Confronting State Violence: Lessons from India’s Farmer Protests

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Smita Narula, Haub Distinguished Professor of International Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

In December 2021, following a year of sustained mass protests, farmers in India forced the repeal of three controversial Farm Laws that attempted to deregulate India’s agricultural sector in service of corporate interests. Farmers feared that the laws would dismantle price supports for key crops, jeopardize their livelihoods, and facilitate a corporate takeover of India’s agrarian economy. This Article situates India’s historic farmer protests in the context of the country’s longstanding agrarian crisis and the corporate capture of agriculture worldwide. I argue that the protests arose in response not only to the Farm Laws, but also to decades of state-sponsored ecological and economic violence that have relegated millions of Indian farmers to a state of precarity and desperation. I further argue that the protests hold key insights for social movements around the globe, and for the future of food in India and beyond.

The Article analyzes the farmers’ protests using a four-part paradigm to assess contemporary movements for social change: Roots, Resistance, Reform, and Reconstruction. In so doing, it makes several contributions to legal scholarship. First, it makes visible the lived realities of India’s rural masses who have been left behind amidst the country’s celebrated economic growth. Second, it reveals the many ways in which State violence manifests, and how that violence is mediated through agricultural policies. Third, it demonstrates the power of mass nonviolent resistance as a strategic tool to confront State violence. And fourth, it explores the tension between reform and revolution. I argue that the farmers’ reformist demands do not sufficiently address the ecological harms and caste-based inequities that underpin India’s agrarian crisis. But the movement’s building of broad-based alliances across caste and class has opened the door to more transformative change.

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