Aseema Sinha on Farmer Protests in India

Dr. Aseema Sinha is the Wagener Chair of South Asian Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College’s Government department. She was previously an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Professor Sinha received her B.A. from Lady Shri Ram College. Dr. Sinha received her M.A. and M.Phil. from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi, India). She received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her research interests relate to political economy of India, India-China comparisons, international organizations, and the rise of India as an emerging power.
Nandeeni Patel CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Aseema Sinha on February 26, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Aseema Sinha.

The Modi government passed the Indian Agriculture Acts of 2020 last September. Can you speak to these three acts and the changes they impose on the agricultural industry?

The laws are aimed towards changing the system of sale, pricing, and storage of agricultural goods. The laws have facilitated five main changes. First, the farm laws passed in September 2020 aim towards “expanding trade areas” beyond the government-regulated Mandis (APMC Mandis), where trading and exchange of agriculture products happen. In essence they will render the Mandis defunct. Second, the laws allow e-trading of farmer’s produce and contract farming. Third, the bills allow farmers to sell to large private buyers, exporters and retailers on their own. Fourth, the third law has removed the stockpiling provision and many products from that requirement.  Now, stockpiling will only be allowed under “extraordinary” conditions. Fifth, the acts provide for a dispute settlement mechanism by a conciliation board, which seems to bypass the courts, effectively limiting the appeal options for farmers.

The changes these laws represent will ensure that the government is not the first recourse for farmers to sell their produce and introduce the role of private players into agricultural markets. At face value, the bills do give more choice to farmers. However, a lot will depend upon the nature of the markets, particularly in ensuring that  there is true competition among producers and private producers. While the laws do not mention MSP, which is the minimum support price on the basis of which state agencies procure food grains from farmers, there is a fear that with the abolition of government-regulated Mandis, Indian farmers will not be able to sell at the MSP. This fear is founded in the possibility that a lack of a governmental role in procuring grains will cause Indian farmers to be subject to market-mediated price volatility. 

In February 2021, 413 academics led by the former chief economist of the World Bank, Kaushik Basu, signed a statement calling the farm bills “flawed” and “detrimental to farmers.” The US State Department, however, expressed support for the bills, claiming that they “would improve market efficiency and private investment.” How should we reconcile these tradeoffs between the interests of farmers and concerns about the efficiency and competitiveness of India’s agricultural industry? 

While many academics have labeled the bills as “flawed,” to be fair, there are also some economists based in India who have supported the farm laws. Ashok Gulati, an Indian agricultural economist, and Gita Gopinath, the current Chief Economist of the IMF, have supported the laws. 

The U.S. State Department’s statement can be understood in terms of the interest of American agriculture business corporations who may see a future opportunity to procure agricultural commodities from India. The central issue is that farmers are wary of facing a monopolistic rather than a competitive market structure of procurement. The farmers are concerned that they will lose their livelihoods if a few agri-business corporations dictate their prices and the diminution of the MSP support price. The difference of opinion between farmers and ideas supporting market-oriented reforms can be reconciled if we accept that the structure of trading and procuring markets may affect the ability of farmers to get a fair price. Markets are about a market-mediated exchange mechanism through prices but their structure—monopolistic or competitive—also affects the power of companies and farmers. 

Protests against the Indian Agricultural Acts have attracted people of different religions, regions, socio-economic classes, and political backgrounds. How was this possible and what might this mean for identity politics in India? 

The protests began with farmers from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, but they spanned in age and generations. More recently, farmers across many other states have also joined in. Political actors largely in agriculture-dominated states have also come out in support of Indian farmers. For example, Haryana's Deputy CM and JJP Chief Dushyant Singh Chautala stated that he will “tender his resignation if he fails to ensure that a farmer gets MSP for his crops.” ( Many states have also been providing support policies such as subsidies, lower taxes and free water to assist farmers. Importantly, there are some farmers groups from Maharashtra who support the new farm laws, but want some amendments. 

These protests were possible because farmers are a large group in Indian society and have a lot of political power in their respective states. They have linkages with regional parties that allow for state-level policies that regulate the Mandis and provide many subsidies. Farmers are also faced with a larger economic growth slowdown and declining incomes due to larger ongoing agrarian crises and a fear of a serious threat to their shrinking livelihoods. 

