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Monday, December 6, 2021

Modi pledges to repeal India’s agricultural laws after lengthy protests

SHEIKH SAALIK

NEW DELHI (AP) – In a surprise statement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday that his government will repeal controversial agriculture laws that have sparked annual protests from tens of thousands of farmers and pose a major political challenge to his administration.

Modi made the announcement during a televised address that was broadcast live. He called on protesters to return home and said the constitutional process to repeal the laws would begin in December, when parliament meets for the winter session.

“Let’s start over,” Modi said during his speech.

The announcement came on the eve of key elections in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when the Punjabi Sikhs, who constituted the majority of the protesters, celebrate the birthday of their founder, Guru Nanak.

The laws were passed last September and the government defended them, saying they are necessary reforms to modernize India’s agricultural sector and boost production through private investment. But farmers protested, saying the law would devastate their incomes by removing guaranteed pricing and forcing them to sell their crops to corporations at lower prices.

The perceived threats to their income have frightened farmers, who mostly operate on a small scale: more than two-thirds of them own less than 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land.

Legal provisions also prevented farmers from resolving contract disputes in court, leaving them no independent remedy other than government-appointed bureaucrats.

The protests escalated last November when farmers squatted on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they camped for nearly a year, including due to the harsh winter and the coronavirus outbreak that devastated India earlier this year.

While the protests were largely peaceful, in January demonstrators broke through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort in the center of the capital. Clashes with police killed one protester and injured hundreds.

“Finally, all our hard work has paid off. Thank you to all the farmer brothers and salute the farmer brothers who died in this battle, ”said Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of farmers.

Dozens of farmers have died due to suicides, inclement weather and COVID-19 during demonstrations.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a farmers union group organizing the protests, said it welcomed the government’s statement. But it says the protests will continue until the government gives them guaranteed prices for some staple crops – a system that was introduced in the 1960s to help India bolster its food supplies and prevent shortages.

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The government initially reached out to farmers and proposed a suspension of the laws for 18 months to end the most serious challenge Modi has ever faced. But farmers continued to push for a complete repeal of the law and called for strikes across the country.

Modi’s decision is seen as a masterful political move ahead of key polls in the states, especially in northern Punjab, where the Sikh community is facing growing alienation from laws. The ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, is already under pressure over its response to the pandemic and the difficult economy.

Gilles Vernier, professor of political science at Ashoka University, said the announcement was very important, but the government will find it difficult to convince farmers that it has repealed the laws for reasons other than winning the election.

“It is very unusual for the Modi government to retreat or retreat from an important political decision,” Vernier said. “The government is likely to push it as if the prime minister is listening to the people, but after a year of violent protests, harshness and violence, it will be difficult to get this idea going.”

Initially, the Modi government attempted to discredit Sikh farmers by rejecting their fears as motivated by religious nationalism. Some of the leaders of Modi’s party referred to them as “Khalistanis,” referring to the Khalistan movement for an independent Sikh homeland in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Such accusations were counterproductive, which further angered the farmers.

Opposition leaders, who previously described the laws as exploitative and supported the protests, congratulated the farmers.

“The country’s farmers have bowed their heads over arrogance with their resistance,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi of India’s main opposition party, Congress. “Congratulations on the victory over injustice!”

Farmers make up the most powerful electoral bloc in India and are often romanticized as the heart and soul of the nation.

Politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them, and farmers are especially important to Modi’s base. North Haryana and several other states with significant farming populations are governed by his party.

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Associated Press writer Krutika Patha contributed to this report.

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