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The kisaan movement: What you need to know about the farmers’ protest in India

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The current farmers’ protest in India has already made history: As the biggest peaceful protest to date it unites approximately 250 million farmers and workers across the entire nation. 300,000 farmers have reached the capital, braving the harsh Delhi winter to make their plight seen. Yet, it seems their calls for justice are going unheard. Find out more about the farmers’ protests and what you can do to help.

Trigger warning: This article about the farmers’ protest in India also mentions suicide. If you are having suicidal thoughts yourself, please reach out for help via institutions, hotlines or psychological facilities near you.

Have you heard of the farmers’ protests in India? Surprisingly, not many of us have and I must admit I also learnt of this issue only recently through Social Media.

Chalo Delhi: The march to Delhi

More than 300,000 farmers have left their fields, their homes and their families behind to make their voices heard. Crushing debts looming over their heads, with no one to fend for the crops, they are risking their livelihood and even their lives, on their way to the borders of Delhi. Utter desperation is driving them to the capital. On their way, the police await them with water cannons, batons, tear gas. Despite the violence by the police, shamefully hurling stones and raining blows on the elderly, despite the protests stretching over four months now, the protestors remain peaceful. They even go beyond non-violence: True to their nurturing role in society, the farmers not only choose not to retaliate, but provide food for the very same policemen who attacked them only hours before.

 

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The photograph, taken by Ravi Choudhary, a photojournalist with Press Trust of India (PTI), has gone viral on social media.

Once they have reached the borders of the capital, no comfort awaits the farmers. The roads outside Delhi become their new home, the pavement their bed. Unprotected from the freezing cold, they have spent several weeks camping out in their make-shift tents. Sleeping underneath their trucks and trollies. Several have died from hypothermia, some committed suicide due to the bleak outlook of their ongoing struggle. But what has led hundreds of thousands to abandon their homes despite such hardship?

Through a mutual friend, I was able to get in contact with Harinder Singh, a spokesman of the farmers’ protest on the ground in Delhi. He too has left his family and two young children behind, joining the protests from the very beginning.

“When I’d read [the ordinances] and understood how private organizations and corporations are working, I realized it’s very dangerous for our future […] So, I set my mind to join the protestors”, he recalls. So, what exactly is this danger he is referring to?

Why are farmers protesting in India?

In September 2020 amidst the pandemic, the government hastily passed three new agricultural laws. PM Modi and the BJP portray them as beneficial for farmers, liberating them from government intervention. However, the opposite is true: Without the price regulation via an MSP (minimum support price) by the state, farmers are left at the mercy of big corporations, without any bargaining power to negotiate a fair price for their produce.

We need to keep in mind that India has an agricultural economy. Approximately 126 million small farmers (kisaan) and around 70% of rural households depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Nevertheless, 86% of all land holdings by farmers are considered small or marginal, i.e. span less than two hectares. This makes it extremely challenging for farmers to secure a living.

Farming is a risky business: scarcity of water, dependency on the monsoon rains and the added unpredictability of climate change dictate the lives of those feeding one of the biggest populations on the planet. Add dependency on pesticides or seeds from corporations, their lawsuits against farmers for ‘violation of intellectual property rights’ and looming debt, and you have a perfect cocktail for disaster. Many desperate farmers have already pledged their harvest of 2023 to survive this year. Consequently, suicides amongst farmers are alarmingly high – and increasing: 90,000 farmers have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006 in Punjab alone.

One of the few securities for farmers is the so-called mandi system. If a farmer cannot sell his produce at the desired price, he can rely on the state to purchase it at a minimum secured price (MSP), which guarantees price stability.

As Harinder explains it: “The Indian government has a structure to buy all the wheat and rice through the APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) and mandi system. The other state governments repealed the mandi system many years ago, such as in the state of Bihar in 2006. The government broke the MSP system. So, the effect of this broken mandi system is: In Punjab, we sell wheat on the MSP, which was 1,980 rupees last year. In Bihar and other states, farmers are selling their wheat at 900, 1,000 or 1,100 rupees because they have no mandi system. So, that’s why these three laws have directly affected the farmers in Punjab and Haryana.”

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Journalist P. Sainath confirms that the power of the states in agricultural matters has diminished since the 1990s, enabling big corporations to impose their conditions on farmers. For example, milk is not controlled by the APMC. While the price paid to farmers plummeted by 50% in the western Maharashtra, it was still sold to consumers at the same price. Big corporations win, whereas small farmers struggle to survive with no power to refuse the dictated terms. Due to stifling debt, farmers risk losing their land, and thus their livelihood, to corporations and billionaires. The new legislation is a matter of life and death to millions of people in India.

An attack on India’s democracy

But there is more to it than selling India’s farmers out to big corporations: Alarmingly, the fundamental right to go to Court on contractual disputes has also been taken away from farmers. As journalist P. Sainath points out, this constitutes a direct attack on democracy: “The farmers see the importance of these laws in dismantling the citizen’s right to legal recourse and in eroding our rights. And even if they may not see or articulate it that way – theirs is also a defence of the basic structure of the Constitution and of democracy itself”.

