Earlier this month, a cavalcade of Bharatiya Janata Party MP supporters in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh ploughed into farmers protesting against the party’s legislation, killing four of them. In the retaliatory violence, four BJP workers were killed. Opposition parties have highlighted the ham-fistedness of the national government in dealing with farmers’ demands and the brazenness of BJP rule in Uttar Pradesh which has become notorious for victimising religious minorities. As this crucial state heads towards state elections early next year, the farmers’ protests will play a major part in determining the fortunes of Narendra Modi’s national government in the 2024 parliamentary elections. For the United Kingdom and the United States, a successful BJP in these elections could presage the emergence of a Hindu state with major ramifications for the alliance of democracies.
Across India, farmers have been protesting against three laws passed in September 2020. Controversially, this legislation was introduced as ordinances at the height of lockdown, and was then bulldozed through parliament in breach of customary procedure. The government claims the legislation will introduce much-needed deregulation of the agricultural sector, increasing productivity, investment and giving farmers the choice to market their products nationally. Farmers, on the other hand, argue that the decision to end assured prices for wheat and rice and the opening of the sector to corporate operators will lead to the further impoverishment of India’s farmers, 85 per cent of whom own less than two hectares of land. Agriculture makes up 20 per cent of India’s GDP but 65 per cent of its rural population remain heavily dependent on farming to eke out a marginal existence. These neoliberal changes to a sector already in deep crisis and an economy with sluggish job growth since 2014, the farmers’ organisations have insisted, are a recipe for an unmitigated disaster.
Initially, the campaign to repeal the legislation by farmers’ organisations garnered widespread global support in Asia and North America and mobilisations by Indian origin legislators in the diaspora and civil society groups. However, when these protests turned violent during India’s Republic Day at the start of this year because of the refusal by government to allow farmers to march to parliament, the government used every device in its now-familiar toolkit – legal, administrative, financial, regulatory, and coercive – to clamp down on protestors. Typical of the government’s response was to blame the protestors, most of whom had remained peaceful in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent protest), painting them as Sikh separatists sponsored by the diaspora with a hidden agenda to undermine India’s unity and integrity. Indeed, over the last week, the same discourse has been used by the BJP chief minister in the state of Haryana to further communalise the issue. Fortunately, the protesting farmers have not yet risen to the government’s bait, ensuring that the protests remain focused on common demands that affect all in the agriculture sector, though Sikhs in Punjab, because of the state’s pioneering role in the Green Revolution and the failure to diversify to other crop production, have been at the forefront of the protests.
The farmers’ protests, if they gain further political traction, have the potential to derail Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. So far, Modi has been able to see off most of his political opponents and suppress social protests. Executive overreach has now reached such proportions that a recently released report from V-Dem Institute described India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ and leading academics, normally enamoured of India’s democratic credentials, now speak of it as an ‘ethnic democracy’ on the ‘road to despotism’. How far Modi successfully manages the farmers’ protests will, in large measure, determine his long-term political fortunes.
Conventionally, since 1947, British government relations with India have carefully balanced interests with values, with the latter almost invariably playing a subordinate role. The current Conservative government has not veered off this course. In the bigger picture of the rivalry with China and the search for Indian markets, Modi and Hindu nationalism are viewed by the British government as necessary evils. But such an approach is fraught with dangers and could be culpable in the demise of the world’s largest democracy.
In March this year, the parliamentary debate on press freedom and the safety of protesting farmers in India was an important platform for airing much that is now not allowed to be debated in India, either in the legislature or the media. For the UK Labour movement, with its historic ties to India’s liberation struggle and civil society organisations, support for freedom, liberty and the right to protest should not be compromised for short-term interests. It is well to remember that when Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and imposed a state of emergency in the 1970s, its end was due as much to global opposition as internal dissent. It is time to recognise the importance of supporting dissenters in India, as the farmers may yet be the salvation of the world’s largest democracy.
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