The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Modi won’t listen to India’s farmers

Tens of thousands of farmers marched to New Delhi protesting new agricultural laws and clashed with police on Tuesday. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
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On Tuesday, as India celebrated its 72nd Republic Day — a day meant to honor the Constitution that came into effect in 1950 — the country was once again reminded of how far we have strayed from the commitment to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens under the Hindu nationalist administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Clashes broke out in New Delhi between the police and farmers who have been protesting for almost two months against three new agricultural laws that they consider a threat to their livelihoods and very existence. The farmers — mainly from Punjab and Haryana — have been camping out in the bitter cold just outside the capital, but on Tuesday, they decided to drive their tractors into the city as part of a large rally to make their voices heard.

According to reports, the farmers had shared the protest route with law enforcement agencies, but chaos erupted when some farmers attempted to deviate from the approved path. Tear gas canisters and sound grenades rained upon them. The police beat protesters with sticks. Near India’s Supreme Court, some farmers threw stones and drove tractors at high speed toward the police.

The alarming scenes clashed with the images broadcast by news channels of the annual Republic Day celebrations hosted by Modi along with his cabinet of ministers — showing how this authoritarian administration was unprepared to meet this challenge.

The agricultural laws, which favor private traders and large industrial conglomerates, were rammed through Parliament without considering the interests and opinions of the farmers. This has been standard procedure for Modi and his regime — they push laws through their party-controlled Parliament and the pliant judiciary and bureaucracy stamps its approval without any checks or balances.

Modi certainly didn’t expect the farm laws to generate resistance, but the country’s farmers have reignited a spirit of dissent that many thought (or hoped) had faded for good.

In the past three years, Modi has pushed dangerous and discriminatory policies like the Citizenship Act, which seeks to delegitimize Indian minorities, including its 200 million Muslims. Those who have protested against the Citizenship Act have been labeled anti-nationals and incarcerated for sedition.

The farmers knew they could face a similar fate. Yet they have taken it upon themselves to protect the spirit and letter of the Indian Constitution and resisted the injustice inflicted on them and the country. The vast majority marched peacefully into Delhi on Tuesday in a state of despondency after multiple rounds of talks with the government failed to provide a resolution.

It did not take long for the Indian news media and government supporters to label the farmer protest an act of villainy aimed at destabilizing the country. When protesters climbed the ramparts of Delhi’s famed Red Fort, many rushed to compare them with the rioters who stormed the Capitol in Washington. When some farmers placed a Sikh flag closer to the national flag atop the Red Fort, nationalists pounced, calling it an act of sedition. Misinformation circulated online that Sikhs had desecrated the flag, while in truth, the Indian flag remained untouched. The battle for farmers’ rights was soon reframed as a battle against anti-nationals, with Union Minister Prakash Javdekar declaring that “India won’t tolerate insult of national flag at Red Fort."

Tuesday's unfortunate events could have been avoided if Modi could shed his brazen arrogance and replace it with compassion for the farmers who sleep on an empty stomach while fighting the hegemony of crony capitalists who are seen to be winning this battle. The farmers are asking the country’s leader, who himself rose from poverty, not to deprive them of their painfully earned sustenance to fill the pockets of the industrialists who fund the ruling party.

There is anger in the hearts and minds of those who have built India from the ground up. The farmers are demanding a real resolution. But this regime isn’t interested in that — it only cares for grandiose public relations events for its brand. The arrogance of power does not bode well for democracy. India needs a return to the fundamentals of governing, but Modi is in no mood to listen.

Read more:

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Barkha Dutt: Protesting farmers are teaching India a hard — but much needed — lesson

Natasha Behl: Can India’s protesting farmers restore its democracy?

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