Hundreds of thousands of farmers, representing more than 40 unions, have been protesting in India since September 2020. Businesses should prepare for prolonged, and occasionally unpredictable disruptions. With a combination of increasingly domineering policies by the current government sparking political discontent, and deep economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19’s devastating effect on the Indian economy, continued protest is likely. Such dynamics make for an uncertain situation during which business owners should be vigilant to the increased threat level.
Protests are occurring in a volatile geopolitical period for India, including mounting tensions with China over skirmishes on the Himalayan border, pulling out of the recently launched Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, blocking Amnesty International from being able to operate, and the revoking of Jammu and Kashmir’s political autonomy in 2019.
Starting in Punjab in late September, demonstrations spread across India all the way to Haryana. The main protest sites are currently on the Singhu, Gazipur and Tikri borders with Delhi, Singhu being the epicentre. Farmers have arrived in tremendous numbers with the intention of marching on Delhi. This has since developed into a showdown on the borders of the capital, with police keeping demonstrators out of the city by blocking the five main roads. The result is encampments, which have sprung up in a large ring around the capital, currently occupying 1,500 square kilometres. These protests are the biggest India has ever seen under Narendra Modi’s government. Organisers put the figure at around 100,000, and police say the number of tractors and other vehicles that are currently blocking Delhi’s main roads may be up to 30,000 (Parkin, 2021).
The degree of planning, amount of provisions brought by farmers, and sense of community and solidarity that quickly formed, are all signs that point towards prolonged occupation of the main roads by farmers. A combination of Modi’s track record of reluctance to back down to protests, along with the influential position held by agricultural workers in Indian society, makes for a volatile political and societal situation in the short to medium term. Therefore, businesses based in Delhi and those planning to operate in the city should expect continued disruption to travel and logistics, and be prepared to move away from spontaneous break outs of violence between protesters and police.
The most common protest tactic deployed by farmers has been peaceful sit-ins, while orderly tractor parades are also common. Demonstration and occupation is predominantly peaceful, aiming first and foremost to be disruptive and inconvenient. There is, however, precedent for increased violence. On January 26, 2021 – the country’s Republic Day – a number of protesters clashed with police after diverting from a prearranged demonstration route. This outbreak of violence included protesters scaling Delhi’s Red Fort, an important symbolic site, and planting a Sikh flag.
Violence should be expected on significant holidays or anniversaries, as well as in response to government or judicial decisions. The likelihood of violence is elevated on certain days such as historical, religious or cultural anniversaries of significance, which often stir emotions of patriotism and anger. Events widely covered by the media are likely targets by protestors, as the attention helps promote the protestor's cause. Businesses should be on high alert during these events.
Protesters have also been cooperative, with union leaders gaining permission for their Republic Day rally that included the provision of 3,000 volunteers to ensure farmers followed the police-sanctioned routes (Tiphagne, 2021). After breakouts of violence on January 26, larger protest groups distanced themselves from violence, wanting to convey support for the predominantly peaceful tactics that had so far characterized past rallies (BBC News, 2021).
For the most part, public opinion amongst those protesting and those observing has been relatively positive. However, large, persistent protest movements have been known to demonstrate a vicious cycle of violence, causing greater splintering and competing faction formation. The potential for developments to turn violent are further elevated in a country such as India that has a diverse population against the backdrop of a nationalist Hindu government. This development would likely increase the disruption currently experienced by businesses.
In addition, increased violence and anger towards the protesters from Delhi locals is a distinct possibility if the sit-ins continue. Their lives and livelihoods have been greatly disrupted by the pandemic already. The combination of a pandemic and one of the greatest protest movements seen in recent times will likely push patience and tolerance to breaking points. Given India’s diversity, unified, peaceful protest movements such as these are an anomaly. As a result, it is likely that ethno-religious tensions, compounded by protests and COVID-19, may come to blow soon. Indeed, the potential for this has already materialised, when on January 29, approximately 300 people threw stones at farmers camping in the area of Singhu, citing continued disruptions to their business as the reason for their outburst (Sharma, 2021).
Tactics by police have included the use of water canons and tear gas. Police have erected barricades to control the flow of vehicles and protesters, with over 40,000 officers deployed at the Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri borders with Delhi. Police have created fort-like conditions; this wartime infrastructure suggests it is not just the farmers who are in it for the long haul. In regions such as Uttarakhand and Bihar, where Modi’s party wields strong influence, citizens have reported being directly threatened by police.
Internet, mobile phone, electricity and water supply have been suspended as well. Such measures have a direct impact on businesses operating in the area, which should be prepared for losing these utilities without warning. The government has also demanded that Twitter blocks the accounts of some journalists and politicians, claiming they are stoking dissent. Business leaders should be wary of these actions, and refrain from commenting on protests, government affairs, and policy in a public setting. Reputational risk is high should Delhi retaliate against criticism from the private sector if provoked.
