As I park my car and start walking toward the masses of desperate people who have captured the imagination of the world by taking on powerful forces, there are so many incongruous sights. I cross one barricade after another, careful to step over the rows of nails on the streets. I am welcomed by children who try to figure out where to take me: the makeshift library, their tent homes, the thousands of parked tractors, the COVID-19 testing area under a tarp, their open kitchen. They offer tea as the chanted slogans continue to echo. Welcome to Singhu border, ground zero of the Indian farmers’ protest. Today’s Daily Dose makes sense of what’s happening and lays out what’s next.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter
1. Legal Liability
Hundreds of thousands of farmers from India’s breadbasket states of Punjab, Haryana and beyond have been amassing outside New Delhi, the national capital, to protest three farm laws passed by the Indian Parliament in September. The laws would establish unregulated private marketplaces, allow private companies to strike deals with farmers to plant and sell specific kinds of produce, and reduce restrictions on the trading of agricultural commodities. The farmers, who for decades have sold their produce only in government marketplaces called mandis, believe deregulation will lead to massive manipulation of the market — even though the laws were ostensibly designed to increase their earnings.
2. State of Despair
Roughly 55 percent of India’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Among farmers, a fifth of smallholders with fewer than 2.5 acres of land — they comprise 70 percent of the farming population — live below the poverty line. Since 1995, India has recorded nearly 300,000 farmer suicides. In fact, a 2019 report on accidental deaths and suicides released by the National Crime Records Bureau states that at least 10,281 people associated with the farm sector killed themselves in 2019 — 28 suicides per day — mostly owing to economic distress. Meanwhile, thousands of tons of crops rot in government warehouses due to uncompetitive exports and rising imports.
If you’ve always thought protests are about slogans and barricades, you’d be surprised upon reaching Singhu border. Here, you’ll find tent cities, soul-stirring renditions of songs of faith, libraries and culture centers, langars (community kitchens), a mobile museum and a salon. You’ll also find farmers reading the latest edition of Trolley Times — a four-page biweekly newspaper created in the midst of the protest by and for the farmers.
4. What Went Down on Jan. 26
Farmers entered New Delhi on tens of thousands of tractors in protest against the agriculture laws, just minutes from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was hoisting the national flag and watching the annual parades for Republic Day. The protest turned violent when the farmers broke through barricades and stormed New Delhi’s iconic Red Fort, the former palace, leaving one person dead and 86 police officers wounded. After the police fired tear gas and charged demonstrators with sticks, the internet was shut off in and around the capital. Soon after, the authorities cut water supply and electricity channels at the borders. Now, police are counting on Google to track down people connected to the protest. It’s only the latest example of repressive governments shutting down the internet in troublesome times.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has cracked down aggressively against traditional and social media, using old and new tactics. Eight journalists covering the protest were charged with sedition, among other crimes, prompting an outcry from Human Rights Watch. The government asked Twitter to remove almost 1,200 accounts connected to the protest, claiming they were bots or spreading misinformation from abroad, though Twitter did not fully comply. And the cybercrime division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, led by the powerful Amit Shah, launched a new program under which citizens can come forward as volunteers to flag and report “anti-national activities.”
The farmers are determined to prolong the protest if their demands are not met, and the government is not budging. On Monday, Modi asked people to trust him and said the minimum support price (MSP) for farmers’ wares “was there, it is there and will remain.” But his remarks did not mollify the protesters or their supporters. Retired Indian diplomat Jawhar Sircar, one of 75 former civil servants who have written to the government about this “great injustice” to farmers, tells OZY that the government must pass a law protecting MSP. As Hannan Mollah, general secretary of farmers’ rights group All India Kisan Sabha, tells OZY: “The fight will go on.”
All it took was one tweet from pop star Rihanna asking a simple question — “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” — to shine the global spotlight on the protest. Within hours, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement condemning “celebrities and others” for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments. Bollywood star Kangana Ranaut called Rihanna a “porn singer,” and misogynistic trolls gave a shout-out to her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown for physically assaulting her in 2009. Soon, morphed images of the singer with a superimposed flag of Pakistan started making the rounds. Rihanna’s cosmetics brand, Fenty Beauty, has also been drawn into controversy. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has announced that Fenty Beauty is being scrutinized for allegedly using mica from Indian mines — where “child laborers work in dire conditions.”
2. Stars Rush In
Actress and liberal activist Susan Sarandon came out in support of the farmers and said that Indian leaders should remember “the world is watching.” And when Greta Thunberg tweeted out a “toolkit” on the farmers’ protest, Delhi Police filed a case and are investigating the toolkit’s creators. Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris has also tweeted herself into the fray. In response, pro-government protesters burned effigies and posters of Thunberg and Meena Harris. Meanwhile, a barrage of Bollywood bigwigs and cricket stars across India have been tweeting in favor of Modi.
3. Will the World Step In?
The U.S. government, while supporting the right to peacefully protest, is officially encouraging dialogue between the government and the farmers. And while the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Indian authorities and protesters alike to “exercise maximum restraint,” the U.K. government has refrained from commenting on the issue despite 100 British MPs writing to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urging him to intervene.
