By Saheli Chowdhury for Orinoco Tribune – Feb 15, 2021
On February 2, an uproar started in Indian media and social media spheres when pop icon Rihanna cited a CNN article on her Twitter account about the ongoing farmers’ protests in India. It specifically concerned internet connections around Delhi being shut down by the government. Similar tweets criticizing government repression were posted by personalities as diverse as teenage Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg; Meena Harris, lawyer and niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris; and Lebanese-American social media personality Mia Khalifa, among others. In an unprecedented move, the government of India responded to those tweets with an official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), containing hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, censuring comments by foreign personalities on India’s “internal matters.” A Twitter storm ensued, in which several Indian celebrities like cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar, singer Lata Mangeshkar, actors Akshay Kumar, Kangana Ranaut, etc., tried to shut down the “propagandist” international personalities and display their “patriotism” through smear campaigns against the farmers and support for government and police overreach. Mainstream media houses jumped in with calls for “national unity” against “international conspiracy,” and broadcast shows about “certain elements” paying foreign celebrities to spread propaganda about India. The storm transcended the virtual world when the extremist United Hindu Front burnt effigies of Greta, Rihanna and others. On the other hand, Indian farmers’ bodies welcomed the show of solidarity from the world-renowned personalities, and celebrities like Swara Bhasker, Tapsee Pannu, Irfan Pathan, etc. effectively said that the farmers’ issue is not an internal matter of the country, but a human rights issue.
Question of human rights
It may be said that the issue of the three contentious farm laws was always a human rights issue, as the laws are aimed at destroying the agrarian economy which forms the lifeline of about two-thirds of the Indian population, for the benefit of agribusiness. Facing utter destitution, hundreds of thousands of farmers from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began marching towards the national capital on November 26, 2020, under the banners of hundreds of agricultural unions. Since then, they have been carrying out sit-in demonstrations at three main sites outside Delhi, namely Tikri, Singhu, and Ghazipur, where they have been joined by farmers and farm labourers from other states, taking the total number of demonstrators to about three million by now.
From the very beginning, efforts were put in place to thwart the movement. From arresting union workers organising farmers and farm labourers, to using tear gas and water cannons on the marchers, there was severe State repression even before the protesters reached Delhi. It must be noted that the protesters were not allowed to enter the city; metal barricades, barbed wire fences and trenches were in place before the first protesters arrived. Men, women, children, the young and elderly alike have all been camping on the fringes of the capital, in tents under the open sky for over two months. In India, December-January is the coldest time of the year and this January, minimum temperatures in Delhi reached 0°C for several days, together with rain and mist. Since November 26, over 150 protesters have died from cold, illness, accidents and suicide.
Things took a worse turn after the Republic Day tractor rally in Delhi by hundreds of thousands of protesting farmers, when a small section of the participants broke away from the designated route, breached barricades and stormed into the Red Fort. Violent clashes erupted in the streets between the protesters and the police, during which police resorted to baton charges and tear gas, and hundreds of police personnel and protesters got injured. Since then, government has intensified the crackdown, arresting hundreds of protesters and filing charges of violence and murder attempts against farmer leaders although they had broadly appealed for peace and condemned the Red Fort incident, and none of them were involved in the clashes. Goons claiming to be locals attacked protesters’ camps at Singhu as police stood like mute spectators, while at Ghazipur, police tried to evict protesters and arrest leaders. Water and electricity supplies to the protest sites were cut off, internet services were shut down in all adjoining regions, even in the neighbouring state of Haryana, ostensibly to “maintain public safety and avert emergency.” Ten first information reports were filed against a number of renowned journalists and politician-author and member of parliament Shashi Tharoor, with charges like criminal conspiracy and sedition. Delhi police even registered a case against Thunberg for sharing a “protesters’ toolkit” on social media, a case that has morphed into a witch-hunt of activists in the country.
On the night of January 30, a freelance journalist and contributor to Caravan magazine, Mandeep Punia, was arrested at Singhu for allegedly abusing security personnel, though in reality he recorded police abuse of migrant workers trying to cross the barricades. After getting bail from a Delhi court on February 2, he spoke out against custodial abuse suffered by himself and arrested farmers. In another incident, on January 12, police arrested trade union activist Nodeep Kaur, who organised an intersectional movement of factory workers and landless farmers in Kundli Industrial Area of Haryana, from a protest venue in Kundli. She continues to remain in jail, and her family and her lawyer have alleged that she has been abused and sexually assaulted in custody.
On February 1, police and paramilitary forces were deployed in huge numbers at Delhi borders to dig ditches on the highways and erect concrete and steel barricades topped with barbed wire to cut off the protest sites from road access. The Tribune reported that overnight, nails were cemented into roads at Ghazipur and Tikri, and multi-tiered barricades with concrete blocks and steel rods between them were erected on stretches of national highways close to the sites. Thousands of security personnel with guns and protective shields are reportedly guarding the fortifications. In protest, farmers have planted flowering plants around the barricades.
