Explainer: Why Indian farm protesters have taken their tractors to Delhi

Image credit: Gurpreet Kaur

By Minreet Kaur

Thousands of farmers in India have been protesting for more than six months against three agricultural laws passed by the Indian government. Most of them are Sikh and from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana.

First, the farmers protested in their own towns, but in November they drove their tractors to the outskirts of Delhi. Here they set up three protest camps, around the capital, in Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri. With support of charitable organisations such as Khalsa Aid, United Sikhs and the Sikh Assembly, they put up tents and built homes in their tractor trailers, set up kitchens, shops and libraries, and have vowed not to move until the farm laws are repealed.

The Indian prime minister, Narenda Modi, says the laws are intended to modernise India’s agriculture, and will give farmers more choice to offer their produce to new buyers and attract new investment to the agricultural sector, but the changes have galvanised opposition from the Sikh diaspora.

One of the main changes allows farmers to sell at a market price directly to wholesalers, supermarkets and online grocers. Most farmers previously sold to government-controlled wholesale markets, assured of a basic minimum price, the MSP.

The campaign website, Saving Punjab, says: “These new reforms take away the safety net of MSP and give power to corporations to dictate crop prices and further unsettle the already fragile relationship between farmers and the market.”

More than half of India’s workforce is involved in farming. The protesting farmers, 85 per cent of whom own five acres or less, have long struggled with poverty and debt, and suicide rates are high: an estimated 22,000 have killed themselves in the past 20 years.

Shamsher Singh, a 32-year-old farmer from Ropar, said: “We will not go back. We are the followers of Guru Gobind Singh [the 10th Sikh guru, who transformed the faith]. We have to die some day. Rather than dying in hospital taking medicines, it’s better to die a martyr.”

Police have used tear gas and charged at the protesters with batons. Barricades and barbed wire have surrounded their camps, and the internet, water and food supplies have been cut off. More than 100 protesters have been injured and a farmer, 26, died when his tractor overturned after hitting a police barrier.

There are claims that at least one female activist was detained and sexually assaulted. She has still not been released.

K. K. Venugopal, India’s attorney-general, claimed in court that the farmers’ protests had been infiltrated by the Khalistani Sikh separatist movement. He was asked to provide an affidavit to that effect. There were further allegations that farmers raised the Khalistan flag on the Red Fort, which they breached on Republic Day (26 January). Films on social media show no evidence of this, but that Sikh flags were hoisted there.

The Indian government has demanded that Twitter should suspend more than 1,000 accounts it claims are spreading misinformation about the protests. Twitter refused and the government threatened to jail Twitter employees for up to seven years unless they complied.

The protests have particular resonance in the UK, where most of the Sikh community are still connected to their ancestral homes with families owning farms and working the land. They fear smallholders and labourers will lose out, resulting in debt and an increase in suicide.

In the past month, celebrities including the singer Rihanna, the green campaigner Greta Thunberg, the boxer Amir Khan and TV presenter Maya Jama have shown their support for the protest, through tweets with the hashtags #FarmerProtest and #IStandWithFarmers.

More recently Jameela Jamil, star of the sitcom The Good Place, has shared on Instagram how she receives death and rape threats every time she speaks about the farmers’ protest.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the Labour MP for Slough, has written a letter to the prime minister that was signed by 100 MPs and a parliamentary petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures, triggering a Commons debate.

Mr Dhesi said: “I believe everyone deserves the right to a fair and peaceful protest, and therefore the UK Government needs to take a stand for human rights by conveying our and our constituents’ concerns to the Indian Government. Over 100 cross-party MPs have called on both the prime minister and the foreign secretary to raise these anxieties with the Indian prime minister. I hope that the situation can soon be resolved, so there’s an end to the misery for farmers, out protesting in freezing conditions.”