What Should We Learn from India’s Farmers’ Protests?

Outside the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., a saffron-turbaned man distributes water bottles to families of protestors with signs reading, “No Farmers, No Food.”  The protest represents growing international concern, particularly from Indian diaspora communities, towards Indian farmers peacefully protesting recent farm bills that would deregulate Indian agriculture.

As the protest concludes in D.C., my family and I leave; a woman stops us, spotting our posters. She asks me, “it makes sense that protests are going on there [India], but why are you all protesting here?” She was really asking, in an era of protests, why the hell should the global community care and why have these particular protests gathered such sustained momentum? The answer lies not so much in what the protests counter, but how protesters are actually protesting in New Delhi.

The eerie parallel of images of Sikh protestor Ranjit Singh’s face under the boot of an Indian police officer and the photo of an American policeman’s knee on George Floyd’s neck reminds us that injustice unchecked reverberates beyond borders. For over four months, farmer protesters have peacefully camped in their tractors and trolleys outside New Delhi.  India’s farm bills, aimed at deregulating agriculture, would abruptly halt farmers’ agrarian livelihoods and cause ecological degradation, a shift reminiscent of American agricultural deregulation that historically crippled small-scale farmers and accelerated desertification.

The demonstrators face teargas and water cannons from police officers, as well as violence from extreme right-wing supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  India’s government has repeatedly blocked internet, cell service, and water access at protest sites.  Yet, the government’s attempts to quietly suffocate a growing protest have failed, due to the unwavering unified nature of the protests.  In previous months, Rihanna and Greta Thunberg’s tweets in support of the farmers have placed an international spotlight on the issue.  As the U.S. faces its own mounting political and cultural polarization in the wake of Trump, India’s protests reveal a promising antidote to growing right-wing populism and ethnic nationalism abroad.

With help from polarizing rhetoric, the best fertilizer for the weed of right-wing populism lies in limiting one’s identity to a particular religion, ethnicity, or political party.  Modi’s BJP represents an increasingly narrow idea of “Indian,” one that aligns with a Hindu nationalist image.  Here in the States, the fallout from Trump’s administration reminds us of a particular growing conception of Americanness confined to white supremacy and party affiliation.  When we limit our identity to narrow in-groups, we create an “us” and inevitably create a “them,” as exhibited by the growing polarization within India and the U.S.

In his poignant article published shortly after Trump’s election, Andrés Rondón articulates strategies for countering populism by resisting polarization and locating common ground with others.  By embodying these strategies and more, the farmers’ protests in India represent the antithesis of populism and serve as blueprint for countering such polarization.  The protests represent a diverse assemblage of religious identity, caste, political affiliation, age, and vocation.  Protesters include farmers, celebrities, and middle class urbanites united by a universal concern for food and farming.  We all must eat, and food comes with no demographic.

In broadening Indian identification beyond religious or class-based affiliation, the protestors have turned protest sites into a shared commons, spatially and ideologically. On a daily basis, protesters offer food to policemen and the impoverished in the tradition of the Sikh free kitchen (langar) run on voluntary service.  Field hospitals organized by protestors serve police officers and demonstrators alike.  These radically collectivist efforts minimize polarization and contempt for the abstract “Other,” no small feat against Modi’s strongarm tactics. While most protests today deepen identity-based divisions (remember the Capitol insurrection?), India’s protesters represent a rare, diverse assemblage of religion, caste, age, and vocation united by a universal concern for food and farming.

This is what we should learn from the farmers’ protests— how to face growing polarization by arming oneself with pluralism, inclusiveness, and peaceful democratic opposition. In the U.S. and India only these sorts of efforts can serve as an antidote to the disease of radical populism and constricted identity politics.

It is no coincidence that the farmers’ protest in India represents one of the largest in history and continues to grow.  The obvious negative impact of the farm bills would reverberate environmentally, economically, and culturally within and beyond India, and evidentially the world ought to care.  Modi’s continued neoliberal demarcation of land as a commodified resource to be privatized conflicts with conceptions of land as a way of life and cultural fabric for India’s farmers. However, the true exceptionality of the protests and its growing support relies on the distinctive nature of how they are conducted.

From this example, the global community must learn how to face growing ethnic nationalism and political divide with unified inclusivity on common ground, rather than contempt for the other.  The protesters have collectively embraced diversity and broaden Indian identification beyond religious or political affiliation; similarly, we must broaden, rather than constrict, national identity in the context of globalization.  Only when we adopt such collective pluralism will we overcome polarized populism.

Harleen Kaur Bal is a doctoral student of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Davis and the proud granddaughter of Punjabi farmers.