The year-long protests succeeded in putting the far-right government on the backfoot, raising hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will abstain from taking unilateral decisions.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would repeal three agriculture laws that farmers have been protesting for more than a year.
Modi's U-turn has sparked intense debate in the country. Opposition parties have pointed out that the decision is a political calculation rather than a good-faith response to the peaceful protests held by farmers on the peripheries of the national capital, New Delhi.
India's former Home Minister and leader of the opposition Congress party, P. Chidambaram, tweeted that the "withdrawal of the three farm laws is not inspired by a change of policy or a change of heart. It is impelled by fear of elections!"
In contrast to Modi’s reputation as a strong leader with an unflinching commitment toward reform - a buzzword many of his critics see as a facade to turn India into a corporate-friendly Hindutva state - Friday's decision is largely seen as a second major retreat by Modi in the past seven years of his rule.
The decision will not go down as a legitimate response by a leader to a democratic protest movement launched in September of last year.
Rather, it will be remembered for the grit the farmers have shown by keeping a massive agitation alive despite facing many obstacles.
Braving cold weather, the pandemic and a hostile government that came down heavily on them on several occasions, the farmers prevailed.
They also became the target of a massive information war waged by the Indian media, a significant portion of which unabashedly supports the Modi government.
Day in and day out, they were vilified and dehumanised on TV channels, with some pro-government voices calling them Khalistanis - a separatist Sikh movement - and slandering them with various accusations.
Much of the far-right ecosystem, which is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's primary voter base, targeted their protesters on social media with hateful comments.
As a result, one of the dreadful attacks the protesters faced was when a convoy of cars allegedly led by a BJP minister's son mowed down four farmers and one journalist in Uttar Pradesh. India's most populous state is preparing for elections in the coming months.
So how did a country that takes pride in its farming community come to this point?
Introduced in September last year, one of the agriculture laws in question was aimed at deregulating the sector.
It allowed farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where they are assured of a minimum price.
The farmers rejected the laws, saying the government had taken a unilateral decision without involving farming unions. They organised a massive protest rally with the intention to enter New Delhi and bring the city to a standstill.
However, the government deployed police on the capital city's borders and blocked their entry, which led to a year-long standoff. So far, 600 people have died in the agitation, according to local news reports last month.
When the laws were passed, there was much at stake for farmers. They objected, saying that the laws would devastate their earnings. The farmers felt they would end guaranteed pricing and pave the way for corporate exploitation.
According to a social activist Aruna Roy, the new laws would have put farmers' agricultural land at the mercy of corporations, calling the dependence on outside market forces “enslaving.”
“Corporate control over purchase will end with farmers having lost control over contracts, choice of production, and land, making India vulnerable to foreign pressure and blockades,” she said
Small farmers in India are protected by two-decade-long agriculture laws.
The first one is the Minimum Support Price (MSP), under which farmers get a guaranteed rate.
The second one is a law that prohibits the sale of produce outside wholesale markets, protecting small farmers from being exploited by large corporations.
Don’t be mistaken, this repeal of three farm laws is not for farmers but for elections in Uttar Pradesh where all @BJP4India internal surveys predicted massive loss in western UP where party won 70 percent of seats last time. BJP leaders were not being allowed entry— Chetan Chauhan (@chetanecostani) November 19, 2021
Last year, the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) of Maharashtra witnessed the loss of 25-30 percent of their incomes between June and August when compared to their earnings for the same period a year ago just after the laws temporarily went into effect.
'Other intentions in mind'
Previously, the Modi government had said it would not back down on the farm laws.
Now it is thought that Modi’s announcement of repealing the legislation was tied to upcoming crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where farmers' unions hold significant power and influence.
Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) President KS Alagiri said on Friday that Modi’s rollback resulted from the losses faced by his party, the BJP, in the recent bye-polls, the upcoming elections to five State Assemblies, and the anger among the farmers.
“This is absolutely an opportunistic move on the part of the Prime Minister. He has acted with some other intentions in mind,” Alagiri said on Friday.
The farm laws also caused anger among the people in the north Indian states, which are the center of Modi’s ruling BJP support.
Karnataka state Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said that Modi responding to farmers’ demands is not a “setback to the ruling BJP”.
“The decision showed the Prime Minister’s sensitivity to farmers’ demands,” the Chief Minister said on Friday.
Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Ashoka University, told the Associated Press that the government will find it hard to convince the farmers that it repealed the laws for reasons other than electoral gains.
“It is highly unusual for the Modi government to retreat or backpedal on a major political decision,” said Verniers.
“The government is likely to spin this as the PM listening to the people; but after a year of hard protest, acrimony and violence, it’s going to be difficult to make that notion adhere.”
Farm laws repeal is the 2nd big retreat by Modi Govt after land acquisition. These expose the limitations of parliamentary majority in a still ticking democracy. Numbers bring arrogance but public opinion still needs to be built.— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) November 19, 2021
Farmers are an influential voting bloc in India, one particularly important to Modi’s base.
A few states, including Northern Haryana, have a substantial population of farmers that the BJP rules.
"Whether it was fear of losing UP or finally facing up to conscience, BJP govt rolls back farm laws. Just the beginning of many more victories for people’s voices," Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker and one of Modi's staunchest critics from the Trinamool Congress Party, said on Twitter.