By Kiran Dhillon, Staff Writer
Indian farmers and government forces are currently locked in a riveting dispute that, in terms of sheer numbers of people, is one of the largest protests in human history… yet no one is talking about it.
These gargantuan uprisings of Punjabi agricultural workers, more commonly known as the Kisaan farmers protests, began in Sept. in response to three new laws that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enacted with minimal parliamentary debate. The new farming laws reversed the effects of those before them, putting farmers at the mercy of large corporations that could exploit them, significantly drive down their crop prices and destroy their livelihoods.
Before the enforcement of these newer policies, farmers had to auction their crops at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where a government-agreed minimum produce price was enforced.
According to CNN’s Julia Hollingsworth, Modi criticizes these and other previous restrictions, claiming that the new laws “will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, such as supermarket chains.” While this is true, it can also be argued that this new “freedom” makes Indian farmers vulnerable to these businesses and their actions that force crop values down. This change would indiscriminately desecrate Indian farmers and completely deregulate India’s foundational agricultural industry.
Hundreds of millions of farmers across the country feel that a significant consequence of these laws will be the need to sell their land. These families have kept these acreages for generations which have cultural as well as economic significance. They fear losing their lands to corporate giants, losing their way of life and the sole salary they need to support themselves and their families.
These bold protesters have responded by launching massive rallies, locally referred to as “Dilhi Chalo” (“On to Delhi!” in Punjabi) protests. Farmers have rallied from around the Northern portion of India and gathered on the outskirts of Delhi, creating massive blockades (“chakka jams”) with tractors, lorries, boulders and tents that occupy miles of usually-busy streets leading into Delhi, says The Guardian’s Summer Sewell. These protests include thousands of people crowding near Delhi’s borders, chanting slogans in Punjabi and thrusting handmade signs in the air.
National police have responded to these protests by barricading the capital with iron spikes and steel barricades. However, this has not stopped the protesters: on Jan. 26, India’s national Republic Day holiday, they clashed with police, destroying the barriers and storming a 400-year-old landmark. The farmers were met with draconian measures from police, including weapons like tear gas, water cannons, and batons.
As of Feb. 8, 143 farmers have died protesting, seven of which were suicides. Farming, as a profession, is plagued by suicides, pneumonia, heart attacks, and other medical complications that come with old age. Even with the community kitchen tents and makeshift hospital tents, many Punjabi protesters who are braving India’s streets as we speak are at serious risk.
Not only has the Indian government responded to these protests with physical violence, but they’ve also taken drastic measures to paint the farmers, a group that is mostly Sikhs, as a violent group trying to terrorize the country. To silence the opposition, India’s government put into motion an internet shutdown on Feb. 3, according to CNN, in at least 14 out of 22 districts in Haryana; officials told citizens it would only last 24 hours, but it lasted much longer.
These acts from India’s government against one of the country’s most hard-working yet desperate subsections are clear instances of social black-listing, as the right to dissent is gradually being taken from Indian farmers. This means that approximately 58 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people involved in farming are suddenly getting their voices silenced. Even as people of all ages and different backgrounds attend the protests, government officials have intentionally created the same horribly-inaccurate impression of all of them.
The government is trying to counter the protesters by spreading this hate across the country with the help of Modi’s far-right nationalist party and sympathetic media outlets. Along with attempts to silence the farmers via disinformation through major national and international media outlets, Modi is slowly handing agricultural power over to wealthier corporations that benefit him through donations while choosing to ignore the suffering from one of the most significant contributors to the national economy.
India is the biggest democracy globally, and as such, has been a beacon for those that value freedom of expression and individual rights to protest. If this dangerous attack on democracy is threatening the biggest democracy in the world, it should be viewed as a distinct threat to the democratic way in America. The right to peacefully dissent is one of the biggest cornerstones of democracy. One only has to look at the American experience, whether we reference the Berkeley protests or the anti-war protests in the 1960s to understand the sanctity of the right to protest peacefully.
This massive building block of democracy is starting to slip out from under India, thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s heavy-handedness: it could just as easily happen to America’s democratic government if we choose to ignore it.
The current perversion of democratic principles in India is an affront to democracy everywhere. We must stand against it.