On July 22, the Indian Lok Sabha (House of the People) held its monsoon parliamentary session and took up discussion of three controversial agricultural laws that have sparked continued protests by farmers, who say they could be squeezed out of business.
The laws date to September 2020. Supporters said they were a much-needed update of government-controlled, subsidized farm markets, known as mandis, that have operated for decades. Instead, owners of small farms said the laws favored big agriculture. Among other things, the reforms freed farmers to sell directly to other states and buyers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party insist the laws will revolutionize the country’s agricultural sector. But some 86 percent of India’s farmland is controlled by small farmers, who fear exploitation and have turned to protests.
Since last November, some 100,000 farmers, mainly from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been camping at the borders of New Delhi to demand repeal of the BJP-backed farm laws. The protesters include children, women and the elderly.
The government and 40 farm union leaders who represent the thousands of protesters held close to a dozen meetings until talks reached an impasse in January.
Against that backdrop, Indian Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar was asked on July 22 about hundreds of farmers who reportedly died while protesting. The reply:
“The government of India has no record of farmers having died or fallen ill during the ongoing protests over the Centre’s farm laws.”
That is false.
According to the Indian Express, the state government of Punjab, where a majority of the protesters are from, verified 220 deaths of farmers and farm laborers. The state subsequently provided around $1.5 million in compensation to the kin of the deceased.
The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a coalition of farmer unions, reported that 400 deaths have occurred. The Punjab government is still verifying many. Most deaths have been due to heart attacks, illnesses, suicides or accidents coming to and from the protest.
On February 14, the agriculture minister of Haryana, Jai Prakash Dalal, acknowledged the deaths but claimed “the 200 farmers who died during the ongoing protests would have died anywhere.” Several farmers’ unions and opposition politicians deemed that comment as insensitive.
Dalal is a member of Modi's majority BJP.
The protest garnered attention for its longevity and for including people of all religions and genders. Women as old as 90 have been at the forefront of the movement, despite attempts by the government to persuade them to go home. Oxfam India reports that 85% of women in rural India work in agriculture, yet only 13% of them own land.
The demonstration turned violent on January 26, India’s Republic Day, when farmers clashed with police and forced their way into the main city of New Delhi. One protester died and several hundred policemen and farmers were injured.
The Modi government's treatment of the demonstrators also brought to light India's growing authoritarianism. A recent TIME magazine article was among reports noting rising press censorship, detention of journalists and internet blackouts. Some establishment media houses have discredited protesters as “anti-national extremists,” TIME reported.
On February 5, the United Nations human rights office expressed concern via Twitter: “We call on the authorities and protesters to exercise maximum restraint in ongoing #FarmersProtests. The rights to peaceful assembly & expression should be protected both offline & online. It's crucial to find equitable solutions with due respect to #HumanRights for all.”
In February, Rajat Khosla, senior director of research, advocacy and policy at Amnesty International, accused India’s government of suppressing dissent:
“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticize or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies.”
In March, Dr. Swaiman Singh, a 34-year-old Indian-American cardiologist from New Jersey, told CNN that he left a thriving career and “literally perfect” life to provide free medical care to the protesters.
An image of someone incorrectly performing CPR on a protester added to Singh’s determination, he told the network. Singh and his team arrived in India last November and transformed an abandoned complex into a community clinic.
In an interview with the Voice of America, Singh claimed that Agriculture Minister Tomar’s comment made him realize that “India has very little value for human life, and the politicians thrive on money and power.” He said the minister should at least visit the farmers and see their plight first-hand before making such comments.
Singh said that if a similar situation erupted in the United States, the outcome and empathy level would be completely different.
The Supreme Court of India has issued an “indefinite stay” on implementation of the farm laws and pledged to form a committee to take up the farmers’ demands, Reuters reported. While expressing gratitude, the farmers’ unions remain unfazed and are demanding repeal of the reform laws.
On August 6, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, and 12 other opposition party leaders, visited the farmers’ “parliament” or Kisan Sansad, in the heart of New Delhi. Since late July, the farmers have been protesting closer to the Indian parliament. Gandhi expressed solidarity with the protesting farmers.
Neither Prime Minister Modi nor Agriculture Minister Tomar have visited any of the protest sites in the months since the protests started.