INDIAN FARM PROTESTS

Farmers step up protests in fresh challenge to India’s government

Farmers protesting in New Delhi earlier this year.
Farmers protesting in New Delhi earlier this year. AP - Manish Swarup

Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers last weekend joined the biggest protest in months against proposed reforms which they say would destroy their livelihood. Local police estimated half a million people rallied in a show of strength just days after clashes left several hurt.

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Farmers at the Sunday rally called “Mahapanchayat” in Muzaffarnagar city also called for a pan-India shutdown on 27 September.

They argue the three reform laws passed by parliament last September will snatch their bargaining power against rich corporations.

The farm sector accounts for 15 percent of India’s 2.2 trillion euro economy.

Some 8,000 policemen were present at the event where the protesters set up 150 community kitchens for farmers who came in from other districts of Uttar Pardesh, a predominantly agricultural state.

Farmers’ warning

Rakesh Tikait, one of the top farm union leaders, said the protest would intensify further against India’s BJP party government for bringing the measures.

“This is a struggle for freedom of Indian farmers, Indian workers and the youth of the country,” Tikait said in Muzaffarnagar, the site of religious rioting in the run-up to the 2014 national election.

 “This is the people’s fight and this is just the beginning because private corporations are slowly taking over our country,” he added.

Tikait also said farmers camping on highways to India’s capital for eight months will not budge as long as the laws were not repealed.

“We have elected the government and it must take notice of our requests,” added Ranjeet, a grower of sugarcane, a staple crop in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, which is home to 240 million people.

Yogendra Yadav, an activist-turned-politician supporting the marathon farm protest, said Sunday’s rally will send a message across India.

“This rally has shown the farmers are united and still very determined,” added Yadav in Muzzafarnagar.

But analysts say the rally was also timed and aimed to target the BJP ahead of scheduled state election in Uttar Pradesh next year.

Government claims laws are good for farmers

The government, which has held rounds of fruitless talks with farmers in the past few months, say the legislation will only help them get a higher price for their produce.

It also offered concessions to end the festering agitation and accused opposition parties of misleading India’s farming community.

Varun Gandhi, a federal BJP lawmaker said the government should re-start talks with the farmers, who comprise nearly a third of India’s 1.35 billion people.

“They are our own flesh and blood. We must start re-engaging with them in a respectful manner, understand their pain, their point of view and work with them in reaching common ground,” the MP said.

The BJP lawmaker is a cousin of Rahul Gandhi, de facto leader of India’s main opposition Congress party which extends support to the agitation.

Gandhi hailed Sunday’s mahapanchayat as a “call of truth” but the BJP accused the politician of spreading lies.

Flashpoint state

The authorities in Haryana meanwhile ordered restrictions against protests planned for Tuesday by farmers in the northern Indian state, officials said.

Farm unions said the rally will protest police action against farmers on August 28 which left several hurt in clashes in the BJP-ruled state bordering Delhi.

“Let them impose any restriction they want but we would march to Karnal,” said Paramjit Singh, a Sikh activist of the dusty town where the skirmish occurred.

Police in Karnal said they used force only after farmers turned unruly.

 

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