Farmers india
Farmers shout slogans during a protest against the farm laws at Singhu Border, Delhi (File) Image Credit: ANI

On 1 December 2021, India cancelled the three controversial farm laws with President’s signature after Parliament’s approval.

On 19 November 2021, the Indian Prime Minister’s announcement about his government’s willingness to repeal these laws surprised many in India, particularly his party and supporting media.

India has witnessed several mass protests in the last seven years but is rarely successful in persuading or pressuring the government to change its policy decisions.

Protest is a critical part of democracy. Democracy is different from other forms of government because it provides the space for protest to emerge and mobilise its support.

The ruling BJP’s decision to repeal the farm laws is only the second time in seven years that it has blinked. The first one was way back in August 2015, when the government had taken back its Land Acquisition Act after a sustaining campaign by farmers.

The only two protests, which have successfully met their stated demands under the present regime in India, have three things in common. Firstly, the protesters in these two successful protests were farmers. Secondly, these two protests also sustained for a long and had a wider support base.

Thirdly, the government’s decision to retreat and accept protesters’ demands came before key state elections — the withdrawal of the Land Acquisition Act in 2015 just before the election in the state of Bihar and the repealing of farm laws in 2021 before the election in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

A larger pool of supporters

India is predominantly an agricultural economy, and 70% of its rural households earn their livelihood from agriculture. Thus, mobilising people to protest any legal or policy decision affecting farmers’ interests will likely get a larger pool of supporters.

In a segmented country like India, various ethno-religious divisions also restrict the more extensive mobilisation of protests on several issues. However, farmers in India are also not confined to a particular religious or caste group, and thus the protests on agricultural problems don’t suffer from that handicap.

Funds, legitimacy, and membership are three critical requirements in any protest. The landholding farmers in India have the necessary financial resources to support their protests. Their issues of contention also carry legitimacy as farmers, like soldiers, are seen in India as key contributors to nation-building and national security.

By adopting the novel strategies, a protest can get the media attention initially, but that is not sufficient to obtain an all-powerful government to agree to the demand. In 2017, around 100 farmers from Tamil Nadu carried out unique protests for months, holding live mice in their mouths, shaving half their heads, and stripping near the Prime Minister’s office.

They got the public’s attention but were unsuccessful in getting drought relief, farm loan waivers, or pensions for elderly farmers they were protesting for. They didn’t have the power of numbers like the other two successful farmers’ protests.

Why nonviolent protests work

Several research studies on civil resistance show that adopting violent tactics is less likely to make a protest successful. In the past, nonviolent protests worldwide have been twice effective in achieving their stated goals compared to violent campaigns.

Nonviolent protests attract larger and wider participation due to the low risk involved. If the police uses force against a nonviolent campaign, protesters are more likely to gain larger popular and international support. Furthermore, security forces also become reluctant in the long run to use repressive methods against peaceful protesters.

The two successful farmers’ protests in India have consistently adopted a nonviolent strategy despite serious provocations, which has helped them enlarge their strength and gain wider sympathy. The issues of contention and strategies embraced for the mobilisation have helped the farmers to keep the protest alive and growing.

However, a larger and longer nature of a protest does not guarantee its success. Sometimes protests succeed and sometimes fail. In some cases, protesters get concessions from the government; in others, they are ignored or suppressed. To determine the success and failure of a protest in achieving its stated objectives is not easy, and it becomes incredibly challenging in a hybrid democratic system.

The timing of BJP government’s concessions in both the successful farmers’ protests in India shows that the electoral calculation can be deciding factor for the protests to succeed.

While the election in Bihar provided the political opportunity to the protesting farmers to gain success against the Land Acquisition Act in 2015, the coming UP election created a similar opportunity structure for the triumph of farmers’ campaign against three farm bills.

However, the farming hardship being the cause of contention and the adoption of inclusive and nonviolent strategies helped the two farmers’ protests spread and sustain long enough to take advantage of opportunities offered by election politics.