In times like these, no one wants to spend time selecting an outfit for a 30-minute Zoom meeting or deciding if grocery stores require “real pants.” Our friends at Outerknown have found a solution that solves all these problems: the Station Jumpsuit. This best-selling jumpsuit has long sleeves to keep you warm through the winter, and with just one zip you’ll have a complete, fashionable look. An effortless, go-to outfit so comfortable that you’ll never want to take it off. Could it get any better? With code OKOZY, you can get Outerknown’s Station Jumpsuit with an extra 20 percent off!
For Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 2020 was quite the year. She was rumored to be under close consideration for the vice presidency and praised for her COVID-19 response, while also facing armed anti-lockdown protests at her own Statehouse and a thwarted kidnapping attempt. What could 2021 hold? Whitmer breaks it all down on today’s show.
“Either the laws will be taken back or Tikait will kill himself.” With those words accompanied by tears, Tikait, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union who has been a presence at the Ghazipur border, became the face of the farmers’ agitation. And his rallying cry helped revive a protest that was on the brink of extinction following the Jan. 26 violence. While many call the 51-year-old a hero, his past is complicated. After graduating college, Tikait, whose father was the co-founder of the farmers union and had immense clout over the farmers of Uttar Pradesh, joined the Delhi Police, before quitting to return to farming. He now plans to spread the movement across the country by rallying 4 million tractors.
Nowadays, children are not willing to watch political movements from afar — not even when they have to study for exams. “I’m in grade six. Studies are important but so is this fight,” 11-year-old Gursimrat, who marched more than 200 miles from her village in Punjab to Delhi to protest, recently told the BBC. Spending her days agitating and nights coordinating with her teachers on WhatsApp and studying on highways, in tents and atop tractors, this farmer’s daughter has taken the cause as her own.
Arrested on Tuesday after several days’ chase, Sidhu, 36, has been accused of instigating the Jan. 26 violence at Delhi’s Red Fort after he was seen egging on the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib, the holy Sikh flag, at the 17th-century landmark. But this actor, model and activist’s politics are as chaotic as his actions. During the 2019 general elections, he campaigned for the ruling BJP and was accused of being an agent of right-wing Hindu nationalists, known as the RSS, by farmers’ unions in Punjab. Just last year, Sidhu announced the launch of his own union at Shambhu after raising questions about farm leadership. While many farm union leaders have labeled him an enemy of the movement, he refuses to budge. “If I'm being labeled a gaddar [traitor], then all farmer leaders are gaddars,” he said.
4. Nodeep Kaur
This 23-year-old Dalit trade unionist, who had been delivering speeches and protesting with farmers at Singhu border, was picked up by the police after a Jan. 12 demonstration in Haryana state. A member of the labor organization Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, Kaur (no relation to Gursimrat) is not directly associated with the farmers’ protest, but they inspired the firebrand to voice concerns about alleged nonpayment of salaries and harassment of laborers by employers. Now facing charges of attempted murder and extortion, she has twice been refused bail while winning the hearts of many, including Meena Harris, who has been vocal about Kaur’s arrest and allegations that Kaur was sexually assaulted while in custody.
5. The Billionaires
Billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani have so far kept largely silent about the protest, yet some farmers are calling for a boycott of their businesses and around 1,500 of Ambani’s wireless carrier phone towers have been vandalized. Why the hostility? Farmers believe allowing private companies to buy directly will be a boon to the most politically connected firms in India, and both men are tight with Modi, as their combined fortunes rose by $41 billion last year.
farm protests of the past
1. Nebraska and Iowa, 1932–34
The Great Depression hit the farmers of the American Midwest so hard that they devised a scheme to keep produce off the market to ensure they got better prices. The Farm Holiday movement encouraged farmers to withhold their stocks and ensured no one could enter the farmers markets of Omaha, Des Moines, and Sioux City by blocking highways and dumping milk into ditches. There were occasional outbreaks of violence, and the strikers won a moratorium on farm foreclosures from the state of Nebraska. In Washington, New Deal programs started to make a difference — including the first farm bill, which likely would not have happened without the movement calling attention to the farmers’ plight.
2. France, 1992
French farmers riding tractors blocked the entrance to the new Euro Disneyland outside Paris, preventing hundreds of people from entering the park. Why? The farmers were angered by American agricultural trade policies that led to the formation of European Community rules. The rules put a curb on the amount of subsidies that farmers could receive for certain crops. “Euro Disneyland is the symbol of an American culture that has invaded our country,” Daniel Deswards, one of the leaders of the protest, told the press. “Now the Americans want to do the same thing to our agriculture.”
“WTO kills farmers!” Those were the last words of farm union leader Lee Kyung-hae before he plunged a knife into his heart during a protest outside a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico. What was Lee — who had returned to his rural hometown in 1975 to become a farmer after graduating college — protesting? The WTO’s insistence that South Korea open its farm sector for free trade and international competition. While many urban South Koreans were thriving with jobs at Hyundai or Samsung, farmers were being pushed into a rabbit hole of economic upheaval with plummeting prices and burgeoning debts. To support Lee, South Korean farmers clashed with riot police after his funeral ceremony, and the 146-country meeting in Cancún collapsed.
4. The Philippines, 2012
Indigenous farmers and fishermen traveled 200 miles by foot from the northern province of Aurora to the capital Manila to stage a mass protest to amplify their plight and protest a large economic development project in the area that dislocated thousands of people, driving them into poverty. As a tribal leader admonished: “Mr. President, your idea of progress is not our idea of progress.”