Tractors and Barricades: Erosion of Civil Liberties in the Indian Farmers' Protests
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Court to suspend the laws failed to appease the protesters, who have pledged not to leave until the legislation is repealed in full.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 allow individual farmers to sell directly to companies and private buyers.
Reform of some description appears necessary. Large subsidies have resulted in the overproduction of particular crops, while farmers’ incomes continue to stall. The mandi system is designed to protect small farmers from unpredictable price fluctuations on the free market, but collusion between officials means farmers often still lose out.
In theory, the new laws will modernise India’s agriculture sector. Modi claims the reforms are necessary to make it more efficient, and will benefit farmers. The changes are also expected to ease access to international markets by removing long-running barriers to trade deals. This is widely seen as part of a strategy to better position India in the global market, in anticipation of growing rifts between China and the international community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Farmers, however, fear the changes will expose them to exploitation by large corporations. 85 per cent of India’s farmers own less than two hectares of land; while the laws ostensibly grant them greater agency, these small farmers are likely to lose out to larger growers able to provide greater volume of goods to large-scale buyers. Many also fear the eventual dismantling of the mandi system which, while imperfect, is one they are familiar with and within which they know how to operate. Of particular concern is the future of minimum support prices - state-regulated price guarantees which provide a measure of stability for marginal farmers.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling party, which is headed by Modi, has claimed the laws will double farmers’ incomes, fulfilling a promise first made by Modi in 2016. Yet the growth rate of incomes has slowed in recent years, worsened by growing inflation; a 2018 OECD report indicated that incomes grew in real terms by just two per cent annually from 2013-2016. Farmers also face high debt, environmental challenges from climate change and decreasing public and private investment in agriculture. For millions, changes which may lead to uncertainty and perceived corporatism cannot be countenanced against this background.
'Neither Accurate Nor Responsible'
Yet the heavy-handedness of the government’s response raises serious concerns over civil liberties and the freedom of the press. Rather than investigate the deaths of protesters, the government has elected to pursue sedition charges against multiple news outlets, politicians and journalists who have reported on the killing of protesters by police. In a frenzied and often highly nationalistic domestic media environment, the charges are designed to have a chilling effect on those who may look to question the official narrative.
Internet blackouts, previously used to quell dissent in Kashmir, have been wielded to discourage organisation and spontaneous protest, while costing the state vast sums of money in lost productivity. The government also sought the removal of over 1,000 Twitter accounts linked to the protests. Despite initially complying, Twitter swiftly unblocked the accounts after public backlash. Indian Twitter employees have since been threatened with fines and long prison sentences if they do not comply with government takedown requests Other repressive measures, such as the fortifications constructed around Delhi after the storming of the Red Fort, have attracted particular criticism for effectively creating an internal border.
Some see an emerging pattern of repression by the Indian government to silence dissent. Similar brutal tactics were employed in response to protests in Kashmir, and against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which was widely seen as discriminatory against Muslims. The response has prompted condemnation from international bodies and celebrities alike. The government appears highly sensitive to the attention, with the Ministry of External Affairs stating: “The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
Modi has not faced a challenge of this scale, which has grown to encompass wider concerns over the centralisation of power. How he ultimately responds will affect not only India’s farmers, but the nation’s economic development and the future of its increasingly fragile civil liberties.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.