationalism and the Islamophobia that goes along with it. "Much to the chagrin of the RSS-BJP combine, the farmers' movement has now assumed a syncretic character," writes the online magazine The Wire, "uniting diverse communities who are now willing to expand the movement to other issues of survival – from social justice to civil rights."

This is all the more remarkable given that as recently as 2013, the Muzaffarnagar riots between Hindus and Muslims revealed deep rifts in the entire western region of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and made headlines across India with 62 deaths and more than 50,000 displaced persons. This enmity has gradually been put aside in the course of the farmers' protests, however, with members of different religious communities standing shoulder to shoulder.

"The killers of our farmer brothers are campaigning on the BJP ballots," say the messages circulating under the hashtag #farmersprotest on social media. As last year in the state of West Bengal, farmers' organisations plan to launch a "No vote for BJP" campaign and to expose the BJP's anti-farmer policies. And not only farmers, but students and young people are also mobilising against the BJP and its chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who promised them jobs but failed to deliver. The minister, who is to the right of Modi politically, and his BJP are still fomenting hatred against Muslims on social media and with their speeches, warning of the slaughter of cows and "love jihad" and of an alleged "Muslim dominance" from which Hindus must be protected.

Punjab is home to the traditionally strong Sikh community, whose members were assaulted in many places by certain sections of the Hindu majority after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Commercial stakeholders in the state are now also coming under fire. One protester told The Wire that in Punjab villages, "people have now started boycotting goods from firms behind commercialisation and privatisation, such as petrol and mobile network services from the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Limited." Ambani is one of the world's richest men and his group also owns the eponymous retail stores. It is the largest retail chain in India, operating thousands of supermarkets.

The trade unions have called for a nationwide strike on 23 and 24 February. Among other demands, the strikers oppose four laws that disadvantage workers. SKM, the federation of farmers' associations, announced that it would join this call and offer support in the form of a rural strike.

Dominik Muller

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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