India repeals controversial farm laws that led to protests

India repeals controversial farm laws that led to protests

New Delhi In a surprise announcement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday his government would withdraw controversial farming laws that have led to year-long protests by tens of thousands of farmers and posed a major political challenge to his administration.

Modi’s announcement came during a televised address that was broadcast live. He urged protesters to go home and said the constitutional process to repeal the laws would begin in December when parliament convenes for the winter session.

“Let’s make a fresh start,” Modi said during the speech.

The announcement came on the day of the Guru Purab festival, when the birthday of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, is celebrated, and before major elections in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Most of the protesters are Sikh farmers from Punjab.

The laws were passed in September last year and the government has defended them, saying they are essential to modernizing India’s agricultural sector and will boost production through private investment. But farmers protested, saying the laws would destroy their profits by ending guaranteed pricing and forcing them to sell their crops to companies at cheaper rates.

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These perceived threats to their income have terrified India’s farmers, who often work on a small scale: more than two-thirds of them own less than one hectare of land.

Clauses in the legislation also prevented farmers from resolving contract disputes in court, leaving them with no independent means of compensation except for government-appointed bureaucrats.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the agricultural union group organizing the protests, said they welcomed the government’s announcement. But the group said the protests would continue until the government assured them guaranteed prices for some staple crops – a system introduced in the 1960s to help India boost its food reserves and prevent shortages.

The government has so far succumbed little to the protracted demonstrations that have led to unprecedented protests by farmers across India and posed a major challenge to Modi, who ran for the second time in 2019.

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Modi’s decision will be seen as a notable political blow ahead of some major opinion polls in the state, particularly in Punjab, where the increasing alienation of the Sikh community by laws was evident.

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

These allegations backfired, further angering farmers.

In November last year, farmers ramped up their movement by loitering on the outskirts of New Delhi, camping for nearly a year, including during the harsh winter and coronavirus that ravaged India earlier this year.

While the farmers’ protest movement was largely peaceful, in January protesters broke through police barriers to storm the historic Red Fort in the center of the capital. Clashes with the police killed a protester and injured hundreds.

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“Finally, all our hard work paid off. Thanks to all the farmer brothers, and salutes to the farmer brothers who were martyred in this battle,” said Rakesh Teket, a prominent farmer leader.

Dozens of farmers died due to suicide, severe weather and COVID-19 during the demonstrations.

Opposition leaders who earlier described the laws as exploitation congratulated farmers and supported the protests.

“The country’s farmers, by their resistance, made arrogance bow its head,” Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition party in Congress, said on Twitter. Congratulations on the victory over injustice!

Farmers make up the most influential electoral bloc in India – and are often portrayed romantically as the heart and soul of the nation.

Politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them, and farmers are of particular importance to Modi’s base. Northern Haryana and a few other states with a large number of farmers are ruled by his party.

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