Thousands of Indian farmers celebrate 1 year with key protests

NEW DELHI (AP) – Thousands of cheering Indian farmers waving green and white flags on Friday marked the anniversary of …

NEW DELHI (AP) – Thousands of cheering Indian farmers waving green and white flags on Friday marked the anniversary of their movement by celebrating a victory that forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw three agricultural laws that farmers feared would reduce their income drastically and leave them at the mercy of companies.

Using tractors, jeeps and cars, farmers from neighboring New Delhi gathered last November on the highways on the outskirts of the capital, braving a harsh winter, a scorching summer and a devastating wave of coronavirus.

Farmers’ groups continue to camp, mainly at the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur border points with New Delhi, waiting for the laws to be officially withdrawn during a parliamentary session scheduled to begin next week.

Rakesh Tikait, a top farmer leader, said they also want government assurances of guaranteed prices for certain essential crops, such as wheat and rice – a system introduced in the 1960s to help India strengthen its food reserves and prevent shortages. He demanded that the government set up a committee to decide their demands.

“We will not leave until our other requirements are met,” he said. There was no immediate response from the government.

Lal Kumar, a 42-year-old farmer, said: “Modi has accepted the defeat.” With his low agricultural income, Kumar said he was not able to look after his family properly.

Farmers were worried that the now withdrawn laws would have left them to companies that would have no legal obligation to pay them guaranteed prices.

For Modi’s government, the demonstrations were its biggest challenge yet. Experts say important state elections in February-March could be a major reason for Modi’s turnaround.

Farmers constitute the most influential voting bloc in India and politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them.

Elections next year will cover Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and most populous, Uttarakhand and Punjab states, with Modi’s party hoping to win them back or strengthen its rule. The three states have a significant farming population, especially Punjab.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janati party is in charge of Uttar Pradesh but is under enormous pressure over its response to the pandemic and the struggling economy. If farmers leave his party, it will not only shrink its prospects of forming the state government for another term, but also weaken its chances of gaining an overwhelming majority in 2024 national elections.

Over the past year, dozens of farmers have died due to suicide, bad weather and COVID-19 during the demonstrations, which drew international support.

The protest has been largely peaceful. But the violence broke out on January 26, when thousands of peasants stormed New Delhi’s historic red fort and briefly took it over and hoisted a religious Sikh flag. Most are members of the Sikh minority.

At least one protester died and several were injured, as did more than 390 police officers.

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