Farmers’ Agitation Turns Violent on India's Republic Day

January 28, 2021

The decision by protesting farmers to not accept the government’s offer to defer the farm acts could have been the first misstep in what has so far been the most meticulously planned, responsible, and peaceful mass demonstration that India has seen in recent times.  More than the number of people mobilized at the Delhi borders, it was their discipline and organization that demonstrated the strength of the movement and the support it commanded.  All of this immense accretion of credibility and respect is under threat today because, for the first time, the farmers were split on whether to accept the government’s offer of an 18-month stay.  The longer the split lasts, the more the farmers’ movement will lose its moral case in the eyes of a public that has been almost solidly behind it so far.  The more that happens, the more the BJP and the media will levy accusations that this is a movement fueled by an irresponsible political opposition, backed by Khalistanis—a notion that could sound credible to the common, apolitical public.
An even greater threat from the failure to arrive at an agreement became true on January 26th, India's Republic Day.  India watched in horror as a violent confrontation between the Delhi police and the farmers played out on the streets of Delhi between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Videos of tractors running amok, police running for their lives, and vandalism of public property played out on all news channels.  The violence receded around 4p.m. after the unfurling of the farmers' flag on the Red Fort in New Delhi.  The violence was something that the farmers could not afford, because they knew it would cost them much of the public support they now enjoy.
The Path Forward
 It is against this violent backdrop that the farmers need to determine their future course today.  That the government postponed the implementation of the farm laws by not a few weeks or even months, but a year and a half is as close as any democratic government can come to admitting that it had made a mistake.  To ask it to do more is to ask for the moon.  That is why it is imperative for the farmers’ movement to accept his government’s offer to stay the farm acts and enter into a serious discussion of how they can be revised to get the best instead of the worst out of them.  Needless to say, any meaningful discussion of this nature needs to be held within accepted parameters:
  • Agreed-to reforms must be left to the state governments to implement.  Agro-climatic conditions are simply too diverse in India to permit any one-size-fits-all solutions.

  • Inter-state trade needs to be opened to the private sector, but at a pace and in products that that is left to the states to decide.

  • Farmers, particularly those who produce perishable crops, need to be empowered in various ways to increase their bargaining power against the traders.  This requires the rapid creation of essential rural infrastructure (24×7 power, creation of village-level cold storages, and creation of small bank branches in villages).

  • Opening of export trade must be closely correlated with the establishment of buffer stocks of vegetables, and dairy products in particular, that prevent the shocks caused by sudden natural disasters, such as drought or unseasonal rain, from falling solely upon domestic supply and prices.