More than thirty years ago, I boarded a night train to Delhi with my young children. They were fast asleep in our reserved berths when the train stopped in Haridwar, India’s holiest city. I glanced out the window, expecting the usual crowds of pilgrims and sadhus, but saw instead what looked like a sea of farmers—tall, lean men in white khadi kurtas and green scarves. They surged en masse onto the train, first filling the unreserved compartments and then pouring into the reserved ones. Ignoring the ticket collector’s feeble attempts to stop them, they forced their way in, shouting slogans like “Kisan ki jai!” (“Victory to the farmer!”). They were on their way to Delhi for an enormous farmers’ rally the next day, and nothing was going to stop them.
The children and I were now huddled on one of our three berths as more and more men fought their way into the train car and simply parked themselves on our bunk. Let’s just say it was a very long night. For months afterward, whenever the subject of trains came up, my little daughter Moy Moy’s eyes would widen as she said emphatically: “Moy train no go. Kisans.”
The idea of a child being terrified by farmers seems crazy—and it was. Once this mob of men had found seats (most were on the floor) and settled in for the night they were quiet, even courteous. And they were eloquent about the reason for their journey. “If you destroy a bird’s nest,” one of them said, “will it not cry out?” They insisted on sharing their food with us and when we pulled into Delhi, they helped with our luggage and found us a taxi. Moy Moy had no reason to be afraid of them.
The Indian government, on the other hand, has good reason to fear farmers. While farming makes up only 15 percent of India’s GDP, 50 percent of the population works in agriculture. Farmers are a massive voting bloc, incredibly creative and well organized, and they enjoy huge popular support. With half the country working the land, everyone here knows farmers personally.
Yet in September, during the height of the pandemic, with most of the country in lockdown, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party pushed through three farming bills without consulting farmers or their unions. The bills were designed to deregulate the farming sector and open it up to major conglomerates. Protests erupted soon after the bills were enacted and have continued ever since. In November, an estimated 250 million farmers and their supporters took to the streets across the country; even now, several months later, thousands continue to camp out in Delhi demanding that the laws be repealed. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, violence broke out in a few parts of Delhi. The groups that organized the protests—which had been completely peaceful until then—claim the violence was instigated by outside agitators, but the government used the incident to impose draconian measures, cutting off electricity, water, and internet to the protest sites and arresting more than 120 people on charges of rioting and sedition.