Repression of predominant-Sikh farm movement could stoke fears among Indian minorities

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Fri 11th Dec, 2020

A nationwide farmers movement has punctuated one of the largest food producing countries in the world with millions of Indian farmers from more than 450 unions and organizations in a grinding standoff with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Narendra Modi government, soliciting to repeal the newly invoked farm laws.

On September 20, the Indian parliament passed two scratchy farm Bills to reform the agriculture market in the country. A couple of days later, it enacted amendments in another Act to remove cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes from the list of essential commodities to boost private and foreign investment in the agronomy sector.

But legislations, opposed by opposition parties and dubbed as a "death warrant" to the farmers, outraged the vast agrarian community - fearing the relaxed rules around sale, pricing and storage of the farm produce would unprotect them from an unfettered free market. The revision also incurred wrath of the farmers over concerns about large players hoarding the essential items and stoking spike in commodity prices.

The protests threatened to take a violent turn after the agitating farmers, mostly from Indian "grain bowl" states of Haryana and Punjab as well as Uttar Pradesh, swarmed on the outskirts of the Indian capital. In Delhi, the marchers encountered a heavy-handed police response in late November and then again amid Tuesday's nationwide strike - Bharat Bandh (India shutdown) - the deployment of huge security forces posed risks of clampdown on the protesters.

Labeling farmers as "anti-India separatists" or linking protests with the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement insinuated that BJP leaders wanted use of force to take down "the first ever secular mass mobilization," against the Modi government. But a nascent strategy to curb the campaign in Punjab, where 75% of the total 21 million Sikh communities in India reside and hold a majority - faded away after the phenomenon went viral in the country.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for almost 58% of the Indian population and the agitators are not representing any specific state or religion as some in the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP administration are trying to imply. As more and more farmers are joining the protest every day, the demonstrations are being embraced nationally and internationally.

Unlike the late 1980s Khalistan armed struggle - stemmingfrom state repression of Sikhs, seeking political autonomy and some economic and religious concessions and leaving thousands of them dead - the ongoing protest is only a demand to protect the farmers' rights without any political or religious ambitions. This is the reason why the Bharat Bandh was endorsed by at least 20 regional and national political parties.

Since the farmers are not backing down on their demands and continue to build up pressure on the government to withdraw the Acts, believing that the regulatory measures were hurting them to benefit only corporations, the brewing crisis still can develop into a bitter clash between protesters and Indian forces.

After a state minister alleged China and Pakistan want to "destabilize" India, a BJP leader and Union minister on Wednesday claimed the farmer movement wasn't indigenous and Beijing and Islamabad "have a hand" behind the protests in India. He also accused that previously, the Muslims were incited over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens.

His remarks echoed controversial twitter threads of another BJP leader who equated the state election with India-Pakistan contest and asserted "Pakistan has already entered Shaheen Bagh and small pockets of Pakistan are being created in Delhi" to stir Hindu sentiments against Muslims, peacefully protesting against the religiously discriminated laws.

Making a blind connection between the farmer sit-ins and neighboring countries - with whom India's relations are at all-time lows over the border dispute and Kashmir issue - for gaining political objectives and justifying a potential cleanup, could be a dangerous gamble and might expose almost 244 million Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and other Indian minorities to the hardcore Hindu elements.

Given the protests are peaceful and getting strengthened with flocks of farmers trooping in from across north India, the saffron brigade's claims about foreign backing of the movement are replete with red herrings and an effort to ease the mounting international pressure on Delhi to allow the protesters to freely practice their basic right of peaceful demonstration.

Several global media outlets, journalists, leaders and lawmakers have slated the Indian government over its "state-sanctioned" violence against the peaceful protesters through a militarized police force, and seeprotests as a reminder to "a polarized and argumentative India" and urged the BJP Sarkar to end the "violent repression" of the farmers.

There can be no excuse for the BJP politicians to distract the world from its handling of the protests and explore any crackdown options. It is purely a rights movement of the Indian farmers that is exerting a pull on more than 263 million nationwide cultivators and agricultural laborers, accounting for about 55% of the total workforce in India.

With the protests now globalized, it is crucial for India to exercise restraint and politely rectify the gripes of the protesters. Any recourse to force must be shunned by the Modi administration through laying trumped-up charges on the farmers as "anti-national" or "anarchists," which would stoke fears of persecution among minorities in the country.

Photo by Deepak kumar

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