The ‘Delhi Chalo’ farmers’ protest in India has been going on for more than 75 days after it started on 26 November 2020. Thousands of farmers, especially from Punjab and Haryana, are staging a sit-in protest along Delhi borders and demanding a complete rollback of the new farm reform laws and a guarantee on the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system being retained. Multiple rounds of talks between the Centre and the farmers’ union leaders have ended in a stalemate. Protesting farmers fear that the new laws will dismantle the MSP system and corporatise farming. The Supreme Court had earlier ordered a stay on the implementation of these contentious laws, hoping it will end the protest. The farm union leaders have also rejected Centre’s proposal to suspend implementation of the laws for the 18 months.
On 26 January, the protest turned violent when some farmers deviated from a pre-decided route for their Republic Day tractor rally and clashed with police. Some protesters scaled the ramparts of the Red Fort and hoisted the Sikh flag there. Several protestors and police personnel were injured in the ensuing clashes. Farmer unions also held a countrywide ‘chakka jam’ on 6 February where they blocked national and state highways between 12 pm and 3 pm to protest the internet ban in areas near their agitation sites, harassment allegedly meted out to them by authorities and other issues.
The most intriguing aspect of the farmer’s protest is that the Sikhs living overseas, most of whom have families at home tied to the farms, have picked up the thread in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, demonstrating outside Indian embassies to draw attention. Last week, 250 to 300 Sikhs and other overseas Indians took part in a rally in a Melbourne district to express their support for India’s farmers. Sikhs and other Indian Punjabis overseas are estimated at 12 million and form a tightly knit group and are vociferous in articulating the concerns of the community back home.
Since the farmers’ protest started, members of the diaspora have participated in protest marches — mostly consisting of 400 to 600 people — in nearly 50 different cities of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Many Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) own farmlands in Punjab and fear the sweeping changes that the government plans will hurt them economically. The farmers’ fear is that by allowing companies such as Walmart and India’s Reliance Industries Ltd’s retail arm to buy directly from farmers, the government intends to weaken the traditional markets where their rice and wheat are guaranteed a minimum price.
In Canada, home to a Sikh community that is politically influential, residents of Indian origin have vowed to step up their support for India’s protesting farmers. The government has declined to comment on the protests overseas but underlining India’s sensitivity about what it sees as foreign interference in its internal affairs, New Delhi summoned Canadian ambassador to convey displeasure after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the farmers had a right to protest. In Britain, Sikh groups wield influence and have been making the case for British leaders to raise the issue with their Indian counterparts even if the Modi government baulked at such involvement.
In an interesting development, India has written to Twitter warning the platform to comply with orders to block accounts and content related to a protest by farmers. Twitter blocked dozens of accounts in India, including that of a leading news magazine after the government said that users were posting content aimed at inciting violence but it later unblocked some of these accounts. India’s Home Affairs Ministry had demanded the suspension of close to 250 Twitter accounts that were allegedly posting content that sought to foment violence.
The protests garnered international attention after US singer Rihanna, climate change activist Greta Thunberg and US lawyer and activist Meena Harris, the niece of Vice-President Kamala Harris commented on social media drawing attention to the plight of the protesting farmers. In reaction, India slammed international celebrities for making comments in support of protesting farmers as inaccurate and irresponsible and said vested interest groups were trying to build opinion against the country. In this connection, Delhi Police has registered an FIR against Thunberg for her tweets in which she expressed solidarity with protesting farmers and shared a toolkit that sought to help people better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis. Bollywood entertainers and sports stars, many of whom have long been silent on the farmers’ protests and are known to toe the government’s line, also tweeted in one voice.
Modi government is reaping the results of hastily taken action and because of its decision to push through the farm bills without even counting the votes in parliament, his BJP party has found itself struggling to deal with a large, resilient protest movement that it has been unable to placate, vilify or crush. The misplaced bravado of Modi was again exposed when in the aftermath of 26 January, when the chaos at the Red Fort as well as misinformation spread by the mainstream media gave the protesters the feeling for the first time that the government had gained the upper hand on the narrative and it propelled them to hold on fast.
Indeed, the BJP’s online army went on an overdrive in an attempt to portray the entire farmers’ movement as being filled with violent extremists and in the process sparked an anti-Sikh sentiment in a city that has a history of dreadful violence against the community. Authorities also filed multiple FIRs against the farm union leaders, even though they had broadly appealed for peace and disowned the protesters who entered the Red Fort. Yet, a subsequent effort by Uttar Pradesh Police to strike quickly backfired.
Authorities had moved security forces and made efforts to clear out the protest site at Ghazipur but even as police amassed outside and the water and electricity were cut off, the pro-government farmers’ unions made impassioned speeches that rallied the protestors who were reeling from the violence of 26 January. This changed the nature of the protest as the government-sponsored reaction mobilised the Jatt community in BJP-controlled western Uttar Pradesh to support what had until then been a Punjab-led protest.
The Jats mentioned that they have fraternal relations with Punjab and emphasised that Punjab, their elder brother has been disrespected and that they cannot tolerate it. They resented portraying the Sikh farmers as ‘Khalistanis’ and ‘terrorists’ by mainstream media over the last few months, and particularly after the events of 26 January. This situation implies that Modi government finds itself in conflict with its own people. Taken aback by the Jat’s support of the Sikhs BJP government got jittery went so far as to halt SMS services in 17 of Haryana’s districts. Meanwhile, authorities continue to try and crush any narrative that challenges its own, filing police cases with charges including sedition and inciting riots against a number of journalists for simply tweeting about developments.
Modi seemed to signal some willingness to compromise as he reiterated that his offer to put the farm laws on hold for 18 months still remained valid but this had been rejected by the farmers calling for a full repeal. Yet, a day later on his regular radio show, Modi repeated the talking points relying on misinformation used by his party in the aftermath of the 26 January events, saying that that the country was saddened to see the national flag insulted. BJP has continued to spread the message that the farmer movement is violent and full of vested interests, even as the mobilisation includes nearly the entire political class of Punjab, a significant section in Haryana and is now growing in support in western Uttar Pradesh. TW