Protesting farmers are teaching India a hard — but much needed — lesson

Indian farmers gathered to support the ongoing protest against new agricultural laws. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Indian farmers gathered to support the ongoing protest against new agricultural laws. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

“I am ready to stay here for 8 months, if I have to,'' Kartar Singh said, his voice roaring with passion. Singh is one of tens of thousands of farmers who have been protesting at the borders of India’s capital against the government’s new farm legislations.

He pulled out a tiny finger-sized photograph from the pocket of his mud-soiled kurta (the Punjabi word for shirt). “Look at this,” he said excitedly, “This is my son. He works for the army and right now he is on duty at the border with China. We are all patriots here. We are ready to die for our country.”

Economists who believe the farm legislations are a worthy reform argue that middlemen have long mediated the relationship between India’s farmers and the market. These laws, the Indian government claims, will allow farmers to sell directly to retailers and thus earn more. Farmers worry that both prices and demand will be pushed down as giant private conglomerates buy in bulk, and that they would be at the mercy of these big businesses.

But what started as farmers protesting an economic law has now become something much larger. It has touched off debates about many other issues: culture, identity, federalism, democracy and dissent. The mass mobilization of farmers, many of them Sikhs, from north Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, has been one of the most sustained citizen-driven protest movements against the all-powerful Bharatiya Janata Party.

Punjab is the second largest producer of wheat and the third largest producer of rice in the country. Punjabi actors, singers and athletes are rallying behind farmers. Some prominent writers and athletes are even returning the awards and medals they have received from the Indian state.

Most institutions in India, including the mainstream media, the judiciary and even India’s opposition, seem unable or unwilling to take on the enormous electoral clout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Thus the real significance of the farmers’ agitation against the Modi government is that it exists at all. And as the movement passes the two-week mark, it hasn’t lost its nerve.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the country’s population works in agriculture, the moral force of the Indian farmer cannot be underestimated.

Despite the fact that people don’t understand the complex and technical arguments that drive the new legislation, there is widespread sentimental solidarity with farmers across India. There is subliminal collective guilt at the sight of farmers. Men, women and their children are spending cold winter nights huddled together at the back of trucks and tractors. Many of the protestors are elderly and are sometimes spreading their blankets under the wheels of their vehicles and sleeping on the gravel and mud.

The essential tenets of the Sikh faith — many of the protesters are from this community — have also played a part in striking a chord. “Kirat Karo, Naam Japo & Vand Chhako" was the call given by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of its 10 gurus. “Work Hard to earn a living, Meditate and remember God and generously share whatever you have earned.” So, even at the protest site, huge "langars" or free community kitchens, have been set up. Men gather around giant metal cauldrons, stirring pulses and curries as they cook on a slow fire; others chop vegetables through the night so that by the time the sun rises food can be served to hundreds of attendees. Images of the farmers feeding the same police force that had previously wielded sticks and water cannons on them capture this spirit of giving. “This is our seva [selfless act]” said one volunteer to me as he shelled peas and chopped cabbage, “It’s a service. Even our enemies will not go hungry from here.”

Most Indians would be confused on where they personally stand on the new laws. But what the protests are really challenging is the manner of decision making in India. Parliament passed the laws amid raucous and hostile scenes on the floor of the house. The opposition demand for referring the laws to a parliamentary panel were turned down. And they were pushed through in a pandemic year, leading many to ask what the mad rush is all about.

The farming legislation fits into the Modi government’s pattern of enacting abrupt, disruptive measures that shake up the status quo. In 2016, the government abruptly demonetized the currency. In 2019, the government abrogated Kashmir’s special status. The government believes such dramatic and sudden measures are a sign of confidence and conviction. Others, like Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of India’s central bank, have called it “Policy by Jhatka,” meaning “jolt.”

The agitation has triggered a diplomatic row between Canada and India after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood by the right of farmers to protest. (Canada has a sizable Sikh diaspora.) It has led to a dramatic Twitter fight between one of Bollywood’s biggest names, the BJP supporting Kangana Ranaut and Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh, who has spoken up for farmers.

To a polarized and argumentative India, the protests are a reminder that there is a value in consensus. Even the most popular leaders sometimes need to listen to what the street says. India’s most powerful politicians cannot always rule by fiat.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” Dutt is based in New Delhi.

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