NEW DELHI — A major reversal was made by Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister. He announced Friday that he will repeal the controversial agricultural laws which sparked a yearlong protest from tens or thousands of farmers and posed a serious challenge to his administration.
Farmers are one of India’s most powerful voting blocs. They have been camping out in the capital’s outskirts since November last year to protest the removal of laws that they fear will drastically reduce their incomes.
Modi made the surprise decision in a televised national speech, ahead of elections in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are important agricultural producers. His Bharatiya Janata Party is keen to boost its support. Experts stated it was too soon to know if it would succeed ..
The prime minister asked protesters to return to their homes, but farmers said they would stay put until the laws were changed. This process will start in December, when Parliament meets for its winter session.
“While I apologize to the nation, i want to say with sincere and pure hearts that maybe something was missing in our efforts that we couldn’t explain the truth to some farmer brothers,” Modi stated during the address. Modi said: “Let’s make a fresh beginning .”
The move represented a rare climbdown for the 71-year-old leader, who has stood firm in the face of fierce criticism over other steps his government took, such as abruptly banning high-denomination currency notes and revoking Muslim majority Kashmir’s semiautonomous powers.
He supported a citizenship law excluding Muslim immigrants , despite violent protests.
Farmers are an important voting bloc in India, both because of their sheer numbers and also because they are often portrayed as the heart and soul the country. Modi considers them to be a key part of his base, and they make up significant portions of the population in certain states where his party is ruling.
“Modi portrays himself as a determined, bold leader who does not back down. He’s done it, and to a farmer movement that his government had been maligning for months,” Michael Kugelman from the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Asia Program said.
Modi has long supported the laws that were passed last September as necessary to modernize India’s agricultural sector. But farmers feared they would end a system under which the government guaranteed prices for certain essential crops — first introduced in the 1960s to help shore up food reserves and prevent shortages.
While the government stated that it would guarantee the prices would remain stable, farmers demanded legislation stating that such prices were their legal right. They argued that they would be subject to the markets without any guarantees and that this would lead to disaster for those who have less than one hectare (2 1/2 acres).
Modi was also criticised for not extending debate on the legislation – reaffirming allegations that it has too often used its majority in order to pass laws without sufficient consultation.
Protests against laws escalated last November, when farmers camped out on New Delhi’s outskirts, following a severe winter and a coronavirus epidemic that decimated India earlier in the year.
While protests have been peaceful, demonstrators stormed the historical Red Fort at the capital’s centre — a symbolic act that showed the magnitude of their challenge against Modi’s government. One protester was killed and many others were injured in clashes with police.
Dozens of farmers also died by suicide or because of bad weather or COVID-19 during the demonstrations that have drawn international support from rights campaigners and celebrities, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and superstar Rihanna.
” Finally, all our hard work paid off. Rakesh Tikait (a prominent farmer leader) said, “I salute the brother farmers who were martyred during this battle.”
Celebrations at Ghazipur (one of the demonstration areas on the outskirts New Delhi) were subdued but some farmers gave out sweets and danced along to popular songs.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha was the group representing farm unions that organized the protests. It said it appreciated the announcement by the government but would continue protests until the government recommits the system of guaranteed price. The protesters had long rejected a government offer to suspend the laws for 18 months.
Modi party hails the decision as one that prioritizes farmers.
Jagatprakash Nadda (president of the ruling BJP) said in a tweet, “Modi has again proven that he is committed towards the welfare of farmers .”
But Gilles Verniers a professor in political science at Ashoka University New Delhi, stated that although the announcement is significant, it will be difficult for the government to convince farmers that the repeal of the ban is anything more than political expediency.
” The government will spin this as the PM listening, but after a year’s worth of protests, acrimony, and violence, it’s likely that that notion won’t stick,” stated Verniers.
The announcement was made on Guru Purab day, when Sikhs celebrate Guru Nanak’s birthday. These laws have aggravated the Sikh community, which is the largest in Punjab, one the states that will be holding elections.
At first, Modi’s government tried to discredit Sikh farmers by dismissing them as religious nationalism. Modi’s party leaders called them “Khalistanis”, referring to a movement to create an independent Sikh homeland.
These allegations were a backfire and further upset the farmers.
Opposition leaders who called the laws exploitative earlier and supported the protests, congratulated farmers.
” The country’s farmers made arrogance bow their heads through resistance,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition Congress party. “Congratulations for the victory against injustice !”
Associated Press journalists Shonal Ganguly and Krutika Pathi contributed to this report.
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