What do Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, Meena Harris, have in common? They’re all rallying support for India’s farmer protests, which are morphing from an arcane domestic dispute into an emotive international cause. And they’re all mostly wrong in their thinking.
“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” the singer tweeted to her 101 million followers Tuesday, with a link to a CNN article on the Indian government’s crackdown on protesters. “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India,” tweeted the Swedish teenage activist the same day. In a convoluted series of tweets, Ms. Harris, an author and entrepreneur, linked the Indian crackdown to last month’s Capitol Hill riot and Donald Trump while railing against “militant nationalism” and “FASCIST DICTATORS.”
The demonstrations are a serious national issue for Prime Minister
government. Since late November, tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from the prosperous northern states of Punjab and Haryana, have camped on Delhi’s borders to protest new agricultural reforms that reduce the government’s rule in procuring produce and encourage the private sector by easing restrictions on contract farming and investment in modern cold-storage chains.
The protests simmered for months before exploding into violence on Jan. 26, Republic Day. Tens of thousands of farmers stormed the national capital, battling cops and marring a national celebration. Protesters hoisted a Sikh religious flag on a flagpole at the Red Fort, a symbolic seat of power. One farmer died when his speeding tractor overturned at a barrier, according to police.
A standoff continues between the government and protesters at three sites on Delhi’s borders. Farmers face thousands of police in riot gear behind concrete barriers, coils of barbed wire and iron spikes.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrities taking an interest in events half a world away. But when it comes to the farmer protests, celebrity
activism is based on a reductive caricature of complex issues as a faceoff between colorfully turbaned sons of the soil and a thuggish government backed by evil corporations.
If you dig into the details, the moral questions become less clear. Protesting farmers may have understandable fears about their futures, but they come mostly from a relatively privileged minority who benefit from an unsustainable procurement system set up more than 50 years ago. India’s leading experts on agriculture have urged reform for at least two decades. If implemented, the new laws would likely help many more farmers than they will hurt.
The idea that the government wants to oppress farmers, who make up about half the country’s work force, is absurd. If anything, it’s trying to help them by allowing market forces to generate prosperity. Should the government back down—it has already offered to delay implementation for 18 months to two years—it will mark a major setback for economic reform in India and narrow opportunities for the majority of Indian farmers, who are not on the streets protesting.
What about the environment, Ms. Thunberg’s pet issue? India’s current agricultural policies have contributed to an environmental disaster. Free electricity has led farmers in Punjab to lower the water table dangerously by pumping groundwater to grow rice in a traditionally wheat-producing region. Fertilizer subsidies have led to the overuse of urea, poisoning ground water. Every winter, farmers across northern India burn stubble left over from the rice harvest, contributing to the world’s most polluted air. The new laws don’t address these issues directly, but they take a step toward dismantling a dysfunctional system.
On human rights, government critics have a stronger case. Earlier this week, in characteristically heavy-handed fashion, the government forced Twitter briefly to withhold prominent protest-friendly handles from India. Authorities have cut off internet access at protest sites. A clutch of prominent journalists face sedition charges for reporting unverified allegations against the police by protesters. Many supporters of Mr. Modi and his party cheer on this tin-pot authoritarianism. Some of them also tar, unfairly and absurdly, every Sikh who disagrees with them as a separatist.
On the whole, though, the government, wary of voter backlash, has treated the farmers relatively gently. Violent protesters injured hundreds of police on Republic Day. Indian security forces have shot people dead for less. Mr. Modi’s record on human rights is undeniably shabby, but if you’re looking for abuses, the farmer protests (at least so far) are not the best place to find them.
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