Also on February 1, Twitter blocked several Indian accounts, including those of well-known journalists, academics and Caravan magazine, under a government directive requesting the social networking site to take down handles allegedly using the hashtag #FarmersGenocide. Although Twitter unblocked those accounts later, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has again asked the company to block 1,178 accounts with alleged links to Pakistan or Khalistan sympathisers, for spreading misinformation and provoking “threat to public order” in the midst of the farmers’ protests. On February 9, officials of the Enforcement Directorate, a central agency that investigates cases of money laundering, raided the Delhi office of the portal Newsclick and homes of its senior staff, an act considered to be politically motivated against independent media covering the ongoing protests. The very next day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at the Parliament, denounced protesters as “Andolanjeevis” and warned the nation about “Foreign Destructive Ideology,” “falling back on conspiracy theories and labels reminiscent of the Nazi era in Germany,” wrote The Telegraph.
The issue no longer remains an “internal matter” of the country, but has become a question of human rights.
International agribusiness and Indian agriculture
However, was the issue of the farm laws ever an “internal matter” of India?
According to a report by the Research Unit for Political Economy, restructuring of Indian agriculture was started thirty years ago not in India but in Washington, not by the government of India but by the IMF and the World Bank. In 1991, with the disintegration of USSR, India lost its greatest ally in the political, economic, industrial and technological spheres. Facing a foreign exchange crisis, India submitted to an IMF-monitored “structural adjustment program” like many other countries in the Global South, which entails denationalization and privatization of national assets and subjugating the national economy to the “free market;” in other words, selling the country and its people to multinationals. In the case of India, it includes the country’s biggest asset—agriculture.
All the “reforms” proposed in the three farm laws were originally “recommendations” of the World Bank. They included an end to subsidies and state support for agricultural producers, removal of restrictions on import and export of agricultural goods, promotion of “private research” in seeds, reduction of the scope of the public distribution system (PDS) of food and fuel while allowing the private sector into the system, and changing the official definition of poverty so that the “non-needy” could be weeded out of PDS.
Although governments of both Congress and BJP implemented these reforms, they always assumed more vigour under BJP administrations. In 2002, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, there were allegations that the Committee for Long Term Grain Policy had recommended the dismantling of Food Corporation of India (FCI) under pressure from lobbies of multinational agribusinesses. In 2014, the first year of the Modi government’s first term, a high level committee for Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of the FCI was appointed under BJP leader Shanta Kumar. This committee received representations from several corporations like Cargill India, Adani Logistics, Reliance, ITC Agribusiness Division, Yes Bank, etc. The main obstacle for these traders is the food security system of India which, despite its inadequacy in ensuring adequate nutrition for all citizens, protects domestic producers to a large extent. Therefore, these giants want this system removed to pave the way for regular grain imports in India and to orient Indian agriculture away from foodgrains to cash crops which are in demand in the First World countries, thus reaping huge profits at both ends.
Renowned economist Utsa Patnaik has pointed out another danger in allowing import of food grains—the “green energy” push in advanced countries where grains are increasingly being converted to biofuel, which may lead to shortages in near future. She wrote in The Hindu: “Initial low-priced grain imports…will soon give way to a scenario of price spikes and urban distress as experienced earlier by developing countries forced into import dependence,” leading to a “recreation of colonial times.” Moreover, lack of food sovereignty can be a method to threaten governments into submission to imperial dictates. Suffocating sanctions like those imposed on Venezuela and Cuba are prime examples.
A case in point of the destruction of indigenous agriculture and its horrific consequences is Mexico, where the opening up of the agrarian sector to transnational corporations since the mid-90s has led to the “NAFTA effect”—a confluence of poverty, hunger, obesity and disease. The free trade agreements that Mexico signed with the United States, Canada, and the European Union gave free rein to corporations like PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, etc., which destroyed traditional food production and distribution channels and largely shifted the food habits of Mexican people from locally produced food to processed food of low nutritional quality. The results were starkly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as tens of thousands of Mexicans have lost their lives due to the comorbidities they suffered as a result of the junk food epidemic. Prominent epidemiologists and infectious disease experts of Mexico, including the Undersecretary of Health, Dr. Hugo López-Gatell, who is in charge of the country’s coronavirus response, have emphasized the role of the lack of good nutrition in the nation’s pandemic death toll.
India is going through a similar situation, with diabetes and obesity rising among poorer sections of the society. All the agribusinesses profiting at the expense of Mexican lives are expanding their business in India. World Bank claims a return, plus interest, on its investments. Indian farmers understand this. In general, they may not be aware of what happened in Mexico, but they realize that it is Big Ag that is pulling the strings. They know that it is not the government that writes the legislations; rather the masters—a handful of billionaires at the helm of a few corporations—are determining the fate of millions. That is why the farm laws have been popularly branded “Adani-Ambani laws.” That is why the farmers of the country have vowed to remain in the streets until the laws are repealed.
Featured image: Activists from ultra nationalist United Hindu Front burn an effigy depicting Rihanna and Greta Thunberg in New Delhi on Feb. 4: Ultra nationalist and fascist groups support Modi’s government. © Reuters.
Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor and works for Orinoco Tribune.