IF WE WERE TO BELIEVE the Narendra Modi government and the neoliberal commentariat, over a hundred thousand protesting farmers—most of whom have spent their lives working their farms, producing crops and selling them at local mandis—know nothing about farming, are being misled by rogue elements and do not realise what is being done for their own good.
The three farm laws that were rammed through by the government in 2020, and are now on hold, are aimed at remaking India’s agricultural economy. According to the new laws, the buying and selling of farm produce can now occur in “any place of production, collection, aggregation,” apart from government-run mandis; private players can enter into negotiations with farmers on pre-arranged contracts and arrive at their own pricing; and the government can no longer impose a limit on traders to stock products.
Modi has called it a “watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture,” and the move has been welcomed by most economists as a step in the right direction. This includes Ashok Gulati, a member of the agriculture taskforce set up by the prime minister under the NITI Aayog; Gita Gopinath, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund; and Surjit Bhalla, executive director for India at the IMF. Under the guise of expertise and knowledge, what is evident in much of the commentary in favour of the laws is an upper-caste condescension that seeks to disguise the upper castes’ own rather partisan interests in the matter. In a country where professions largely continue to be hereditary, this has everything to do with the presumed hierarchy of knowledge. The Modi government and its supporters would dare not presume to teach Brahmins how to deal in punditry, or Banias how to deal in money. (This magazine has also published this month a piece by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on how the farm laws further the ruling party’s long-standing project of reinforcing upper-caste political power.)