A sudden announcement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw the highly contentious farm laws in that country is being met with cautious optimism by many diaspora Indians in Canada. But some say they won’t feel relief until the laws are formally repealed.
The surprise move comes over a year after Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government instituted the laws, first by ordinance and then passing them without consultation with either farmers’ unions or state governments.
The farm acts sparked a year of massive protests in India — at times deadly — during which tens of thousands of farmers took part in a movement to march to the capital.
Demonstrations were also held in Canada, including rallies in front of the Indian consulate in downtown Toronto, where hundreds turned out in solidarity with Indian farmers, who were in many cases their own family and friends.
Opponents of the laws said they meant an end to guaranteed pricing, forcing farmers to sell crops to corporations at cheaper prices and leave them with no right to take disputes with those corporations to court, with conflicts instead settled by bureaucrats.
Friday brought an about-face from Modi, who promised that the laws will be repealed beginning in December.
“I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that maybe something was lacking in our efforts that we could not explain the truth to some of our farmer brothers,” he said in a televised speech.
“Let’s us make a fresh start.”
‘A crack’ in the edifice
At the Shromani Sikh Sangat Temple in Toronto’s east end, Gurshan Singh, who comes from a farming family, was wary of the announcement.
“I don’t consider it done yet because the prime minister has announced that it will be repealed but the procedure still has to happen,” Singh said in Punjabi, speaking to CBC News through an interpreter.
Singh said his entire village went out to protest against the laws.
“People were martyred … people lost their children,” he said. And while some 700 people are believed to have died in the process, he said he’s thankful his own family is safe.
“I’m happy,” he said. “But I’m still not sure.”
For Sanjay Ruparelia, a professor of politics and public administration at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the sudden news is part of a much larger story about the rise of autocracy in India over the last seven years.
“I think a lot of people are wanting to see whether this movement now has made a crack in that edifice,” he said.
But farmers have good reason to be skeptical after the lengths the government went to sideline protesters, going so far as to suggest they had been infiltrated by Sikh separatists, he said.
“There’s no truth to these claims. The government just wanted to delegitimize and undermine the protests, and that really inflamed the situation and sowed even greater distrust among the farmers’ unions,” said Ruparelia.
“They already felt that they weren’t consulted on these laws, they already felt that the laws would harm their interests and now they were being painted as terrorists and anti-national forces.”
In recent years, opposition parties have won victories in some state elections but have been unable to “really weaken the dominance of the party and particularly its Hindu nationalist program,” he said.
In that sense, he says, this victory could be a turning point, Ruparelia said.
‘You can’t subtract the politics out of it’
Between a perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the controversial farming laws and civil society groups being maligned, trust in India’s federal government is fractured, Ruparelia said. And with elections coming up in two important states — Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — the government may well have feared it might lose its grip on power.
As for the impact in Canada, he says, the reaction here is sure to be divided.
This is an underdog story. To see them victorious, it’s hard to put it into words.– Jaskaran Sandhu, World Sikh Organization
“There are many, many citizens and residents of Canada who are part of the larger diaspora with very strong connections to the parts of the country, which have really led this movement,” he said.
Jaskaran Sandhu, director of administration with the World Sikh Organization, agrees.
“You can’t subtract the politics out of it,” said Sandhu. “At the end of the day it’s hard to trust Modi, it’s hard to trust someone who has been fighting you tooth and nail for a year … it’s hard to trust a government that refused to consult with you from the beginning.”
Over the past year or so, Sandhu says he’s watched the the protests through the eyes of his own friends and family on the ground, while focusing his own efforts in Canada on advocacy. One of his own initiatives, he says, was to co-found and launch the platform Baaz News, which made it a priority to shine a light on farmers’ stories.
Sandhu says he awoke to dozens of messages from family and friends sharing congratulations over the move on Friday morning.
“This is an underdog story. To see them victorious, it’s hard to put it into words,” he said. “I think it’s a monumental moment for the diaspora.”
But amid that sense of victory is also trepidation.
“No one’s getting up and leaving just yet.”