Can India’s protesting farmers restore its democracy?

Farmers listen to a speaker on a blocked highway during their protest against recently passed farm bills, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India, on Monday. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
Farmers listen to a speaker on a blocked highway during their protest against recently passed farm bills, at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India, on Monday. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Can farmers marching to Delhi in the midst of a global pandemic restore Indian democracy?

On Nov. 26, tens of thousands of farmers from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan began marching to Delhi with a cry — “Delhi chalo” (“Go to Delhi”). The peaceful protesters faced a militarized police force at the Punjab-Haryana and Haryana-Delhi borders. Marchers were met with tear gas, batons and water cannons. Police even used trenches, barbed wire and barricades to stop the farmers.

Yet, after two days of marching, the farmers entered Delhi and secured a meeting with the central government. Farmers are demanding a full repeal of the farm reform bills. Farmers have joined forces with trade unions to organize a peaceful nationwide shutdown on Tuesday.

The Modi government claimed the reforms would liberate farmers from traditional wholesale “mandis,” or markets, and give them the choice to sell directly to private corporations. Farmers fear the reforms will lead to their demise because it will gut their remaining safety net.

The mandis guarantee farmers a minimum support price, while the unregulated market does not. Farmers fear that during the first few years of reform, private players will buy agricultural products at a price higher than this minimum rate, which will collapse the mandis. Once the private players have a monopoly over the market, they will have the ability to set far lower prices.

Indian farmers would not be able to sustain this outcome, as nearly 85 percent of them are small farmers with less than two hectares (five acres) of land. The very farmers who have suffered decades of depressed pricing, have been over-burdened by debt and have experienced high rates of suicide are now being asked to compete in the open market with few protections.

The farmers are demanding that the central government repeal the laws and are prepared to occupy Delhi for months. They have travelled with all the necessary supplies, including food, water, gas stoves, mattresses and quilts.

Since coming to power in 2014 and winning elections again last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have repeatedly taken steps to gut the promise of equality for all enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The agricultural reform bills, coupled with state-sanctioned violence against peaceful farmers, represent India’s further descent from a liberal democracy to an illiberal one.

An earlier step in this descent occurred last December, with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA provides citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims — the first time that religion has been used as a criterion for citizenship in Indian law. Hundreds of Muslim women participated in a 101-day nonviolent protest in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-majority neighborhood of Delhi.

Indian farmers are now exercising their democratic right to protest, just as protesters at Shaheen Bagh were exercising their right to protest. Ordinary citizens are now taking to the streets to protect Indian democracy from the Indian state.

In response, members of the BJP government have characterized Shaheen Bagh protesters as Muslim “traitors” and protesting farmers as Sikh separatists.

Meanwhile, the farmers are doing the work of building peaceful, democratic communities. A Sikh temple in Karnal, Haryana, served free food from its communal kitchen to the very police officers who clashed with farmers, even as the officers were still dressed in riot gear. After breaking barricades and crossing trenches, protesters in Haryana filled the very trenches and repaired the very roads that the authorities had configured to keep them out of Delhi. Farmer union leaders reminded their members that theirs is a nonviolent protest in which all religions, all castes, all nations and all classes are equal. They organized food for the protesting farmers, just as Sikh temples in Delhi provided food for protesters at Shaheen Bagh.

I fear we are witnessing the transformation of Indian democracy from a liberal one to an illiberal one. I fear secular citizenship may now no longer exist in India, as religion has become a criterion for denying citizenship rights to “suspect” citizens. And yet, as a scholar of liberal democracies, I choose to hold out hope because, as the Indian state takes an increasingly illiberal turn, the citizens of India are calling on all of us: “Delhi chalo.”

Natasha Behl is an associate professor at Arizona State University who specializes in the study of inequalities in liberal democracies. She is the author of “Gendered Citizenship: Understanding Gendered Violence in Democratic India.”

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