In a world where farmers are imperative in ensuring food supplies for the masses, the response of the Indian government and news outlets to the ongoing global protests, centred in the Indian capital New Delhi, bewilders me. After all, how can India claim it is a democracy when democracy itself is being threatened as we speak? So, what is actually happening?
In September, reforms were made by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which aim to “increase farm incomes and productivity”. The government owns and mediates trade between markets (mandis) and previously, farmers would only be allowed to sell their produce to their local mandis where trade is controlled by the state. Farmers weren’t allowed to trade between mandis in different localities but now can freely trade between different mandis. The government sets a Minimum Standard Price (MSP) for each crop – comparable to the minimum wage we have in the UK, which ensures farmers are offered a minimum price for their crops. This particularly affects states such as Punjab and Haryana, where agriculture provides a substantial proportion of many farmers’ wages, so this regulation of price helps farmers in these regions in North India to sustain a living. It is crucial to emphasise this system has multiple problems, one issue being high consumer prices for goods and low prices offered to farmers for their produce due to the presence of numerous middle parties who extract much of the profit. Another key determinant of the profit farmers receive is the caste to which they belong to. The caste system is a historically discriminatory hierarchy that classifies individuals into ranked categories. Those of lower caste receive less profit for their labour than those of higher caste.
However, there is still some regulation and stability for farmers with this system. A misconception about the reforms is that MSP will be removed when this is not the case. Instead, MSP will still be present, and farmers also have the option to trade with private corporations which may offer more competitive returns for farmers.
Whilst this seems like a perfect solution at first glance, farmers fear that they will be initially attracted by higher returns from private corporations and will trade with these companies, forcing shut local government-regulated mandis. If these shut, farmers have no choice but to trade with for-profit companies who initially offered competitive rates for crops, who may then lower the return to below MSP. Since farmers have no other choice, they will need to sell their produce at unfair rates, leaving them open for exploitation by unregulated trade – this is the issue at hand.
Another concern is that the government will remove MSP since these reforms are a step towards that. Although this has been denied by BJP, farmers are still worried this could happen, especially since these reforms took place without taking into account the opinions and suggestions of farmers themselves. The lack of transparency by the Indian government has led to concern over the true intentions of these reforms. As a result, tens of thousands of farmers (particularly from Northern states, with Punjab and Haryana showing the highest participation rates) have been peacefully protesting in New Delhi to convince the government to reverse the reforms, and estimates show that over 250 million people worldwide have participated in these protests around the world to stand with the farmers, making this the largest organised protest in living history.
The Kisaan Maidoor Ekta Movement (Farmers and Workers movement)
As mentioned, the protests taking place in New Delhi are peaceful, but the police brutality shown in retaliation by the state has highlighted an ignorance from the Indian government, and their willingness to resort to extreme human rights violations to silence the voices of protestors. It is important to mention that it is not only farmers who are protesting; various religious groups, NGOs and activists etc. are standing in solidarity with the farmers as this is no longer a policy issue – the battle is about providing people with the standard human rights and respect they are entitled to. The use of tear gas and water cannons by the police has angered many members of the diaspora and the similarities between this response and the response to the Sikh genocide in 1984 (“Operation Blue-Star” being a large part of the genocide) have been shown.
1984 and the Farmers’ Protests
Since numerous news outlets seem to enjoy bringing religion into this, let’s talk about religion. This is NOT a religiously driven movement – it is something that affects all farmers in India, with the high retaliation rates in the North resulting from the high dependency on agriculture in these states to sustain a living among the majority of farmers. The media has also promoted the notion that it is exclusively a single minority who have been involved with the protests – farmers in North India - when in fact many of the 250 million participants are from southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala who stood in solidarity with farmers from the North of the country.
Why are Sikhs at the forefront of much of these protests then? One possible reason is Operation Bluestar - a mass genocide of the Sikh diaspora which took place in 1984 (beyond the scope of this article) which involved the mass murder of thousands of Sikhs in India, particularly New Delhi. Following serious human rights abuses from Sikh separatists on civilians, the government deployed troops to remove militants who had occupied the holiest of Sikh Shrines – the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was an act of protest to push forward their agenda of forming a new sovereign state called Khalistan. This proposed sovereign state would span large parts of India and neighbouring Pakistan and include states such as Punjab and Rajasthan. The troops caused serious damage to the temple and multiple civilians, security personnel and militants were killed among the violence. The prime minister of India at the time, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her two Sikh bodyguards in an act of revenge for degrading the temple in such a way.
The targeting of Sikhs following this was primarily led by Indira Gandhi supporters who blamed the Sikh diaspora for the death of their Prime minister. The complete ignorance to the situation by the government continuesto this day, with only 30 people (mostly low-level party supporters) being convicted for the attacks which included various accounts of mass murder, torture, rape and kidnapping. There have been no prosecutions for rape to date.
This is one reason why Sikhs are seen to be the face of the protests – the past has given the diaspora little reason to trust the Indian Government and the prejudice shown against the Sikh community in the past has repeated itself. The similarities between the response from the Indian government to the protests and the events which took place in 1984 are startling and it seems as though we haven’t learnt our lessons from the past. Images displaying police brutality during the 1984 Sikh genocide and the Farmers’ protests are scarily similar and the world is silent.
With the advent of influencers, such as singer Rihanna, speaking out about the protests the movement has gained traction. However, the lack of support from other influencers (especially various Bollywood actors who have either not spoken out about the protests or who support the actions of the government) is promoting the spread of false information surrounding the protests. Actress Kangana Ranaut has been criticised for acomment she made insinuating the protests were led by “Khalistani Terrorists” highlighting the misconception that this is a religiously motivated battle. In a (now deleted) tweet, she had also described the protestors as a “cancer” that needs to be “eradicated”. This ignorance shows the miseducation surrounding the movement and shows the extent to which some influencers are willing to stretch in order to promote their ideologies and agendas.
Lessons Need to be Learnt
Despite the efforts of many to silence the voices of those who feed the world and form much of the backbone of India, the voices of those who are suffering can be heard loud and clear and the global response from the diaspora has been eye-opening. Despite this, the lack of awareness surrounding the issue is startling and needs to change.
This article will be published on the day of Vaisakhi – the day marking the start of the Sikh new year and the Hindu Solar new year which coincides with the season of harvest. It is a day of celebration and new beginnings – or it should be.
This day is a day of recognition and reward for many farmers as they celebrate their labour throughout the year to feed the world. In the spirit of Vaisakhi, we should aim to start afresh and learn about the atrocities enacted in the past, present, and if we do not learn from our past mistakes, the future as well.