Prime Minister of India, announces the repeal of three controversial agricultural laws in a televised address on 19 November 202.  Image via Wikimeadia.  Image credit Narendra Modi.  Attribution 3.0

On November 19, one of the world’s largest and longest protests achieved a major victory—farmers in North India woke up to Prime Minister Modi apologizing to them and asserting his intention to repeal the three farm laws they have been opposing. Despite Modi’s sudden declaration, farmers initially stood their ground on the outskirts of the capital of New Delhi. Americans should continue to support their movement because it is not over. 

The three controversial acts forced into law in August 2020—the Trade and Commerce Act, the Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities Act—were hailed by the government as necessary to modernize the agricultural sector. Farmer organizations disagreed, citing that these laws pave the way for corporate capital wherein farmers will have less bargaining power and guaranteed prices. This reworked legal architecture would unravel state investments in grain markets, farming contracts, and storage/warehousing.  

Despite the Indian Cabinet having already approved the repeal bill to be introduced in Parliament on November 29, there is reason for continued vigilance. In his public announcement, PM Modi’s “apology” makes no mention of farmers’ main demand of guaranteeing minimum support prices for their crops nor of the 708 protestors that have died. Rather he apologized for the inability of his party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), to “convince some of our farmer brothers of the intentions of these laws which were as pure as the light from a lamp.”     

   Earlier this year, the popular musician Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg got the world to notice the millions of protesting Indian farmers. Solidarity letters from American farmers and farm networks also drew from the memory of American farmers’ mobilizations in Washington, DC. One letter stated that “what the Indian farmers are enduring now happened in the U.S. almost four decades ago. The Reagan era furthered the farm crisis through deliberate federal policy changes, with systematic erosion of parity prices and other deregulatory efforts. ‘Get big or get out’ has been our government’s mantra.” While affirming the right to peaceful protest, the US State Department expressed support for the laws, citing efficiency and private investment in agriculture. A flashpoint of this decades-long economic crisis in agriculture has been the high rate of suicide among US rural populations and Indian farmers.  

Media coverage of the protests drowned out through pandemic lockdowns as thousands of Indian farmers were charged under false cases in various states. On October 3, four farmers and four others were killed by a high-ranking BJP minister’s son, who drove a car into a crowd of protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri village, in the BJP-dominated northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Farmers responded by blocking railway lines in several stations in North India to demand justice. It took several days for UP police to bring the son in for questioning, while the minister continues to enjoy his position.  

Like the passage of the farm laws, the BJP has undertaken numerous sweeping measures under the aegis of a strongman politics since coming into power in 2014. Examples of such measures include the spontaneous devaluation of currency notes, termination of Kashmir’s autonomy, promulgation of an anti-Muslim citizenship law and deportation centers, increased jailing of activists under charges of sedition and terror, diluted labor and environmental laws, and a hastily declared Covid-19 lockdown resulting in a migrant crisis. Modi has gone from being denied a US visa, due to his past role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, to Donald Trump’s bosom buddy. The Biden administration continues to support him. According to one op-ed, “the anti-farmer and anti-climate trade policies currently being pursued by the Biden-Modi partnership both strengthen the hand of fascism and threaten progress on global climate justice.” We should be concerned about our partnership with a government premised on anti-democratic policies.    

Crucially, we should recognize compounded injustices within farming and rural communities. Only decades later is the US attempting to address lending discrimination against farmers of color, particularly Black farmers. They have lost most of their land in the past century and fought and won decades-long legal battles, yet the USDA continues to stall their due payments. In India, caste-oppressed farmers and farmworkers toiling on land owned by dominant-caste farmers have also shown their support to the farmers’ movement, despite their own state of dispossession and landlessness. While policy on agricultural wages or land reparations in either India or the US seem far from the negotiating table, we should maintain commitments to oppressed caste, race, and indigenous rural groups in our support of the present movement and larger goals of economic and environmental justice.  

After 378 days of protest and emerging successful, the farmers decided to leave the protest sites on December 11. As we in the US headed into holiday festivities, Indian farmers celebrated as well. Yet they continue to remain firm with their demands for a legal right to guaranteed crop prices and justice for the hundreds of martyrs. During a tumultuous pandemic, their victory is a hopeful sign for overturning right-wing governments that will seek a return to “normalcy” premised on degraded labor conditions, private capital, and state violence. The future is uncertain and 2022 promises new rounds of meetings between the farmers and the government. We should draw inspiration from the Indian farmers’ resolve and remain allied to their ongoing movement.