Toward the end of 2021, Indian farmers achieved the impossible: a win against the right-wing government of Narendra Modi by forcing a repeal of three draconian farm laws. This is the remarkable story of how the farmers persevered through chilly winters, blistering summers, monsoon floods, the pandemic’s second wave, and a relentless, ruthless propaganda war unleashed by the government through its lapdog corporate media.
Why farmers opposed Modi’s farm laws
When India gained independence in 1947, about 75% of its population was engaged in agriculture, and yet the country faced the specter of famine. By the early 1960s, on the basis of imported dwarf Mexican wheat and genetically modified rice varieties, as well as pesticides and fertilizers, India ushered in the Green Revolution in North Indian states.
While India overcame its food security crises, no government in the last half-century has effectively addressed the negative impacts of the Green Revolution—soil depletion, water scarcity, illnesses such as cancer, growing debt on farmers, and about 400,000 suicides among farmers and other agricultural workers. At present, about 53% of the population is still dependent—directly or indirectly—on the agrarian economy, and about 86% of these farmers are small and marginal, with only a few acres of land.
Given this growing penury, starting in the early 1990s as part of their neoliberal approach, the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund have pushed the country to adopt aggressive policies to “depeasantize” the agrarian sector while pushing farmers and labor into the migrant workforce in cities. In many ways, the plight of the American farmer, pushed to the brink by neoliberal forms of privatization, is a grim harbinger for Indian agricultural workers.
It was in 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic raged worldwide and people were confined to their homes under curfews and lockdowns, that the government under the leadership of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party decided to implement three draconian laws related to farming. The first law allowed for private food-grain procurement; the second allowed corporations to lease farmland to corporations; the third was an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act, which now allowed unlimited hoarding of food grains. The farmers sensed this was a direct attack on their livelihood.
In summer 2020, when Parliament was not in session, the Modi government published the farm laws as “ordinances” promulgated by the president of India on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet. Think of these as similar to “executive orders” by U.S. standards, except that Indian ordinances require ratification by Parliament within six months.
The government’s haste and the content of the laws drew the attention of farmers in the northern state of Punjab. While armchair economists praised the laws, farmers started spreading word of the adverse intent of these laws among villages and towns in the state. Along with the three original laws, two other laws provoked farmers’ censure: the criminalization of paddy stubble burning with huge fines and imprisonment, and a proposal to privatize the power sector. The farmers advocated that a minimum support price for their crops, rather than a selling off, was the best way to infuse money into the rural economy and save them from poverty and suicides.
In the northern Green Revolution states, farm unions are stronger than in the rest of the country, where they have eroded over time. By the time the government passed the laws in September, the farm unions in Punjab were ready to protest. Union members blocked all the railroads in the state and stopped collection of toll taxes on the highways. Since they knew the laws would favor big businesses, the unions blocked the corporate-owned gas stations, shopping malls, and warehouses in the state. When the government did not budge, by early November 2020, the Punjab farm unions united into a coalition named Samyukt Kisan Morcha and made the announcement that on Constitution Day, Nov. 26, they would march to Delhi, the capital of India.
On Nov. 26, as the farmers from Punjab started their march, police in the neighboring state of Haryana set up barricades on the roads in the form of cement blocks and shipping containers, dug trenches, and used tear gas and water cannons on the marchers.
The Punjab farmers found an unlikely ally—Haryana farmers who were also protesting the same laws. In spite of the fact that the two states have a half-century-old river water dispute, the farmers rallied together. The next day, Haryana farmers started dismantling the barricades and paving the way. As Punjab farmers advanced, in accordance with their Sikh religion, the farmers even held langars—communal eating—for the police officers on duty. It was a remarkable gesture of openness and inclusivity toward friends and even foes.
Finally, braving the physical assault from police, the farmers from Punjab and Haryana dug in on the outskirts of Delhi—at Singhu and Tikri. They set up camps in tractor trollies and tents for many miles on the road. Soon, farmers from west Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand set up their camps on the eastern outskirts of Delhi, at Gazipur. Camps sprang up at Palwal and on the Haryana–Rajasthan border at Shahjahanpur.
