Indian farmers are still protesting, though you wouldn’t know it if you were only following Western (and primarily American) news sources. These brave farmers have led one of the largest labor uprisings in the world, blocking major highways into New Deli demanding that the government recall three disastrous laws that promise to deregulate the Indian agrarian markets.
The protests erupted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced three laws passed using his Bharatiya Janta Party’s majority in parliament without engaging stakeholders like farmers’ unions. They would collectively cut government regulation and oversight in farming and commerce, allowing farmers to sell directly to companies (or conversely, for companies to contract with farmers), but farmers protest that this act of total deregulation cuts a guaranteed price “floor” previously set by the government which would essentially make these small farmers de-facto employees of large corporations and vulnerable to market fluctuations or outright corporate takeovers.
According to CNN, the average Indian farmer earns about $140 per month, or 10,329 rupees, and most own fewer than three acres of land, so any cut in guaranteed prices could be disastrous to farmers and their families. Most farmers engage in subsistence farming, wherein they grow what they need to eat and sell the surplus. The majority of family farms will likely see no benefit from these laws.
Indian protestors’ position is explicit: these new laws are anti-farmer.
Prime Minister Modi claims that these laws would give farmers a chance to set their prices and sell directly to grocery chains and other businesses, allowing them more freedom. This rhetoric might echo an all-too-familiar sentiment to American readers inundated with similar libertarian arguments for deregulation at home.
Conservative lawmakers claim that environmental regulation stymies economic growth by choking out small businesses. Companies like Uber thrive on the backs of workers who can “set their own hours,” but these people are not their own bosses – they create profit for a massive corporation, given no choice but to work long hours because of a low hourly rate and little protection.
This rhetoric argues for false choice for the many and the freedom to exploit for the few. By using vague terms with positive cultural connotations like “freedom,” proponents of this system belies the real-world context in which most of us live – precarious and reliant on wages to survive, most do not have the luxury of choice. No one would choose to starve, and their acquiescence to abusive systems is celebrated as consent by the powerful. This is why the farmers are protesting.
Both the right-wing Indian media and Western mainstream media have done a disservice to farmers in their coverage of these protests. While Indian media falsely claims that protestors are funded by domestic and international terrorist groups, Western media likewise pushes a more subtle agenda.
American media is not known for its nuanced take on international affairs already, but its treatment of these protests often centers Western experiences, international markets, and neoliberal ideology ahead of the lives of the farmers who feed the world.
Take this CNN article that devotes most of its words to how the protests will impact American readers rather than explaining the laws and the extent that Modi’s government is attacking its workers. “The laws directly impact the farmers in India,” it starts, “but they could also have a significant impact on consumers globally, who rely on India for many key items such as turmeric, chili, and ginger.” While true, this centers global consumers rather than the farmers who have powerful leverage over the Indian government by wielding their status as the primary producers of such products.
Other articles’ attempts at value-neutrality end up framing the protests in an unnecessarily negative frame. This New York Times article begins with “Many have burned their fields in defiance of antipollution laws,” which may suggest that farmers are somehow pro-pollution, an unpopular opinion among its urbane readership.
The above article focuses on New Deli pollution, which does exacerbate the coronavirus in the nation’s capital. However, it does not present an argument from farmers about why they burn their fields until the final two paragraphs. It quotes a Punjab farmer who explains that many are forced to burn their crops because the alternatives are still too expensive, an important piece of context most readers will never see.
Other reports fail to provide the necessary context for Modi’s far-right government. Earlier this year, India erupted in similar protests over a new citizenship law that blatantly discriminated against Muslims. Modi’s government is explicitly Hindu-nationalist, and actively promotes xenophobia and Islamophobia in its vision of the Indian state. American readers might once again feel a pang of familiarity.
Even terms like pro-market can change the way a reader might see these new laws. Rather than anti-farmer or deregulatory, many call the three new laws pro-market in an attempt to give the Modi government the benefit of the doubt and echo their sentiment that the private sector will better meet Indian farmers’ needs. Blind trust in market economics is not objective but rather ideological, and these laws deserve a healthy dose of skepticism rather than neutral both-sides-ism.
Other reports, like this one from Foreign Policy, concern themselves with what the agrarian sector means for India’s faltering economy during the coronavirus pandemic and how, counter to the capitalist development of other Western countries, its technology and manufacturing sectors can’t replace farming in terms of employment.
This kind of reporting demonstrates a kind of intellectual curiosity coupled with bemused detachment. They report the facts about what’s happening on the ground, but not its importance or the bravery of the farmers. They cite economic facts rather than the indications that this could be the largest labor uprising in our history.
The most egregious way Western media misrepresents the Indian farmer protest is by not representing it at all. Within the last day, I’ve seen international news report that farmers have agreed to meet with the government to start negotiations; this is a huge development. However, the most recent American article I can find proclaims that the protests could set back India’s economic recovery from COVID, which once again puts the ephemeral idea of an economy ahead of the lives of the people who create that economy.
It’s like blaming frontline workers for struggling restaurants.
International solidarity with farmers will help pressure the Modi government to meet their demands, as the Prime Minister seems concerned with his government’s perception among Western countries and leaders. The Indian government already called Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s concern over police clashes with farmers “unacceptable.”
Led primarily by Sikhs and other Punjabi living abroad with direct familial ties to the farmers on strike, protests in solidarity with Indian Farmers have spread across Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved and show your solidarity with these farmers, but if that’s not available to you, simply being mindful of the ways our media portray these brave farmers is an important step in showing our solidarity.
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Cover image of a Sikh farmer showing an anti-government poster during the Indian farmers’ protest at the Singhu border. Photo by Pradeep Gaurs.