India’s Farmers Call Off Yearlong Protest Against Hated Farm Laws

NEW DELHI — Harminder Singh said he was going home.

“This is proof of unity,” said Mr. Singh, 23, overlooking a group of farmers dancing to Punjabi tunes and others helping themselves to spoonfuls of milky rice pudding as the news came in.

After a sustained protest that forced one of the country’s most powerful leaders into a rare retreat, India’s farmers said on Thursday that they were ending their action, more than a year after they laid siege outside New Delhi in response to farm laws that they feared would destroy their livelihoods.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned the nation last month when he announced that his government would repeal three laws that had been passed in September 2020 in an effort to overhaul the country’s struggling agricultural sector. At the time, he urged the farmers to go home, but they did not immediately do so, vowing to wait until the laws were formally done away with. Last week, Parliament made that happen, signing off on the repeal without debate.

The protesting farmers had other demands, and on Thursday they said Mr. Modi’s government had agreed, at least in principle, to discuss and resolve the major ones, including a countrywide law guaranteeing minimum prices for crops and a withdrawal of tens of thousands of charges filed against demonstrating farmers.

They were also seeking compensation for the families of people who lost their lives during the difficult conditions of a year of protests, such as from exposure to extreme temperatures, heart attacks and Covid-19.

“It’s a complete victory,” said Ramandeep Singh Mann, an engineer-turned farmers’ rights activist, wearing a pink turban. Yet he acknowledged that questions remained about whether the government would meet the additional demands, and who would be part of the government committee to discuss the guaranteed minimum prices. “In every movement, you don’t get everything,” he conceded.

Mr. Mann added that the fight for farmers’ rights was far from over, though the protest had been called off by farming unions and a majority of those involved would start returning to their villages as of Saturday. Mr. Mann said that some would continue to camp at the site until Jan. 15, when farmer organizations would gather once again to deliberate on the future of the movement. For now, he said, 85 percent of the people would start packing up and leaving.

“This is a long struggle, and we are capable of renewing our protest once again if needed,” he said.

The movement may have succeeded in calling attention to the desperation unfolding on India’s farms, but the battle is half won, experts say. Serious problems remain with India’s agriculture system, which incentivizes farmers to grow too much of the wrong kind of crops. Both sides recognize that something has to be done.

Devinder Sharma, an independent scientist and agricultural expert based in the northern city of Chandigarh, compared the farmers’ unexpected victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The repealing of the laws is similar to what happened in Berlin,” he said. “Indian farmers have shown the world the way to achieve freedom is to have a guaranteed income.”

The market-friendly laws brought in by Mr. Modi last year were described as an “agricultural revolution,” Mr. Sharma said. “But the markets have never given farmers a rightful income. The market edifice we have created as an answer hasn’t worked anywhere in the world.”

At Singhu village, the main protest site in New Delhi, where farmers have camped through winter rains and sweltering summer heat, the mood was both triumphant and cautious.

Tractors fitted with loudspeakers blared songs of victory as a small section of farmers sat on the ground holding posters demanding guaranteed prices and justice for those who were mowed down in a horrific incident in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Satnam Singh, a farmer wearing chains and locks across his chest in a display of protest, said he was going nowhere until the government decided to bring forth the law guaranteeing crop prices. “The protest is not over,” said Mr. Singh, 28, who said he had given up food for the last few days along with five others. “We will take this protest forward even if others return.”

Mr. Singh and his group of farmers pointed to the locks holding their chains. “MSP is the key to this protest’s end,” they said, using an abbreviation for minimum support prices.

Muhammad Jahangir, a 26-year-old student, appeared deeply suspicious of the government’s promises, saying committees were a way for Mr. Modi and farming unions to lead the protest movement astray. “Committees have never benefited farmers,” he said. “The farmer leaders want to move on to fight elections. Who cares about the farmers?”

Harminder Singh, the 23-year-old farmer, said he was proud that the movement had achieved what it set out to do in the first place: getting the laws repealed. “We will come back if we are asked to return,” he said.

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