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Use of force against millions of protesting farmers will destroy Indian secularism

Millions of farmers across India are protesting against the Modi government’s new laws that are likely to leave them exposed to Big Farmer corporations. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, predominantly from majority Sikh Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have set up camp outside the capital New Delhi and along the highways in Punjab and Haryana.

Farmers are outraged by the Modi government’s farm laws, invoked in September, to change the country’s agriculture sector. Farmers know the sector is in need of reform — thousands of debt-ridden farmers have from suicide — but say the new legislation will ravage their livelihoods, end decades of protection from an unfettered free market and lead into takeover and exploitation by corporate giants such as Adani and Reliance.

About 85% of farmers have less than two hectares of land and about 60% of its population of 1.38-billion depend on farm incomes. Rajshri Jayaraman, an associate economics professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy said: “In the absence of a general social security net for people who are already on the edge of the brink of poverty, to then take away part of the social safety net is a really bad idea for people who are already precariously placed.”

Since the protests started the state has proposed amendments to the Acts, but farmers have rejected these, saying they will dig in until the laws are repealed.

In late November, the marchers encountered a heavy-handed police response in Delhi and then again on December 8 amid the nationwide strike — Bharat Bandh (India shutdown) — huge numbers of security forces were deployed across the country.

While the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders are trying to absurdly represent farmers as “anti-India separatists” or linking protests with the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement, the potential use of force to crush the “mass mobilisation” against the government would be met with intense backlash from the global community.

Although support for the farm movement from the public and opposition political parties that dubbed the Bills as “death warrant” to the farmers and more than 450 farmer unions and organisations makes the crackdown on the demonstrators unlikely — but the BJP’s historic bitter feeling toward the minorities doesn’t rule such a cataclysmic move. In the mid-1980s, a rights campaign by the fraught Punjabi Sikhs seeking equality and some economic and religious concessions encountered a brute response from the Indian military, which killed thousands of Sikhs in the Operation Blue Star and anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of prime minister Indra Ghandhi.

Since the farmers are not retreating from their demands and continue to pump up pressure on the government to withdraw the Acts, believing that the regulatory measures were hurting them to benefit only big business tycoons, the crisis can still develop into a bitter clash between protesters and Indian forces. 

After a state minister alleged a conspiracy by China and Pakistan to “destabilise” India, a BJP leader and Union minister claimed the farmer movement was kindled by the two Indian adversaries, accusing the same countries for inciting Muslims previously over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens.

The comments echoed divisive Twitter threads of another BJP leader who equated Indian state election with India-Pakistan contest, stating “Pakistan has already entered Shaheen Bagh and small pockets of Pakistan are being created in Delhi” to stir Hindu sentiments against Muslims, peacefully protesting against the religiously prejudiced laws. Insinuation of the demonstrations with nations — with whom India’s bilateral relations have hit the nadir over border dispute and Kashmir issue — to achieve political objectives and rationalise a possible vigorous action, could be dangerous bet that would expose almost 244-million Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and other Indian minorities to the extremist Hindu outfits.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for almost 58% of the Indian population and the agitators are not representing any specific state or religion despite a lunatic fringe in the BJP administration striving to imply they are. As the movement is gaining a worldwide traction, any hostile move against the protesters won’t be condoned domestically and transnationally.

Given the protests are peaceful and growing louder hundreds of thousands of farmers trooping in from across north India, the saffron brigade’s — Hindutva,  right-wing Hindu nationalists that are anti-Muslims — claims about foreign assistance are loaded with red herrings and an explicit effort to shift global focus from preventing the protesters to freely practice their basic right of peaceful demonstration.

In a series of damning articles and comments, the global lawmakers, experts and journalists have slated Indian government over its “state-sanctioned” violence against the peaceful protesters through a militariSed police force, called protests a reminder to “a polariSed and argumentative India” and urged the BJP Sarkar to end the “violent repression” of the farmers.

Truckloads of food have been sent to the protesters that have “laid siege” to Delhi by supporters in India, Canada and the United Kingdom. Their trailers have been transformed into bedrooms, kitchens, medical facilities and laundries have been set up and there’s even a library at one site. 

The international embrace of the agitation shows that it is purely a rights movement that is exerting a pull on more than 263-million cultivators and agricultural labourers nationwide, and the BJP government cannot shirk its responsibility to hearing out the legitimate gripes of the deprived minority.

The Modi administration should stop laying trumped-up charges on the farmers. And any idea of quelling the peaceful movement by force would be a deathblow to the secular nature of Indian democracy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Azhar Azam
Azhar Azam writes on economy, geopolitical issues and regional conflicts and is an opinion contributor to a number of international publications

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