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Friday, December 3, 2021

Submitting to protests, Modi agrees to repeal agricultural laws

SHEIKH SAALIK

NEW DELHI (AP). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Friday that he is lifting controversial agriculture laws that have sparked annual protests from tens of thousands of farmers and challenged his administration.

Farmers, who make up one of India’s most powerful electoral blocs, have camped on the outskirts of the capital since November last year, demanding the repeal of laws they feared would sharply cut their income.

Modi’s surprise decision, which was televised across the country, came ahead of elections early next year in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are major agricultural producers and where his Bharatiya Janata party is seeking its support. Experts said it is too early to tell if this will work.

The prime minister has called on protesters to return home, but farmers said they will stay put until laws are passed – a process that will begin in December when parliament meets for the winter session.

“In apologizing to the nation, I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that perhaps there was something lacking in our efforts so that we could not explain the truth to some of our farming brothers,” Modi said during the address. He added, “Let’s start over.”

The move was a rare setback for the 71-year-old leader, who has steadfastly withstood harsh criticism of other steps taken by his government, such as drastically banning high-denomination banknotes and lifting the semi-autonomous powers of Muslim-majority Kashmir.

He also supported a citizenship law that excludes Muslim immigrants even in the face of sometimes violent protests.

But farmers are a particularly powerful electoral bloc in India, both because of their numbers and because they are often romanticized as the heart and soul of a nation. They are especially important to Modi’s base and make up a large proportion of the population in some states where his party rules.

Modi has long defended laws passed last September as necessary to modernize India’s agricultural sector. But farmers feared they would end a system under which the government guaranteed prices for certain staple crops – first introduced in the 1960s to help bolster food supplies and prevent shortages.

While the government said it was prepared to promise that the guaranteed prices would be maintained, farmers wanted to pass legislation making such prices a legal right. Without guarantees, they argued, they would be at the mercy of the markets, and that would spell disaster, especially for the more than two-thirds of them owning less than 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land.

Modi’s party has also been criticized for refusing to continue discussions on the law – renewing accusations that it too often used its majority to push through laws without sufficient consultation.

Protests against the laws escalated last November when farmers squatted on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they have since set up camp, including due to the harsh winter and the coronavirus outbreak that devastated India earlier this year.

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While the protests were largely peaceful, in January demonstrators stormed the historic Red Fort in the center of the capital – a deeply symbolic act that highlighted the scale of their challenge to the Modi government. Clashes with police killed one protester and injured hundreds.

Dozens of farmers have also died by suicide, bad weather or COVID-19 during demonstrations that have received international support from human rights activists and celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and superstar Rihanna.

“Finally, all our hard work has paid off. … I salute the farming brothers who died in this battle, ”said Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of the farmers.

In Gazipur, one of the demonstration sites on the outskirts of New Delhi, celebrations were low-key, but some farmers passed out sweets and danced to songs.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a group of farmers’ unions organizing the protests, said it welcomes the government’s announcement, but the protests will continue until the government reverts to a guaranteed price system. Protesters long ago rejected a government proposal to suspend the law for 18 months.

Modi’s party hailed the move as a decision that prioritizes farmers.

Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the ruling BJP, said in a tweet that Modi “has once again proved that he is committed to the welfare of farmers.”

But Gilles Vernier, professor of political science at Ashoka University in New Delhi, said that while the announcement was very important, the government will find it difficult to convince farmers that repealing the law is more than just political expediency.

“The government will probably push it the way the prime minister listens to the people, but after a year of violent protests, harshness and violence, it will be difficult to get the idea to stick to,” Vernier said.

The announcement was made on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when the Sikhs, who made up the majority of the protesters, celebrate the birthday of their founder, Guru Nanak. These laws particularly alienated the Sikh community, which makes up the majority of the population of Punjab, one of the states hosting the upcoming elections.

Initially, the Modi government attempted to discredit Sikh farmers by rejecting their fears as motivated by religious nationalism. Some of the leaders of the Modi party called them “Khalis,” referring to the movement for an independent Sikh homeland.

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!”

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Associated Press reporters Krutika Patha and Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.

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