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Democracy in Peril: What the Farmers’ Protest Saga Reveals About P.M. Modi’s India

Political opponents jailed. Press censored. Civil liberties restricted. Human rights abused. All in response to widespread protests against the prevailing government.

The year was 1975, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, confronting stalwart resistance and the specter of losing her privileges after the Allahabad High Court found her guilty of electoral malpractice, proclaimed a national emergency across India to control “internal disturbance.” Known simply as the Emergency, the following 21 months constitute arguably the darkest phase in India’s history, as the country fell under de facto dictatorship.

The year is 2021, and the reality is not much different. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India has entered what some have called an undeclared emergency, one that has (not so) subtly eroded its democratic foundations and threatened to kill its constitution by a thousand cuts

For the past three months, tens of thousands of discontented farmers mainly from the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana have occupied makeshift encampments on the borders of New Delhi, tirelessly protesting three farm laws jammed through Parliament without legislative scrutiny by Mr. Modi’s government last September. Hailed by Mr. Modi as a “watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture,” the measures allow private entities to purchase crops directly from farmers and effectively circumvent long-established government-run marketing boards that set guaranteed minimum prices. Not only would the laws decrease farmers’ income and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by business giants in the open market, but they also defy the federal structure laid out in the Indian constitution and betray the will of the people. Moreover, both the laws themselves and Mr. Modi’s harsh response to the largely peaceful demonstrations fit into a pattern of authoritarian behavior undermining the world’s most populous democracy.

India’s minimum support price (MSP) system was initially designed to shield farmers from price volatility in the 1960s as the country transitioned to industrialized agriculture amid rampant hunger and malnutrition. Since then, the MSP and accompanying state-run marketplaces have endured as crucial protections for farmers against abusive intermediaries. As the Indian Supreme Court stated in the 1958 case M.C.V.S. Arunachala Nadar Etc. v. The State of Madras & Others, regulated markets “must form an essential part of any ordered plan of agricultural development in this country,” for growers are “illiterate and in general ignorant of prevailing market prices especially in regard to commercial crops.” With the new terms, large corporations will be poised to take advantage of a rural population saddled with poor educational infrastructure, wield unfair market power to drive down crop prices, and do so with impunity, as certain clauses bar farmers from filing disputes in the courts. Already, monopoly control is commonplace in India, and there are no indications that a completely liberalized agricultural sector would be any exception—especially considering Mr. Modi’s close ties to big business.  

Though Mr. Modi insists the laws will “add impetus to the efforts to double income of farmers and ensure greater prosperity,” such claims ignore recent history. Similar deregulatory bills in the state of Bihar fifteen years ago led to the deterioration of the government pricing system, overall market inefficiency, and lower compensation for agrarian households. Last year, local traders forced most Bihari farmers to sell their paddy crop well below the MSP.

Furthermore, the acts represent an unconstitutional parliamentary overreach. Likened to the coming-and-vanishing Cheshire cat of Alice in Wonderland, India’s quasi-federal government can morph into a unitary state depending on the needs of the moment. Nevertheless, the Indian Supreme Court has time and again deemed agriculture a state matter, notably holding in the 2002 case I.T.C. v. Agricultural Produce Market Committee, “The Constitution of India deserves to be interpreted, language permitting, in a manner that it does not whittle down the powers of the State Legislature…” Additionally, Mr. Modi’s BJP rammed the laws through Parliament via a hasty and unclear voice vote while disregarding opposition leaders’ furious demands for a more precise, clause-by-clause division vote, which likely would not have yielded their passage. Thus, the BJP flouted key deliberative procedures and the basic principle of a shared use of power. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor of political science at Ashoka University in Haryana, characterized the state of Parliament in the wake of the BJP’s malpractice as “quickly moving from being the custodian of the dignity of legislation to being a site for the acclamation of authoritarianism.”

For India’s farmers, who make up roughly half of the country’s total workforce but contribute only 17% of its GDP., the laws struck a raw nerve. More than 20% live below the poverty line, and shrinking farm sizes have both hampered productivity and worsened income inequality. Crop failures and mounting debts have led an astounding number of farmers and farm laborers to take their own lives—a total of  10,281 in 2019 alone. Farmers also face environmental challenges of chemical-laden soil and a sinking water table that threaten their very livelihood. The need for reform is urgent, but an abrupt transition to laissez-faire agriculture sans regulatory frameworks and safety nets would only make matters worse.

Still, Mr. Modi has been anything but sympathetic to the protesters. Initially, he deployed paramilitary troops equipped with tear gas and water cannons and tried to cast the mostly Sikh throng of northern farmers as radical religious separatists, but the protesters remained undeterred. After demonstrations on January 26th, India’s Republic Day, devolved into violent clashes with police, the Ministry of Home Affairs imposed an internet shutdown in the protesters’ camps. The Modi government ordered Twitter to block dozens of accounts linked to the protests, including that of The Caravan, a well-reputed investigative magazine often critical of the BJP. When Twitter subsequently reinstated the content as appropriate free speech, New Delhi threatened legal action and prompted Twitter to suspend more than 500 similar accounts. Police also arrested a freelance journalist for The Caravan on dubious charges and have accused other senior editors and writers from various publications of sedition. 

Disregarding constitutional norms, stoking religious conflict, curtailing free expression, and cracking down on dissent comprise a familiar playbook for Mr. Modi in maintaining his grip on power and advancing his agenda. In August 2019, his Hindu-nationalist government unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which since the country’s founding in 1947 had granted the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir a semiautonomous status. That month, Mr. Modi sent in thousands of additional soldiers to quell Kashmiri resistance. Authorities cut internet connections, mobile phone lines, and landlines in what amounted to a brazen, months-long violation of Kashmir’s statehood and the fundamental rights of its inhabitants. The following December, Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, again without thorough legislative examination, which charted a path to citizenship for migrants of all of South Asia’s major religions except Islam—an undeniable breach of India’s founding ideal of secularism. Such moves, though, are far from unsurprising coming from Mr. Modi, who deliberately allowed a massacre of Muslims as chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002. To shield the unsavoriness of his drive to convert India into a Hindu state, Mr. Modi, along with senior government officials, has wielded undue influence over the Indian news media, pressuring outlets to air positive stories and fire his detractors.

In mid-January, the Supreme Court stayed the farm laws pending review by an independent (albeit openly pro-reform) four-member panel intended to facilitate negotiations between government officials and farmers’ unions. Nonetheless, talks have gone nowhere, as Mr. Modi has not offered anything beyond suspending the laws for 18 months, and farmers—distrustful of government overtures—appear determined to settle for nothing less than their full repeal. One farmer even said they were prepared to protest until the next general election in 2024 if need be. 

At this stage, it is unclear why Mr. Modi will not fully concede and end a politically damaging movement that has since transcended agricultural reform and come to symbolize a broader sense of desperation and economic anxiety among the populace. Then again, he has hardly shown himself capable of reason and compassion in his tenure. On February 14th, police detained 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who had helped circulate a list of peaceful ways to support the protesting farmers—tantamount to sedition and “spread[ing] disaffection” in Mr. Modi’s intolerant India. Outcry over her arrest has only intensified pressure on the Modi regime, but the iron-fisted man at the helm appears ever determined to either ignore or silence the voice of his people.

Regardless of the laws’ fate, their unending saga has both exposed the dangers of an emboldened Mr. Modi and his dominant BJP and represented the most significant challenge to his rule when most traditional mechanisms of executive accountability have been systemically undermined.  

The world must be wary of India’s perilous slide toward authoritarianism, for a threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.

Image from NDTV