One of the most remarkable protest movements in the past hundred years ended a few weeks ago in India with a stunning victory. After more than a year of nonviolent demonstrations, the country’s farmers succeeded in forcing the repeal of three laws that would have deregulated India’s agriculture sector and allowed major agribusiness conglomerates to buy up massive tracts of farmland.
For most people here, the sight of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, apologizing on national television for his failure to win over the farmers was strange. Modi is well known for never backing down—it is part of his political appeal. But this time he had little choice. Elections in several key states are around the corner, and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been doing poorly in the polls. After dramatic defeats in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala in May, the leaders of the BJP are genuinely worried. Losing the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which till now has been solidly pro-BJP, could bring the party’s rule to an end.
That could still happen. Uttar Pradesh has a huge agricultural population and in spite of the BJP’s effort to discredit the farmers’ movement, support for it in the state has grown dramatically during the past year. It was recognition of this fact that likely prompted the government’s capitulation, but the response from the protestors was a strange combination of triumphant celebration and suspicion.
After the announcement that the three laws were to be repealed, the government expected that the farmers who had camped in Delhi for the past year would simply pack up and go home. The farmers never even considered it. They celebrated their victory with sweets, music, and dancing in the streets, but they refused to go home until Parliament made it official. They had no faith in Modi’s promises.
Their cynicism was well founded. The passage of these laws back in September 2020 had been a spectacle even for India, where parliamentary fistfights are not uncommon. The voice vote on the three laws could barely be heard over the shouts of rage from the opposition, and the preordained decision was rammed through without discussion.
In response to the protests that erupted immediately, the government did all it could to malign the protesters, claiming they were actually terrorists who wanted an independent Punjab (the country’s most prosperous farming state). When this failed, the government attempted to discredit the movement’s leadership, incited violence during Republic Day celebrations, blocked roads to prevent more farmers from coming into Delhi, removed toilets and cut off water and electricity in the campgrounds, and used tear gas and water cannons against peaceful protesters. Over the course of the year’s protests, some six hundred farmers died of various causes. The final straw came when the son of a BJP official deliberately drove his car into a group of farmers marching on the highway, killing four and injuring several others