Narendra Modi is no stranger to protests. Since his reelection last year, the Indian prime minister’s policies, including his decision to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, and last year’s contentious move to establish a religious test for people from neighboring countries seeking citizenship that excludes Muslims, have triggered a number of mass demonstrations.
In both instances, Modi was largely able to overcome the unrest with the help of heavy-handed crackdowns and nationalist appeals. Those opposed to the stripping of Kashmir’s protected status were accused of instigation and sedition, while peaceful protests against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act were branded as the work of “anti-nationals” swayed by “jihadists, Maoists, and separatists.”
But recent demonstrations by tens of thousands of farmers opposed to new agricultural reforms won’t be so easily subdued. The scale of the protests, paired with the widespread public support for the farmers, has put Modi in the unusual position of negotiating with his own detractors. Efforts to undermine the protesters as a distrusted “other” have fallen flat.
Should these farmers be successful in rolling back, or at least amending, the government’s reforms, their demonstrations won’t just be remembered as one of the biggest challenges to Modi’s leadership—they will also have proved the limits of his nationalism.
The standoff between India’s government and its farmers began in September following the passage of new regulations designed to open up the country’s enormous agricultural sector to private investment (a move that would enable farmers to sell directly to companies instead of to the government marketplace, which guaranteed a minimum price for certain crops). Although the authorities have framed the reforms as necessary to modernize India’s farming industry, which employs more than half of the country’s 1.35 billion people and is rife with mismanagement and waste, many farmers fear that the changes will ultimately drive down crop prices, devastating their livelihoods.
Those fears have prompted tens of thousands of farmers, predominantly from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, known as India’s “food bowl,” to set up makeshift barricades of tractors and trailers across roads, railway lines, and highways leading to New Delhi. More than 450 farmers’ unions and organizations expressed their support in a nationwide strike, and the protests have attracted the backing of opposition lawmakers and other high-profile figures.
Perhaps because of this widespread support for the farmers, to say nothing of their size as a voting bloc, Modi’s government has felt inclined to tread carefully in its handling of the demonstrations. In addition to relenting on its initial crackdown, which resulted in clashes between farmers and police, the government agreed to enter into negotiations with the protest’s leaders (an offer that was never extended to those protesting the government’s more nationalist policies).
But some habits die hard, and many within the government opted to revert to familiar tactics. One minister claimed that the farmers’ protest had nothing to do with agriculture at all and was instead being infiltrated by “leftist and Maoist elements.” Other leaders branded them as “goons” and “anti-nationals.” Senior officials in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party claimed that the farmers were “Khalistanis,” in reference to the Sikh separatist movement (India’s Sikh community is largely concentrated in Punjab). Some even attempted to discredit the protests by alleging that the participants weren’t real farmers because they eat pizza.
Framing them as ignorant at best—and traitorous at worst—echoes the divisive and nationalist language that the Indian government has previously deployed against peaceful protesters, including those who demonstrated against the government’s citizenship law last year. Where Modi is seen to be enacting his nationalist agenda, the government can easily dismiss critics as simply being “anti-nationals,” particularly when it comes to issues on which the prime minister enjoys widespread support.
But farming reforms are not a nationalist issue, and the efforts to discredit opponents as though they are don’t appear to be having the desired effect. Part of the reason for that has to do with the scale of the protests: Those participating claim to represent the interests of hundreds of millions of people and have amassed support across the country and around the world. “It would have been easier to crush if it was only about farmers or only about Punjab,” Ravinder Kaur, a historian of contemporary India and the author of Brand New Nation, told me, noting that Modi’s efforts to hastily pass the reforms (just as he did in 2016 when he announced a demonetization program that would render the majority of India’s banknotes worthless overnight) undermined the democratic process. “It has become too big … There are too many interest groups which feel that they do not have a share in this Indian political decision making.”
But another part of why the efforts to discredit aren’t working has to do with the stakes: These are people who have committed themselves to braving Delhi’s cold winter nights, not to mention the ongoing threat of the pandemic, to ensure that their demands are met. At least 25 people have died in the protests, many of them because of the frigid weather. For the farmers, “it’s a question of life and death,” Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst based in Punjab, told me. “They know they are going to suffer in any case, so might as well suffer there.”
Modi has shown no qualms about quelling public dissent with force. But this time appears to be different: Not only is the government dealing with a significant segment of the Indian population (one that is not so easily dismissed as an “anti-national” minority), but it has also entered into negotiations with the farmers—which the protesters say will only end with a complete repeal of the reforms.
“They are extremely disciplined because they know the art of political negotiation,” Kaur said. “These farmers’ unions and workers’ unions are resourceful, and they have also been extremely careful in making sure that the focus always remains on these demands and not be sidetracked by anything else.”
With the farmers prepared to protest for as long as it takes, there is no easy way out. For Modi, there is no nationalist fix this time.