India's Farmers Finally Hand Modi A Major Political Defeat

The year-long national movement of farmers challenged the government of Narendra Modi against all odds, and ultimately prevailed by focusing on unity across India's diverse ethnic, religious and geographic landscape.

India's Farmers Finally Hand Modi A Major Political Defeat

Farmers riding tractors during the protests in January 2021

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

NEW DELHI — In what will be hailed as a great victory for the year-long farmers' movement in the times to come, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday announced his government's decision to repeal the three controversial farm laws.

Modi's government until now had been unrelenting, with none other than the Prime Minister himself scornfully calling the protesting farmers "andolan jeevi (those who live off agitations)" on the floor of Parliament. The BJP machinery attempted to brand the farmers' agitation as a movement led by Khalistani Sikh separatists and funded by terrorist groups.

The farmers, however, remained unwavering in their commitment to a complete repeal of the farm laws, which they believed were "pro-corporate" and "anti-farmer". At every stage of the agitations, the BJP-led government attempted to crush the farmers' movement, the most ghastly episode being the way agitating farmers were mowed down in Lakhimpur Kheri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, by a convoy of cars allegedly involving the son of junior home minister Ajay Mishra.

Protesters burning a copy of the farm laws

Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/ZUMA

More than 600 deaths

More than 600 protesting farmers died during the agitations. Several were jailed under harsh laws. The government used its police machinery to disrupt the movement. The Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi, where the farmers had been staging demonstrations, were practically turned into open prisons.

Following the Republic Day march by farmers early this year, the police came down heavily on some of the farmers' leaders. Yet, the farmers remained steadfast in their resolve to continue with the protests. Such was their determination that the crackdown on Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait after the Republic Day march gave a fresh lease of life to protests, taking the demonstrations across poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

The prime minister's decision to repeal the laws indicates that the farmers' agitations brought Modi''s government to its knees. Over the last seven years, the Modi government has earned the reputation of being dismissive towards people's protests. Even an acknowledgement of demands by agitating groups was seen with contempt, or as a sign of weakness for the government obsessed about projecting itself as strong and decisive. Such a tone-deaf approach has often led the Modi government to gravitate towards taking authoritarian stances.

It was a united front, blurring multiple caste and community contradictions.

On the other hand, the farmers' movement evolved dynamically ever since it began. From a protest that took roots only in northern Punjab, it grew into a country-wide movement in which farmers' groups set aside their differences and collaborated to take on the powerful government. Slowly and gradually, different leaders from various states came together and mounted a united front, in the process blurring multiple caste and community contradictions.

The victory of the farmers' movement marks the Modi government's first real defeat

Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Modi's first bonafide defeat

In the last few months, the farmers' agitation progressed into becoming a political movement against BJP's polarizing tactics. It helped heal the tensions between Jats and Muslims – the two communities torn apart in the aftermath of 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. The movement became the platform for bringing together many communities.

After being contemptuous about the farmers' movement in every way, Modi's announcement to repeal the farm laws sounded similarly cynical. Despite attempting to crush the movement, the prime minister spoke about doing "everything possible" to help the farmers, complaining about his inability to "explain the truth" to the farmers.

He had no other choice.

His decision has come only a few months ahead of the crucial assembly elections in India's most-populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is eyeing another term in power, and Punjab. With grim prospects in both the states, Modi's decision to repeal the farm laws appears to be one that has been taken with only electoral considerations in mind.

The opposition in both the states have consolidated their position, riding on a wave of anger against the BJP among farming communities. Modi's decision gives the BJP some play in the upcoming elections, and is intended to prevent any further damage to the party. He may have projected his move as a gift to agitating farmers on the occasion of the Sikh festivities of Guru Nanak Jayanti, but it is hard to miss that the farmers' movement brought him to a point from where he could not have taken any other decision.

The victory of the farmers' movement also marks the Modi government's first real defeat in the seven years since he was first elected. In that sense, it is a momentous occasion in India's political history.

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