Updated: November 23, 2021 04:00 AM GMT
Sikh farmers celebrate in Amritsar on Nov. 19 after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three agricultural reform laws that sparked almost a year of huge protests across the country. (Photo: AFP)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his macho-decisive leader image. But on Nov. 19, he made a dramatic retreat by announcing the rollback of three contentious farm laws.
The laws passed by parliament in 2020 were outrightly rejected by opposition parties including the principal opposition Congress, communists and provincial regional parties.
The legislation sought to open the sector to small and marginal farmers so that they could sell their products outside government-controlled markets.
Farmers in states such as Sikh-dominated Punjab in northern India are used to government patronage. They resent the concept of a free and open market determining prices, suspecting it will help big firms to exploit farmers.
Over the years, they have done well at the cost of consumers and taxpayers. Prices have been kept up even though produce would often be destroyed in open fields and storage. India was looking for agricultural reform.
The federal government's combative mood while getting the farms bills passed in parliament had alienated the regional Sikh-centric party, Akali Dal, which was one of the oldest allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
An impression went both within the country and overseas that the Hindu-Sikh division had widened again like in the 1980s. The three farm laws were being dubbed as anti-Sikh
The farmers' protest at the gates of the national capital Delhi was launched on Nov. 26, 2020, and Akali Dal could not dissociate itself from it. The alienation of Sikhs had left both PM Modi and the BJP worried and finally led to the farm laws being repealed.
Modi's announcement coincided with the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh religion. “Modi is not a leader who makes a retreat every month or year. He had immense compulsions,” said political observer Ramakanto Shanyal.
There was suspicion that anti-India forces (possibly from Pakistan) could attempt to revive the separatist Khalistani movement, which caused much bloodshed in Punjab in the early eighties leading to the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, a Sikh and former military officer who recently lost the stewardship of the state due to a decision by the Congress top leadership, warned of Sikh alienation during meetings with Modi, federal Home Minister Amit Shah and mational security adviser Ajit Doval.
Meghalaya governor Satyapal Malik cautioned the government against fueling anguish and unrest among Sikhs and the larger farmer community.
Shanyal felt the prime minister may have wanted to regain the confidence of farmers in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, which go to the polls in March 2022.
Academic Vidyarthi Kumar concurred. “An impression went both within the country and overseas that the Hindu-Sikh division had widened again like in the 1980s. The three farm laws were being dubbed as anti-Sikh,” he said.
Uttar Pradesh in the north is India's most populous state and sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament. Modi, though a native of Gujarat in the west, chose Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh as his constituency.
Farmers, especially from the eastern belt of the state, had joined the Sikhs in Punjab in protesting the farm laws.
The Sikh protest even gained currency overseas. Modi’s Hindu hardline image may earn him dividends in domestic politics, but he’s cautious when it comes to foreign lands.
The prime minister recently met Pope Francis and invited him to visit India. The outreach to Sikhs followed and it now remains to be seen how the minority communities respond.
The repeal of the farm laws will hamper India's reform journey, though.
"It is the story of democracy and good governance getting marginalized and vanquished by anarchy and street politics," said former Nagaland minister Thomas Ngullie.
The Baptist Church leader said Modi had tried his best to take the country forward but had to bow down before people's wishes, which he did courageously.
“I am not against the protesting farmers, but the farmers from the southern and eastern Indian states who did not agitate have been punished,” Ngullie told UCA News.
There are others who feel that not only have farm reforms been derailed but the entire planning for a future agricultural sector has been hampered
Anil Ghanwat, an agriculture expert and member of the Supreme Court-appointed panel on farm laws, said: “No federal government will dare to bring much-needed reforms in the coming 50 years and a majority of farmers will remain poor."
There are others who feel that not only have farm reforms been derailed but the entire planning for a future agricultural sector has been hampered.
Farmers' groups and opposition parties welcomed the prime minister’s announcement after expressing solidarity with the protesters and accusing the Modi government of bulldozing the laws with its brute majority in the house.
Opposition parties claimed the farm laws were against the interests of farmers and anti-poor. Only big capital stood to benefit by establishing its monopoly over buying, storing and selling farm produce at will, for a profit.
The year-long episode seems to have taught Modi that his arrogance cannot sustain. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, another friend-turned-foe of the BJP, said the government should take all stakeholders and opposition parties into confidence to avoid such embarrassment in the future.
Some were reminded of another signal agricultural reform measure introduced by Modi since ascending to power in 2014 — the land acquisition bill. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, lapsed after being passed by the lower house as it did not get past the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament due to opposition resistance.
On land acquisition and farm laws, the Indian government’s reform process has gone for a toss, leaving Modi to fall back more and more on the pro-Hindu agenda of his party.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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