Indian Modi is bowing to protests and agreeing to repeal agricultural legislation

NEW DELHI (AP) – In a major reversal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Friday that he would repeal the controversial agricultural laws which sparked years of protests from tens of thousands of farmers and posed a significant challenge to his administration.

Farmers, who make up one of India’s most influential voting blocs, have been camping on the outskirts of the capital since November last year to demand the withdrawal of the laws, which they feared would reduce their income dramatically.

Modi’s surprising decision, in a televised national speech, came ahead of elections early next year in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are significant agricultural producers and where his Bharatiya Janata party is eager to support its support. . Experts said it was too early to say whether it would work.

The prime minister urged protesters to return home, but peasants have said they will remain in office until the laws are gone – a process that begins in December when parliament holds its winter session.

“While apologizing to the nation, I would say with a sincere and pure heart that something might be missing in our efforts so that we could not explain the truth to some of our peasant brothers,” Modi said during the speech. He added: “Let’s start fresh.”

The move represented a rare rise for the 71-year-old leader, who has faced fierce criticism over other steps his government took, such as a sharp ban on high-denomination currency notes and the withdrawal of the Muslim majority in Kashmir’s semi-autonomous powers.

He also supported a law on citizenship that excludes Muslim immigrants, even in the face of sometimes violent protests.

But farmers are a particularly influential voting bloc in India – both because of their large numbers but also because, and they are often romanticized as the heart and soul of the nation. They are especially important to Modi’s base and make up significant sections of the population in some states where his party rules.

Modi had long defended the laws passed in September last year as necessary to modernize India’s agricultural sector. But farmers feared they would end a system in which the government guaranteed prices for certain essential crops – first introduced in the 1960s to help strengthen food reserves and prevent shortages.

While the government said it was willing to promise that the guaranteed prices would continue, farmers wanted legislation that said such prices were their legal right. They claimed that without guarantees they would be at the mercy of the markets and that would mean disaster, especially for the more than two thirds of those who own less than 1 hectare (2 1/2 acres) of land.

Modi’s party was also criticized for refusing to expand the debate on the legislation – renewing accusations that it has too often used its majority to hit laws without adequate consultation.

Protests against the laws escalated in November last year as farmers bowed on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they have camped ever since, including through a harsh winter and a wave of coronavirus that devastated India earlier this year.

While the protests have been largely peaceful, protesters stormed the historic Red Fort in January in the center of the capital – a deeply symbolic act that revealed the scale of their challenge to Modi’s government. Clashes with police left a protester dead and hundreds injured.

Dozens of farmers also died by suicide or due to bad weather or COVID-19 during the demonstrations, which have drawn international support from rights activists and celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and superstar Rihanna.

“Finally, all our hard work paid off. … I pay tribute to the peasant brothers who were martyred in this battle,” said Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farmer leader.

At Ghazipur, one of the demonstration sites on the outskirts of New Delhi, the festivities were subdued, but some farmers handed out sweets and danced to songs.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the group of agricultural unions organizing the protests, said they welcomed the government’s announcement but that the protests would continue until the government again commits to the system of guaranteed prices. The protesters had long rejected a government offer to suspend the laws for 18 months.

Modi’s party hailed the move as a decision that prioritized farmers.

Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the ruling BJP, said in a tweet that Modi “has once again proved that he is committed to the welfare of farmers.”

But Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Ashoka University, said that although the announcement was very significant, the government will find it difficult to convince farmers that the repeal is more than just political expediency.

“The government is likely to spin this while the prime minister listens to the people, but after a year of fierce protest, bitterness and violence, it will be difficult to get that view to abide,” Verniers said.

The announcement came on the day of the Guru Purab festival, where Sikhs, who made up the majority of the protesters, are celebrating the birthday of their founder Guru Nanak. The laws in particular have alienated the Sikh community, which makes up the majority of the population of Punjab, one of the states with upcoming elections.

Initially, Modi’s government had tried to discredit the Sikh peasants by dismissing their concerns as motivated by religious nationalism. Some leaders in Modi’s party called them “Khalistanis”, a reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland.

Such allegations backfired and further angered farmers.

Opposition leaders, who previously called the laws exploitative and supported the protests, congratulated the peasants.

“The country’s peasants got through their resistance arrogance to bow their heads,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi of India’s largest opposition party in Congress. “Congratulations on the victory against injustice!”

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Associated Press journalists Krutika Pathi and Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.

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