The government has also insinuated that protesters are Sikh separatists and terrorists. The BJP has circulated old photographs of Sikhs waving secessionist placards to falsely assert they are part of the current protests (The Economist, 2021). The government hopes that sowing seeds of division, in what has up to now been a movement with widespread support across religious and ethnic groups, may work in their favour. Manipulation of public perception of certain groups could lead to increased harassment or violence shown towards these groups, therefore causing an uptick in violence. This would be favourable to the government, as it would justify increasingly repressive tactics to stamp out dissent and restore public order. It would be a win for the BJP government if its attempt to dissolve and weaken what has so far been a remarkably resilient, uniform and powerful movement, worked. But, the risk of this approach backfiring can also not be ignored. Fermenting sectarian division could lead to more clashes, if not outright conflict.
While the farmer protest movement is currently secular in nature, despite government attempts to suggest otherwise, there is a small chance that if protests continue and fatigue grows, the Sikh identity of many of the farmers could cramp the movement, associating it more directly with a non-majority religion, at a time of ever increasing Hindu nationalism. The Indian Sikh community has campaigned since the 1960s for the formation of an autonomous region called Khalistan. False suggestions by the government that the Sikh farmers are in fact separatists campaigning for independence has very real potential to quickly colour what is currently a secular campaign. The longer protests continue, which they appear likely to do, the greater the risk to the safety of farmers, if they become targeted for their Sikh identity. At present, the risk of terrorist violence is low, but the threat of terrorist activity if the current protest trajectory of minimal compromise-seeking by either party continues may increase.
The eleven rounds of unsuccessful negotiations that have taken place further suggests a continuation of the complex, volatile situation in Delhi. Despite offers from the government to suspend laws, farmers and their unions refuse to budge. The legislation proposed was drafted with little to no consultation by parliament to the farmers unions. This resulted in poor legislation that threatened the security of many farmers’ livelihoods.
The current agricultural system has been in place for decades, largely unreformed as a result of its great entrenchment as well as deep anxieties held by farmers who have no other safety net other than the government-secured minimum price level for crops. Now that this singular safety net is jeopardised, a sizable section of Indian society is steadfastly fighting for its survival.
The most likely outcome is a new, joint session between farmers and parliament to draft a set of agricultural reform that secures safety and security for farmers, while overhauling the current system in place. This will reduce the risk of possible future security threats such as civil unrest or even terrorism. Despite this, should the government opt out of a joint session, and move to state-sanctioned violence against farmers, there will certainly be an escalation between the two parties. Another possible, but less likely, scenario, is that these protests simply dissolve, as is common with many of India’s protests. The onset of the pandemic ended large protests against an amendment to citizenship laws in 2020. External events or pressures could of course derail the protests, the country currently going through enormous political, economic struggles.
Farmers have repeatedly argued for these laws to be repealed entirely and nothing less. The stiff bargaining positions of both parties make resolution seem unlikely in the short term. This environment has the ingredients for a prolonged-standoff at best, and a rapid deterioration of relations at worst. The gravity and momentum of the protests means the situation in India is likely to remain relatively uncertain and unstable. If the Modi government continues to remain steadfast or substantial mitigating factors do not arise, it is highly probable that the protesters will persist for the foreseeable future. Moreover, even if the farmers do achieve a repeal of the laws, there is a possibility that Modi may seek retribution in some other form. Therefore, when considering the fragile and dynamic nature of the protests, combined with the geopolitical complexity currently facing India, this report suggests that current or prospective enterprises should exercise considerable caution when conducting Indian business operations.
BBC News., 2021. Red Fort violence: Delhi police detain 200 after farmer protests. BBC News, [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55817628> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
Parkin, B., 2021. Farmers flood into New Delhi to vent anger over agriculture reforms. Financial Times, [online] Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/0312fd46-b47e-4c55-b007-c56f5e6f24be> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
Sharma, A., 2021. India’s Opposition Shuns Parliament, Backs Farmers’ Demands. The Diplomat, [online] Available at: <https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/indias-opposition-shuns-parliament-backs-farmers-demands/> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
The Economist, 2021. India’s Supreme Court suspends the government’s farm reforms. [online] Available at: <https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/01/14/indias-supreme-court-suspends-the-governments-farm-reforms> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
Tiphagne, A., 2021. Dispatches From the India Farmers’ Tractor Rally. The Diplomat, [online] Available at: <https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/dispatches-from-the-india-farmers-tractor-rally/> [Accessed 25 February 2021].