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What To Know About The Current State Of The Farmers' Protests In India


For months, farmers in India have been protesting around New Delhi. They're demanding the repeal of three laws passed by Indian Prime Minister Modi's government in September. The new laws deregulate wholesale produce markets, and the farmers fear loss of state protections will hurt their livelihoods. The protests turned violent last month when tens of thousands of farmers crossed into New Delhi. Several hundred police were injured. In recent days, high-profile celebrities like singer Rihanna and environmental activist Greta Thunberg have tweeted out their support in solidarity with the farmers.

Sadanand Dhume is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote a piece yesterday called Rihanna Rallies to the Wrong Cause in India. Welcome to the program.

SADANAND DHUME: Good to be here.

CORNISH: So why do you think this is the wrong cause, and what's wrong with celebrity embrace of it?

DHUME: Well, there's nothing wrong with the protests, per se. But I think the way in which the protests have been portrayed in the Western media is a bit of caricature. And I think the way most of us are viewing this in the U.S. is as a contest between these noble sons of the soil, who are the farmers, up against a thuggish government that is in bed with evil corporations.

CORNISH: I've read that the perception is that perhaps India's actually being quite gentle comparatively when it comes to how they're dealing with protesters. And some of these protesters, especially on the outskirts of Delhi, they haven't given in - right? - despite the fact that the government says, look; we'll delay the implementation of these laws for 18 months. What's going on there? What are the politics we don't know?

DHUME: So that's absolutely true. Now, it's a tricky thing to talk about because, obviously, some of the things that the government has done have been heavy-handed - right? - for example, the Internet shutdowns. Right now, if you look at the pictures coming out of the protest sites, there's barbed wire, there are concrete barriers. All of it looks, you know, quite intimidating.

But if you compare how the government has treated these protesters to how it treated protesters last year in anti-citizenship protests that were taking place, they have been far more careful. I don't say that this is because the government has suddenly discovered that it likes human rights, but for the simple reason that the farmers are a very powerful political constituency. Between 40% and 50% of India's workforce consists of farmers. So the government has to be very careful about the optics.

CORNISH: Is it also because they're not Muslim?

DHUME: For sure. And that's partly because the government and particularly the ruling party and the news channels associated with it have tended to demonize the Muslim minority. And the Muslim minority is very easily demonized, whereas this is much more complex. Not only are they farmers, but many of the farmers are Sikhs. There are many Sikhs who are serving in the army. It just becomes a little bit harder for them to use the usual playbook, which is to paint anybody who is opposed to government policies as somehow being opposed to India itself.

CORNISH: I want to come back to the issue of celebrity support. What's the government and public response been to this? Because I'm sure once there is this kind of high-profile solidarity, so to speak, it affects kind of how these things play out.

DHUME: The government response has been over the top. They have responded as though Rihanna was not an individual but an enemy country. They have marshalled Indian celebrities, both Bollywood actors and famous cricketers, in a way that is really reminiscent of a quasi-authoritarian state, where you have dozens of these celebrities tweeting exactly the same words at the same time and talking about how India is under threat and how India is going to stand up for itself. So the government has really - you know it's overreacted badly. It has made this a much bigger international story than it would have been otherwise. And it has, frankly, confirmed the fears of many that India is sliding away from democracy to a more authoritarian direction.

CORNISH: That was Sadanand Dhume. He's a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He writes about India and South Asia. Thank you for your time.

DHUME: Thank you for having me on your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN WITZIG'S "TAKE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.