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Not only is the government using police violence to prevent the farmers from exercising their right to peaceful protest, but also charging them with absurd claims. For example, a young protestor who famously disabled a water cannon was charged with attempted murder.


In a move to further discredit the farmers, the government and media are referring to them as ‘terrorists’. They are attempting to paint the movement as a separatist movement from Punjab (‘Khalistan’), despite the fact that farmers from across the entire country, regardless of faith or political affiliation, have united to defend themselves against the new cut-throat legislation. Coincidentally, Punjab is currently one of the few states without a BJP government.

Why haven’t we heard about the Indian farmers’ protest so far?

“Media is the fourth pillar of democracy. If we analyze the actual duties of the media, it’s main responsibility is the role of opposition. But in India, our mainstream media is working in favour of the government”, Harinder explains. “Most national news channels have been bought by corporations. There are two main corporators, who want to take over every field, every organization: Ambani and Adani. Which is very dangerous for our democracy and the future of our country […] In 2014, in a single day Ambani closed a deal with the big news channels. So, they are making a picture according to them through the media. In the beginning when we moved to Delhi, they called us terrorists because they didn’t want to involve farmers from other states. But luckily with the help of Social Media, we succeeded in proving that this is really a farmer protest.”

However, the farmers also face obstacles while spreading the word via Social Media. During our call, Harinder and I experienced severe problems with the connection. “[The] government is controlling the network towers and visibility. We’re facing a big problem with the internet”, he told me.

In addition, farmers and their supporters around the globe are facing censorship on Social Media. Facebook and instagram accounts of protestors as well as journalists were deleted. This comes as no surprise if one takes into account the close connections between Facebook and Modi.

The hope of the kisaan movement: unity in diversity

Despite Indian media portraying the protest as a Punjabi or Sikh cause, the outrage about the new legislation has reached much further. “In the beginning, only the Punjabi farmers started the protest. Now, all states are participating. Every farmer in India wants the APMC and mandi system as well as the MSP”, Harinder confirms. Women, dalits, farmers and workers from all over the country are united in the fight for their survival. In the biggest protest the world has ever experienced, 250 billion people went on a general strike throughout India (Bharat bandh). Indian communities around the globe are showing their solidarity by spreading the message and protesting.“It’s a big achievement for us to set an example throughout the world of a peaceful protest that has been running for four months now”, Harinder confirms.

The solidarity and commitment on the protest site is truly unparalleled: Elderly protestors clean the streets on the borders of Delhi, free food is served to all (known as langar in the Sikh tradition). Farmers donate blood, have set up make-shift schools that provide free education to all. Sanitary products are distributed to the women participating in the protest. The farmers have even started their own newspaper in Hindi and Punjabi with an English version online. One cannot help but ask in awe: How can such a huge protest be this extraordinarily well organized? “As a Sikh you do everything with the guidelines of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. We can say he is showing the way to running a peaceful protest”, Harinder explains. “So, the credit goes to him.”

But how long will the farmers be able to keep up their spirits? “We know that it’s a long-term fight because we know our government. This is crucial for us”, says Harinder. “We expect it to be a minimum of around six months fight.”

The fight isn’t won yet. So far, the negotiations with the government have not shown the desired results. As the protest carries on, it becomes more evident that Modi and his extreme-right government have no regard whatsoever for India’s citizens and their lives. They are looting the land and its people for the profit of big corporations, silencing critical voices and steadily eroding the judicial system. As Harinder states: “Democracy has collapsed completely in India. So, we need international support.”

 

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What can you do to support the farmers’ protest in India?

If you want to support Indian farmers in their protest, the best strategy is to create more awareness by amplifying their message.

Here is what you can do:

    •    Educate yourself on the farmers’ protests and stay informed. Here are some great accounts to follow:

    ◦    Trolley Times Official
    ◦    Kisaani.co

    ◦    The Wire


    •    Spread the word and create more awareness on what is happening in India. If you realize you’re losing reach, avoid using hashtags.

    •    Since the protest is a grassroots movement, there is no centralised account for donations but you can go via local organizations or KhalsaAid.
    •    Find out if there are any protests happening near you and join in if your local covid rules allow it.

    •    Sign the petition on change.org.
    •    Boycott monopolized, state controlled media houses like Godi Media (in India) and products by the billionaires Adani and Ambani.

 

 

 

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Words: Mia Schlichtling
Images: Nirmalbir Singh, cover photo by Anugrah Lohiya (via Pexels), press photo by Ravi Choudhary


My deepest gratitude to Harinder Singh for sharing his experience. Thank you to Nirmalbir Singh for kindly letting me use his photos of the protest. Also, thanks to Mahi, Pranav and Daryan for their support.

And thank you, dear reader, for your interest! Do you think any information is missing? Let me know in the comments below!

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