After Prime Minister Narendra Modi made one of the biggest U-turns of his administration by withdrawing a set of farm laws, tens of thousands of protesting farmers packed up and cleared their protest sites on the outskirts of Delhi on Saturday, marking an end to a year-long strike.
Long convoys of tractors and trucks carried away protesters waving green and white flags and dancing to celebrate what they saw as a rare victory over the government.
“They are leaving the same way as they had come. Tractors after tractors, trollies after trollies – as far as the eyes can see,” wrote Hemani Bhandari, a reporter with The Hindu.
“Farmers have saved democracy. It was a fight for justice,” Nagendra Singh, a protesting farmer, told the Associated Press.
The victory march was initially slated for Friday but was postponed following the news that a helicopter crash had killed India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, along with his wife and 11 military personnel.
Asked about what would be the farmers’ next steps, farm union leader Rakesh Tikait told ANI: “We will talk, pray and meet the people who helped us.” He said he will leave the protest site on 15 December.
Though the government officially passed the bill to repeal the farm laws on 30 November, the farmers did not immediately disband their protest sites, instead insisting upon a number of other demands including a minimum support price — a rate for produce backed by the government — for more key crops, and the withdrawal of criminal cases against protesters.
It was after the government agreed to consider the pending demands, including forming a committee on minimum support prices that the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) union, which is spearheading the movement, called off their agitation. The government also agreed to drop criminal cases against farmers following clashes between protesters and the police, including those filed in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, reported NDTV.
For over a year, Mr. Modi’s government has insisted that the farm laws were necessary to modernise a heavily subsidised system that is no longer fit for purpose. The farmers, on the hand, resisted the reforms saying that it would drastically shrink their incomes and leave them at the mercy of big corporations.
Multiple attempts were made to discredit the agitation, with some of the leaders in Mr. Modi’s party calling the protesters Khalistanis —a reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland in India. Many of the protesters came from the agrarian state of Punjab, which has a large Sikh population.
But the allegations backfired, with farmers gaining continued support from international figures including teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and singer-actor Rihanna.
The surprise move to scrap the proposed reforms, announced in an address to the nation last month, came ahead of several key elections scheduled for early next year including the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where farmers form a crucial voting block, and where Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is eager to shore up its support.
“Modi apologised to farmers but only after resorting to dictatorship. We were called terrorists. He bowed to protests because of the upcoming elections,” Jaigran, another farmer who uses just one name, told the Associated Press.
While the protest largely remained peaceful, violence erupted on 26 January when thousands of farmers briefly took over Delhi’s Red Fort. At least one farmer died and a number of protesters and policemen were injured in the clashes.
Farmers’ groups estimate that over 750 farmers in all lost their lives during the year-long protest, due to a mix of causes including cold weather, Covid and suicide. (Source: Independent UK)