Over the past two months, farmers in India have been protesting the new agricultural laws introduced by the Modi government that allow multiple actors to enter the farmers market at flexible rates. Farmer unions fear that the new laws give power to big corporations at the expense of farmers, who will be pushed out of the competitive market with little protection.
Thousands of protesting farmers began travelling towards the capital on Thursday, along the slogan of “Delhi chalo” to express their grievances to the government, but were stopped from entering New Delhi by police in riot gear on the boundary between Haryana state and the capital. Clashes between the two resulted in police using tear gas, water canons and baton charge against the unarmed protesters. In retaliation, farmers used tractors to get past the barriers of concrete, containers and parked trucks erected by the police to halt their procession.
Earlier, services of the Delhi Metro trains were also halted to prevent the farmers from easily accessing the capital.
The majority of the protesting farmers are from Punjab, which is one of the largest agricultural states in India. Punjab Minister Araminder Singh lent his support to the protesters in a tweet urging the federal government to initiate peaceful negotiations with protest leaders. “The voice of farmers cannot be muzzled indefinitely,” he said.
On Saturday, the protesting farmers were granted access to New Delhi by police after a two-hour standoff.
The farmers protest has been supported by groups that espouse for rights of those marginalized under the right-wing BJP government, such as the Popular Front of India. During the protest marches, many Muslim mosques and Imam Bargahs also offered food and shelter to the mostly Sikh members of the farmers processions. In the past, the Sikh community in India had also extended support to Muslim protestors at Shaheen Bagh.
The new agricultural laws introduced in September by the Indian federal government have been hailed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “complete transformation of the agriculture sector” that would empower “tens of millions of farmers.” However, the laws could cause the government to stop buying grain from farmers at guaranteed prices and result in exploitation by corporations would buy from the farmers at cheaper prices.
This move has been seen by many as another attempt by the Modi government to upend the rights of minority groups. According to one social media analysis, the new legislation would encourage the consolidation of land into mega-farms and destroy the business of Punjabi Sikh small land holders, forcing them to lose ownership of lands. This could lead to a change in the demographic makeup of the farming lands in Punjab.
This is similar to the effects of the new land ownership laws introduced in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, which allow non-residents of Kashmir to own property in the Muslim-majority region.
The new agricultural legislation, while framed as pro-farmers by the government, is being viewed as anti-farmers and pro-corporations by farmer unions as well as members of the Congress, the opposition party.
Agriculture support more than half of India’s 1.3 billion population, and farmers in India frequently protest the suppression of their rights, and demand better crop prices, loan waivers, and effective irrigation systems.
The protesters in New Delhi maintain that they will not cease their movement until the government agrees to roll back the new agricultural laws.