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The surprise decision by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi to repeal three contentious farm laws has been hailed as a “victory against injustice” by critics who said the move was politically motivated ahead of state elections.
On Friday, Indians woke up to the announcement that Mr Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government would be making a U-turn on the controversial laws that have been deemed as “anti-farmer” measures and “black laws” by the country’s farmers.
Apologising to the country in his address, Mr Modi said: “I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that maybe something was lacking in our efforts that we could not explain the truth to some of our farmer brothers. Let us make a fresh start.”
“I want to tell you that we have taken the farm laws back. We are repealing the farm laws,” he announced.
The laws, passed in 2020 and presented as the biggest reforms to Indian agriculture in decades, sparked uproar and massive protests. Mr Modi’s administration has consistently claimed they would empower farmers, much to the chagrin of the farmers and several experts.
Politicians, activists and citizens took to Twitter to celebrate the move and congratulate farmers.
Thousands of farmers have been staging a sit-in protest for a year on the outskirts of the national capital, braving extreme weather and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The country’s farmers, through their resistance, made arrogance bow its head,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party. “Congratulations on the victory against injustice!”
Author Saba Naqvi said that “protests work and that is how we got Azadi [independence]. Important point driven home by farmers.”
Protests work and that is how we got Azadi. Important point driven home by farmers.
— Saba Naqvi (@_sabanaqvi) November 19, 2021
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also described the move as a victory for farmers. “Generations to come will remember how the farmers of this country put their lives on the line and saved farming in this country. I bow before them,” he said.
One such state is Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP - known as the saffron party - has been campaigning aggressively.
The state, which is the country’s largest and its most populated, is a bellwether that could indicate which party forms the federal government after the 2024 elections.
Elections are also due in Punjab, an agrarian state where a significant chunk of the farmer protests took place, and which recently saw political upheaval.
“What cannot be achieved by democratic protests can be achieved by the fear of impending elections! PM’s announcement on the withdrawal of the three farm laws is not inspired by a change of policy or a change of heart. It is impelled by fear of elections!” former finance minister and Congress leader P Chidambaram said in a tweet.
Anyway, it is a great victory for the farmers and for the Congress party which was unwavering in its opposition to the farm laws
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) November 19, 2021
“Don’t be mistaken, this repeal of three farm laws is not for farmers but for elections in Uttar Pradesh where all [BJP] internal surveys predicted massive loss in western UP where party won 70 percent of seats last time. BJP leaders were not being allowed entry,” journalist Chetan Chauhan said in a tweet.
The protesters, largely Sikhs from the agricultural “rice bowl” states of Punjab and Haryana, had also been vilified as “Khalistanis”, a reference to the movement for an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan.
British lawmaker Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, one of the most vocal voices abroad against the farm laws, took note of the vicious attacks on the farmers. Several of the country’s media organisations who labelled the farmers as terrorists and separatists “may well want to apologise,” he said in a tweet.
Given #FarmersProtest valiant struggles, glad the controversial farm laws being repealed.
Sections of media and establishment busy labelling farmers and those standing in solidarity with them as terrorists and separatists may well want to apologise.https://t.co/e0FceaUBAn
— Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP (@TanDhesi) November 19, 2021
Mr Dhesi had gathered the support of more than 100 British members of parliament from several political parties and had written to Boris Johnson, expressing concern over the farmer protests.
According to farm leaders, more than 700 farmers have been killed during the demonstrations. Several factors, including suicide, political violence and Covid, made the farmers suffer during their prolonged protests.
The Congress’s interim president Sonia Gandhi said in a statement that the “sacrifices of more than 700 farmer families, whose members laid down their lives in this struggle for justice, have paid off. Today, truth, justice, and non-violence have won.”
Meanwhile, the farmer unions spearheading the protests have said they will wait at protest sites for the repeal to take effect through due parliamentary procedures.
“The farmer will not go back home after a mere declaration on television,” tweeted Rakesh Tikait, a prominent farm leader from Uttar Pradesh. “The government will have to talk to the farmers,” he added.
Experts, however, have said that the announcement itself is a big victory for farmers and critics of the prime minister, who will now find it increasingly tough to convince his electorate that the repeal was not for electoral gains.
“It is highly unusual for the Modi government to retreat or backpedal on a major political decision,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at New Delhi’s Ashoka University.
“The government is likely to spin this as the PM listening to the people, but after a year of hard protest, acrimony and violence, it’s going to be difficult to make that notion adhere.”
The three laws were passed with very little debate in September last year in an attempt to overhaul India’s archaic agricultural sector, which employs 60 per cent of the workforce. The ruling party had refused to prolong debate on the laws, despite repeated requests from stakeholders, including the opposition and farmer leaders.
Clauses in the legislation passed by Mr Modi’s federal government also prevented farmers from resolving contract disputes in court, leaving them with no independent means of redressal apart from government-appointed bureaucrats.
Some agriculture experts, however, called the repeal unfortunate as they believed the laws could have paved the way for new technology, freedom from middlemen, and greater investment.
“It’s a blow to India’s agriculture,” Sandip Das, a Delhi-based researcher and agricultural policy analyst, told Reuters. “The laws would have helped attract a lot of investment in agricultural and food processing - two sectors that need a lot of money for modernisation.”