Tractors and Barricades: Erosion of Civil Liberties in the Indian Farmers' Protests

Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Randeep Maddoke

Samuel Garrett

India is seeing unprecedented protests that present the largest challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government since he took office in 2014. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since December in protests against three new agricultural laws they say will imperil their livelihoods. The protests, and the Modi government’s response, hold implications for India’s economic development while raising questions over the erosion of its civil liberties.

Protests against the laws began among rice and wheat farmers in India’s north, predominantly in the states of Punjab and Haryana, and have since grown into a broad movement. A nation-wide general strike against the laws on November 26 saw the participation of up to 250 million people, potentially making it one of the largest in history. Farmers then marched on Delhi, setting up large protest camps on its outskirts. An order on January 12 by India’s Supreme Court to suspend the laws failed to appease the protesters, who have pledged not to leave until the legislation is repealed in full.

The demonstrations culminated in clashes on India’s Republic Day on January 26. A group of protesters deviated from a planned march route, breaching barricades and entering Delhi’s historic Red Fort complex. Hundreds were injured and a protester died in the violence. The day’s chaos prompted speculation that the protest movement would lose legitimacy and fracture, and that despite being united by economic grievance, the movement encompasses a diverse set of goals and political backgrounds that is difficult to maintain.

However, it is the government’s response to the violence that has attracted the most international criticism. Police have since blockaded roads around Delhi with concrete blocks, metal barricades and large metal nails embedded in the ground. Multiple rounds of negotiations have not produced a solution and the stalemate continues.

The Need for Reform?

Indian farmers are heavily protected by government subsidies. The laws passed in September liberalise sale, pricing, and storage regulations in the agricultural sector. In particular, they loosen the rules around state-regulated mandi markets and