How has the Indian national government responded to the protests? Has the response varied significantly across regions, like in Punjab or Haryana? 

The government rushed through the laws in the Indian parliament. The Parliament passed the laws with a voice vote rather than opting for a debate and discussion. The usual parliamentary methods of committees and consultation were also bypassed. It is possible that the government was under pressure to initiate some economic reforms given the precipitous decline in economic growth since 2016. However, when small-scale protests started and expanded to larger, unexpected scales, the government was caught by surprise and attempted to adopt a three-pronged strategy. The three prongs were: Negotiations, repression through the usage of water cannons, tear gas, and arrests combined with a nationalist discursive strategy to discredit the protests and the expanding movement. As the protests expanded and became a serious issue, the government blocked access to Delhi by digging trenches and planting nails in concrete roads. The government sought to arrest and deter journalists especially by filing sedition charges against nine journalists and activists while also restricting internet access for days. On February 14, 2021 the government arrested a 22-year old activist for sharing a Google document with protest-related resources. The government also asked Twitter to block users from accessing around 250 Twitter accounts belonging to journalists and activists. The BJP and many ministers have also sought to discredit the protests by drawing out a link with antinational elements. 

What does the crackdown on dissent say about the future of Indian democracy? 

These are serious signs of concern about the future of Indian democracy with the internet being shut down, and the arrest of journalists and activists. There is a strong consensus among experts and analysts that India’s democracy is sliding in terms of both quantitative elements and qualitative ability to respect minority rights. Democracy is not just about elections and must also be about respecting political freedoms and the rule of law. Some of the autocratic measures used in Jammu and Kashmir are now being used in Delhi and surrounding areas. These autocratic measures should raise concerns for those who were oblivious to the explicit undermining of democratic procedures in Jammu and Kashmir. The government has shown an ability to use the same techniques that it used in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly arresting members of the press and conducting internet shutdowns, against its large farmer population across India. 

There has been a lot of talk on social media about “foreign influence” shaping the nature of the farmer protests. Tweets by Rihanna and Mia Khalifa have gone viral with several right-wing Twitter account-holders attacking the women for speaking out against the treatment of protestors. Domestically, sports and film celebrities have come out with different hashtags like “#Indiastrong.” How does foreign attention on this issue factor into this movement? 

The ruling party and the government of the day have used a framing strategy of “nationalism” to discredit the protests and their supporters, although it is difficult for the government to argue that farmers are anti-national. Indian farmers are considered an important social group contributing to national renewal and national food sufficiency as revealed by a popular slogan, Jai Jiwan Jai Kisan translating to “hail the soldier, hail the farmer” of the 1960s. However, some isolated instances of violence on January 26 have led the government to link farmers with the notion of terrorism, arguing that these farmers are linked to foreign extremist groups in Canada. This is an attempt to paint a largely peaceful and expanding movement with one terrorist brush. Contrary to the government’s expectations, painting the farmers as terrorists may unite India farmers and bring them together. Social movement literature suggests that harsh and strong action by the state can unite dispersed social movements if the protesting organizations have indigenous strength and support at the societal level. However, the government’s idea of “nationalism” seems to be resonating with middle-class voters, who do not have any connections with farmers except as consumers. These middle-class voters and older members of the Indian diaspora are swayed by false media reports and social media content.

The Supreme Court in January said that the farm laws are here to stay. However, they have set up a committee to ask the public for feedback on the farm laws by February 2021. They have also set of an expert committee to evaluate the acts. What is the future of these Acts? Do you expect them to be altered? 

In a democracy, protests and popular feedback are commonly used to revise laws. However, the manner in which the laws were passed by the parliament, particularly the lack of discussion, the use of force by the government, and the ongoing trust deficit between the government and farmers, suggests that Indian farmers will not agree to negotiations and amendments at the moment. I anticipate that the farmers will not stop their protests unless there is some assurance about Mandis and the MSP in the laws. If that assurance is given in a credible manner, the protests may quiet down but it will take a while given the deep trust deficit. 

Nandeeni Patel CMC '21Student Journalist

Randeep Maddoke;, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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