On January 26th, India celebrated Republic Day, commemorating the 72nd year since the Indian Constitution came into effect. The same day, farmers who have been protesting new agricultural laws for months planned a peaceful tractor march while the focus was on New Delhi. However, the march’s leaders lost control. Big groups of protestors and tractors broke away from the pre-approved protest path, tipping over buses and clashing with an outnumbered police force. The police tried to deploy officers with assault rifles to guard key areas but were overwhelmed. The farmers reached the Red Fort, an iconic palace that once housed Mughal rulers, and hoisted up a flag significant to the Sikh faith (The majority of the protestors are from Punjab, a predominantly Sikh state). Afterwards, the protestors returned to the Ghazipur camps at the edge of New Delhi, but it was too late. Many were unnerved by the Republic Day chaos. In response, the state government ordered farmers to leave the Ghazipur camp. The next night, hundreds of police in riot gear entered the area to vacate the farmers, and the camp’s electricity and water were shut off.
“The police attempt to remove the protesters last night was an assault on the dignity of farmers,” said Balwinder Singh, a farmer affected by the police crackdown.
“[The] farmer agitators broke the agreed terms and started their march much before the agreed time,” Delhi police counter. “The agitators chose the path of violence and destruction.”
The protests before Republic Day remained peaceful and lasted for months – though they made little progress. This may explain why the farmers became agitated enough to try less peaceful methods on Republic Day. However, this has gone against their interests. The state has come down hard on the protestors and the clash has unnerved those who gave the farmers their support.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a conglomerate of over 30 farmer’s unions leading the protest, has distanced itself from the violence. “We dissociate ourselves from all such elements that have violated our discipline.”
Since November, thousands of farmers have encamped at Ghazipur and two other camps on the road to Delhi to protest new agricultural laws they believe will destroy their livelihoods. The farming laws aim to minimize the government’s role in the agricultural sector and allow for private investors, leading to economic growth. The new laws “have been brought in for benefit of the farmers,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. “We will see and experience benefits of these new laws in the coming days.”
However, farmers are already struggling with government protections like guaranteed minimum prices for essential crops. The protestors fear that the removal of the state will leave them at the mercy of the market.
Many economists have argued the agricultural industry is antiquated. Radhika Pandey, a Delhi-based economist, explained, “Because there are such a limited number of buyers, they tend to wield an influence over prices. The intent [of the law] is to … give flexibility to buyers.”
More than 60 per cent of the Indian population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. Bankruptcies and debt have been driving farmers to high rates of suicide for years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these people’s inequality and desperation, as millions of urban labourers have returned to their villages to farm.
However, there is little impetus for Modi’s government to repeal the law. The administration enjoys a 78 per cent approval rating, which is unlikely to be affected by the protests.
The escalation of the Republic Day protests was misguided, but the country depends on farmers just as much as farmers depend on the government. Both parties should work towards a compromise.