Through the duration of the protests, the numbers of farmers camping out varied from 50,000 on average to up to 700,000 at its peak. The northern states are feudal, and patriarchy is still rife. Breaking tradition, women farmers formed a key pillar of the protests. It was the same with organized labor groups, who, owing to the exigencies of daily wage earning, could not participate for a greater length of time, but who nonetheless supported the protests.
One of the main slogans of the protests was “Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad,” or “Long Live Farmer-Worker Unity.” When young and old Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh farmers, supported by urban folks, came together, they negated the right-wing BJP ploy to divide society along cleavages of religion, caste, and gender. Instead, the protests united the farmers through their kirrt—work.
The farmers’ protests took place at two levels—on the ground and in the media. As farmers reached Delhi, mainstream media, most of which is controlled by big corporations, attempted to gather sound bites from farmers. The farmers blocked all access by the corporate media. Instead, they started their own media: social media pages, Twitter handles, internet television channels, and solo supporters. They started articulating their daily activities at the campsites and began issuing point-by-point rebuttals of the farm laws. The slogan “No Farmers, No Food, No Future” caught everyone’s attention.
Meanwhile, mainstream media started promoting the government’s agenda, calling farmers “anti-national”—India’s equivalent of “unpatriotic”—and claiming they were supported by separatist elements. The farmers’ media countered this partisan narrative. Social and international media spread the farmers’ messages worldwide.
As talks between the government and SKM dragged into 11 rounds until mid-January 2021, icy winter rains battered the farmers. After the events of Republic Day on Jan. 26, when some farmers marched toward the iconic Red Fort to hoist the farmers’ and Sikh flags, the government once more tried to paint the farmers as anti-national. Talks broke down, and the long wait began.
Over the next 10 months, the protest sites ran their own stages and kitchens. They replenished stocks from their villages. Haryana farmers even provided a ready supply of milk and fresh vegetables. By spring 2021, the pandemic’s second wave hit the world. Civil society urged farmers to withdraw their protest, but they did not. By summertime, scorching heat and monsoon floods troubled the farmers. But they remained firm, innovating their encampments into reinforced tents, wooden huts equipped with coolers, refrigerators, and even washing machines. Meanwhile, due to the exigencies of weather and accidents, over 700 people died over the course of the protests.
During these long months, even as the media moved on, farmers conducted huge gatherings in their states, some with over 100,000 people, to spread their message against the laws and build larger solidarities. They made various calls for general strikes, which farmers from other Indian states responded to enthusiastically. They conducted a Farmers Parliament coinciding with the Indian Parliament’s Monsoon Session, which gave them visibility. But such efforts were evanescent. The only option that remained was to try to affect the electoral process in key states in February 2022, not as a political party but a pressure group.
All of a sudden, on Nov. 19, 2021, the prime minister announced the unconditional repeal of the draconian farm laws. Yet, the trust deficit was such that even after Modi’s public announcement, the farmers suspended their protests after 22 days. They called it a suspension because the issue of minimum support price on 23 crops across the country is still pending, and the government has only promised to form a committee to look into the matter. Depending on how the committee fares, the farmers might pick up the protest again.
The farmers demanded a written guarantee that while the Parliament withdrew the laws, which it did, the government would also repeal the pollution act that criminalizes farmers for burning paddy husk and withdraw a proposed electricity bill that seeks to privatize power in the country. The unilateral repeal shows the government sensed the protests had galvanized more support than it could quell, and it was fast losing its electoral base.
For now, this victory is a direct blow to WTO, IMF, and World Bank policies, and to the BJP’s privatization agenda. The Indian farmers’ protest is a model for all struggling people worldwide. Their relentless and sustained protest shows that a sure resolve, control of resources, and perseverance is key to winning against neoliberal forces worldwide and ushering in a world where working people are the focus of national economic policies.