Farmers in Amritsar burn an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani and Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani to protest against corporate businesses after farm bills were passed in Parliament. Photo: AFP / Narinder Nanu

MUMBAI – Indian farmers launched a one-day national strike on Tuesday that drew two dozen major national and state-level opposition parties and other discontented groups.

Major trade unions lent their support, directing shops and businesses to shut. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist who is coordinating with farmer unions, said the protest was observed in 10,000 places across 25 states. He said the strike, called at just four days’ notice, was very successful.

Protesters also held rallies across cities, stopping trucks and holding up road traffic in most parts of the country.

In the process, they have confronted Prime Minister Narendra Modi with one of the toughest challenges he’s faced since gaining power in 2014. The situation may be peaceful now but that’s no guarantee it will stay that way.

A hundred thousand farmers from northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan headed for New Delhi on November 26, angered by three new farm laws that the Modi government rushed through Parliament.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said he had been placed under house arrest since he visited farmers to pledge his support the evening before. Uttar Pradesh leader Akhilesh Yadav was also detained.

Farmers say the laws put them at a disadvantage in getting fair prices, and say other amendments are loaded in favor of influential corporate interests. Kerala state, for its part, said it plans to challenge the farm laws in the Supreme Court.

Others agree. “The Adani-Ambani Farm Laws have to be revoked,’’ Rahul Gandhi, former president of the Indian National Congress said, tying the laws to two industrial groups whose net worth has risen dramatically since 2014 and which are widely seen to be Modi allies. “Nothing less is acceptable.’’

Farmers insist the government must repeal the laws that it initially passed through an ordinance in May while the country was locked down under the pandemic. Later, the laws were rammed through parliament despite vehement protests by all opposition parties, which said the issue wasn’t given sufficient time for deliberations.

A farmer plays a snake charmer’s flute next to a buffalo, symbolizing the government not listening to their demands. Photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

The oppositionists argued that the legislation should have been referred to a select committee of parliamentarians because the issues it addresses are fundamental and far-reaching, affecting two-thirds of India’s 1.38 billion people.

The farmers have appreciated political parties’ support, but five rounds of talks with the government yielded only promises of more talk. Thus, they called for a national strike, making clear their intent was to draw attention rather than to cripple essential services.

The next round of talks is to be held on Wednesday.

For earlier day-long talks with the government, the farmers carried their own water and dined on meals cooked in community kitchens set up at protest sites. They declined government food and water at the meetings.

Supporting them are the Congress and other, state-level opposition parties, accounting for the governments of Maharashtra, Delhi, Telangana, West Bengal, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Pondicherry and Kerala, though in many cases the governments will keep essential services working.

Protests were initially led by Sikhs from Punjab, who moved in on the capital braving water cannons that were aimed at them despite winter temperatures. Metal and concrete barricades were set up to block highways. In adjoining Haryana, barbed wire barriers greeted them and parts of the highway had been dug up to prevent them from reaching Delhi.

Protesters who got as far as the outskirts of the capital but found the rest of the way blocked said they had come prepared with six months’ worth of rations and other essentials.

Overseas support for the farmers has been growing. In London, thousands of protestors reportedly marched on Sunday in Aldwych holding “We stand with farmers of Punjab” placards. Reports indicate similar protests in Birmingham, Vancouver, Australia and New Zealand.

As many as 36 members of parliament of the United Kingdom pledged their support to the farmers and asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to look into the need “to protect farmers from exploitation and to ensure fair prices for their produce. ‘’

Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke up for farmer rights, triggering a skirmish with India’s Foreign Ministry – which issued a demarche to the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi to lodge its protest.

Political observers say the government must find a solution before disaffection and frustration spread across a country where many are already disappointed with sliding economic performance, job losses and governance issues.

Farmers shout slogans as they protest against the Centre’s new farm laws at Singhu border near Delhi, India on November 27, 2020. Photo: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via AFP

The Congress is demanding a Parliament winter session to debate the laws. The government wants to avoid holding the scheduled winter session, citing the pandemic.

In fact, daily Covid-19 fatalities have declined sharply compared with September when the last session was held. Daily Covid-19 cases have slowed to their lowest level in five months. Historically, even during wartime, governments have never skipped scheduled sessions.

Especially in view of the high visibility of turbaned Sikhs at the forefront of the protests, the current disaffection has the potential to pose a threat to national security. Punjab borders Pakistan, which deftly fueled the Sikh separatist movement for a homeland, “Khalistan” in the 1980s and early 1990s, supplying funds and arms and lending vocal support.

Hundreds of lives were lost in the conflict including that of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards in October 1984.

While the militancy of the Khalistan movement ebbed, London-based Khalistan supporters are joining protests in front of India’s diplomatic missions in several overseas locations, including Canada. India is wary of letting the Khalistan movement gain fuel from the farmer protests and the global sympathy they’re generating.

Nearby trouble spots

The Punjab plains also provide passage to mountainous Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. China continues to sit on encroached-upon Ladakh territory, while Pakistan is encouraging terrorists in Kashmir. From primarily agrarian Punjab, almost every village sends men to India’s army and other security forces.

To demonstrate communal harmony, farmers are displaying religious symbols of all the four main religions in India Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Muslim supporters of farmers are given space in the middle of protestors to offer their Namaz prayers.

One interesting protest activity that’s gaining farmers wider sympathy and support involves retired soldiers flaunting their medals won in action, while sportsmen, actors, singers and others dissatisfied with the Modi government return their trophies in solidarity with the farmers.

Vijendra Singh, 2008 Beijing Olympics boxing medal winner, offered to return his Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India’s highest sporting honor.

His offer came soon after 92-year old Prakash Singh Badal, a leader of Shiromani Akali Dal party, declared he was returning his Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian award.

Badal’s party severed its quarter-century alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party, protesting against the farm laws. Badal has been associated with the founders of BJP since they formed the country’s first non-Congress opposition-led government in 1977.

Former Indian sportsmen and women march toward President’s House to return their awards in support of the farmers. Photo: AFP/ Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency

Sonia Gandhi, Congress president for two decades, won’t celebrate her birthday on December 9 in a show of solidarity with the farmers.

The government’s response to the farmers’ and opposition calls so far has been to toss the blame back in their court, claiming that changes in farm laws had been part of various parties’ agendas.

Some ruling-party functionaries called farmers pro-Khalistani and pro-Pakistan, while V K Singh, former army chief and now a minister in the Modi cabinet, said judging from the protesters’ clothing that they don’t look like poor farmers.

On the ground, protestors belonging to political parties are being caned and carried away by the police, with some burning rubber tires, stopping trains and blocking highways.

Farmers blocking traffic in Delhi’s outskirts have so far been non-violent. Some have organized blood donation camps to show their national commitment and as a reply to those who have referred to them as anti-national.