How Peaceful Protests Forced India to Repeal New Farm Laws

Author: Ajay Kamalakaran 

After facing almost 16 months of peaceful protests against three new laws that farmers felt would leave them at the mercy of corporates, the Indian government relented.

When ordinary citizens protest against governments in India, politicians often smugly shrug them off. Democracy, they say, is about people electing representatives and then allowing them to formulate and pass laws. At the helm of power since 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s admirers praise him for taking what they call strong and bold decisions such as the 2016 demonetisation of high-denomination currency notes, although many analysts widely agree that it had a harmful impact on the Indian economy. 

After failing to get most Indian states to implement the Model Farming Acts introduced in 2017, the Indian central government, in June 2020, introduced three laws aimed at deregulating agricultural markets. The laws, which were introduced via an executive order in September 2020, were passed in both houses of parliament, with the upper house passing them via a voice vote.

The laws, which aimed to deregulate the agriculture sector and allow farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets that guarantee a minimum sale price, were passed without adequate debate and discussion and were widely criticised by the opposition and Indian farmers’ bodies. The legality of the new laws was also questioned since the Constitution of India does not allow the parliament to enact major changes in the agriculture sector.

One of the most contentious areas in the new laws concerned contract farming. The new laws called for contracts between farmers and corporate investors where the former produce crops for mutually agreed remuneration.

The government said crop prices would be determined by market forces, adding that farmers could sell in-demand crops at the high prices, and hence maximise returns.

Farmers’ bodies feared powerful corporate investors would bind them to unfavourable contracts that are drafted by major law firms and have all sorts of liability clauses that are beyond the understanding of most farmers. They also expressed concerns about the minimum support price, the guaranteed minimum price for their produce.

Peaceful protests

In August 2020, farmers’ bodies in the state of Punjab began peaceful protests against the proposed laws. Once the laws were passed a month later, protests spread to several other states in India. In Punjab, protestors blocked train tracks and this led to the suspension of railway services to the state for two months. Farmers’ bodies across India began to join the protests and began a march towards the Indian capital New Delhi.

Since they were prevented from entering the capital, farmers began setting up camps at many points on Delhi’s borders. Their methods included encirclement, sit-ins, traffic obstruction and even suicide.

The protests managed to capture the attention of celebrities and activists worldwide including tennis great Martina Navratilova, 18-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and musician Rihanna.   Thunberg even shared a toolkit on Twitter to make the protests more effective. This prompted the Delhi Police to file a case charging the creators of this toolkit with “sedition”, “promoting hatred” and “criminal conspiracy.” Indian climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested for allegedly being a part of a wider conspiracy that also included Sikh separatists. Her arrest was widely condemned by civil society activists worldwide.

On January 26, 2021 (a day when India marks and celebrates the date it became a republic with a massive parade in the heart of New Delhi), protesting farmers used more than 200,000 tractors for their own parade in the Indian capital. The protestors had police permission to stage the parade but were told that the centre of Delhi was off limits. One small group managed to reach the historic Red Fort, a 17th century fort of national importance, where the Indian national flag was raised by the country’s first prime minister as the country attained independence on August 15, 1947, and clashed with police personnel.

Demonization of protestors

Ever since the protests began, protestors were demonized and even accused some of being Khalistanis or Sikh separatists. This victimisation and labelling did not just come from pro-government social media users but also senior politicians such as the chief minister of the state of Haryana.

Others accused the protesters of being on the payroll of the opposition. In an interview with The Wire, agriculture expert Devinder Sharma countered, “ And to those who say that this is a protest instigated by opposition parties, please go and stay outside your home for one night in the dead of winter to see what it’s like. I don’t think anybody will do that even if they are paid to. Just spend one night in a trolley or tent on a road outside Delhi, and tell me if you would do that for more than a month even if you were paid to.”

This demonization manifested into actual violence against the protestors in October 2021 when four farmers were killed after they were run over by a car that was part of a convoy of an Indian central government minister in Uttar Pradesh.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers’ Front), which led the protest movement, said 700 people died during the protest that lasted well over a year. The Indian government has said that it had “no records” of deaths that took place during the protests.

Victory for democracy

After trying to deflect the protests for over a year, on November 19, 2021, Narendra Modi said the three new farm laws would be repealed. Three weeks later, the Indian parliament repealed the laws in the same way they were passed- without any debate.

The Indian government also agreed to withdraw all criminal cases against the protestors.

“It is a historic victory. The Government had to repeal the three laws that were anti-farmer, anti-people and in the interests of corporates. For one year, farmers from all states braved the weather, Covid, defamation…and camped at the borders of Delhi,” said Ashok Dhawale, who was in a panel that negotiated with the government .

It took persistence, determination and iron-will for farmers’ groups to hold their own against a government that refused to reverse any of its major policy decisions. It has also given renewed hope for those concerned about the erosion of democracy in India over the last few years; a process that has been amplified by politicisation of public institutions and a press that is dominated by organisations that refuse to question the government narrative. These protests have also dented an air of invincibility that the ruling political party in India,the Bharatiya Janata Party, has had since 2014.

The farmers’ struggle is far from over, though. As Devinder Sharma put it in his interview with The Wire: “Many think that it is just the three new farm laws that have agitated the farming community and that is why they are at the doorsteps of New Delhi. The way I see it, though, is that this is anger that has compounded over decades and is finally finding an outlet. Three studies show how agriculture has faced huge injustice and inequality and has been deprived of its rights over the last 30 or 40 years.”

This victory of the farmers is just one step in their quest for justice, but democracy has come out as the big winner in India.


The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Ajay Kamalakaran

Mr. Kamalakaran is a writer, translator and independent journalist based in Mumbai, India. His main areas of interest are history, languages and environmental causes. He has lived in New York, Mumbai and Moscow, and is the author of three books about Russia. In 2021, he was awarded the Kalpalata Fellowship for History and Heritage Writings.

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