India’s highest court has decided to suspend temporarily the implementation of new farming laws that led to a huge, weeks-long protest movement.
But far from being a victory for those besieging the New Delhi capital, the move is a ruling class ruse designed to demobilise the movement.
The hard right government of Narendra Modi and his BJP party last year rushed through the new laws. They reduce state support for farmers and create more space for giant agribusiness firms to take over.
Modi is desperate for the Indian economy to grow and for the middle classes to prosper. He hoped his “reforms” would lead to bigger and more efficient farms replacing the smallest—undoubtedly at the cost of millions of poor farmers.
But a huge movement of farmers has spread across India with thousands blocking the main roads into Delhi. A “tractor protest” planned for later this month could see hundreds of thousands of farm vehicles bringing the country to a halt.
India’s most powerful judges, fearful that such actions could trigger a far wider protest against the government, have intervened. They have suspended the implementation of the new laws while a commission, chosen from their own ranks, investigates the issue.
This, they hoped, would be enough to get farmers’ leaders to end their protests.
But instead the plan appears to have backfired.
It soon became clear that three of the four judges asked to preside over the “investigation” have already publicly supported the farming laws. A forth judge said he supported them with a few reservations.
Farmers’ leaders were quick to declare the move a politically motivated “trick”.
“This is the government tactic to reduce pressure on itself”, said Balbir Singh Rajewal, a leader of one of the farmer unions.
“All the committee members are pro-government. All are people who so far justified the government laws—they are writing articles to justify the government law. We have decided that our agitation will continue.”
The judges attempt to end the movement is a sign of growing nervousness among the ruling class.
The farmers’ movement has acted a lightning rod for discontent across India, and has led to a huge outpouring of solidarity. The camps outside Delhi and beyond have been showered with gifts of food, clothing and material for shelter.
They have also become a remarkable display of resistance culture, with plays, poetry, storytelling and education all part of daily life.
However, there remain dangers to the movement.
The Modi government is desperate to make a deal, but cannot be seen to lose face or sacrifice their long-sought agriculture reforms.
Its next move will surely be to try and split the opposition. It could either offer concessions that appeal to particular regions, or offer bribes to those farmers with slightly more land than those of the poorest.
But the government is also trying other tactics.
Much of the opposition in Delhi comes from farmers in nearby Punjab. Modi’s ministers have been plying the right wing media with stories of farmers’ protests being a ploy by those wanting a separate Sikh state—a Khalistan.
And, when dealing with other regions, the BJP and its allies will surely resort to their most favoured tactic—the demonisation of Muslims.
The best way to counter Modi’s challenges is not only to continue with the planned escalation of the farmers’ protests, but to spread the resistance still further.
Already, groups calling themselves “farmers’ daughters” have declared they too are ready to descend on the capital. Many are learning to drive tractors so they can lead the protests at the end of January.
They should be joined by the millions of workers in India’s giant trade unions.
Workers have their own battles with the government, and last year held a massive one-day general strike. Since then some union leaders have talked about a prolonged strike, held partly in support of the farmers.
That power has the ability crush Modi’s plans—and deliver on the fight for jobs, pay and against privatisation that so many lives are depending on.
Workers and farmers together is surely the stuff of Modi’s nightmares.