South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia—a region that is home to one-fourth of the world’s population—written by the Wilson Center's Michael Kugelman. Delivered Thursday.

Why India’s Farmers Are Protesting

An estimated 250 million workers participated in a national strike against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm reforms.

Farmers chant slogans during a demonstration in New Delhi on Dec. 5.
Farmers chant slogans during a demonstration in New Delhi on Dec. 5. Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. Today: Why India’s farmers are protesting, Bhutan decriminalizes homosexuality, and Twitter stirs controversy in India.

Before we get to the news, a personal note: Readers, this is my final South Asia Brief. Right before Thanksgiving, I was named FP’s new editor in chief. In my new role, I plan to write more broadly for FP and have decided to pass on this newsletter to another writer, preferably based in the region.

If you know someone who could be a good fit, the job posting is here or you can email me at ravi.agrawal@foreignpolicy.com. Although I now live in New York, writing this newsletter has been a nice way to stay in touch with news and trends from across South Asia, my old stomping grounds. Thanks for your time and feedback, and I hope you’ll keep reading as this newsletter evolves with a new writer in 2021.

I also encourage you to subscribe to Foreign Policy. (We have special rupee rates for readers in India.)


Why India’s Farmers Are Protesting 

For more than two weeks, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have camped out around New Delhi to protest a set of farm bills passed by the country’s parliament in September. Thousands more from the neighboring states of Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh look set to join in the coming days, even as police try to block them from entering the city.

The protests are not an isolated movement. On Nov. 26, an estimated 250 million citizens participated in a 24-hour general strike held to challenge the new laws. The magnitude of the protests should not be a surprise: Agriculture employs about half of the Indian workforce, although it accounts for only one-sixth of India’s GDP.

What’s at stake? So far, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are holding firm against the protesters, arguing that the new laws will give farmers more autonomy, allow better marketing, and remove regulatory barriers. To some extent, the government has a point. Economists have long pointed out that India needs to reform its archaic farm sector, where middlemen drive up prices, slow down supply chains, and contribute to food wastage. Most Indian farmers operate with just a few acres of land, unable to afford the mechanization and efficiencies of scale common in developed economies.

But India’s millions of farmers are clearly angry. They believe the new rules will open them up to exploitation by giant companies. And as Barkha Dutt writes in the Washington Post, there is broad national sympathy for the protests. “The moral force of the Indian farmer cannot be underestimated,” she argues, describing scenes of elderly protesters spreading blankets under the wheels of their trucks to sleep in the cold of winter. “There is subliminal collective guilt at the sight of farmers.”

What it means for Modi. Whether or not the farm reforms were essential or economically viable seems to be a question for another time. (Follow Foreign Policy this weekend for more on this by Sumit Ganguly and Surupa Gupta.) For now, what is clear is that New Delhi may have made a political miscalculation.

Not only were the reforms passed quickly in September without referral to a parliamentary panel, but they also came amid India’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, with most people busy with other issues. At least some of the anger of the protest movement likely stems from this lack of consultation or debate.

Modi has gotten away with other big, bold decisions with little care for democratic decision-making. In 2016, he announced the sudden demonetization of the Indian rupee, wreaking havoc on the country’s markets. Last year, New Delhi’s abrogation of Kashmir’s special status caught the country by surprise. And in February, Modi announced a sudden lockdown—one of the strictest in the world—that left millions of migrant workers no choice but to journey on foot from the cities to their homes in far-off villages.

However, none of these shocks to India’s system ended up hurting Modi’s reputation. If anything, the public mood seems to support a decisive, strongman leader. Will the sheer strength of the sustained farmers’ protests present a serious challenge for Modi? It’s difficult to tell. Controversies—and even mistakes—don’t seem to hurt India’s prime minister. Until the day they do.


What We’re Following

ISIS claims killing of female TV presenter. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the targeted killing of Malalai Maiwand, a presenter at Enikas Radio and TV in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, on Thursday. Maiwand’s death highlights a worrying trend of increased terrorist activity in the region, often targeting journalists. According to a count by Reuters, 10 media workers have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Maiwand was only 25 years old.

Bhutan decriminalizes homosexuality. A joint session of Bhutan’s two houses of parliament approved a bill today to legalize gay sex. All 63 members of parliament present voted in favor of the bill. The changes still need to be approved by the country’s king, but that is seen as a formality. Bhutan’s move comes just two years after India made a similar decision to remove a colonial-era prohibition on gay sex.

Rights groups voice concerns over Rohingya resettlement. The United Nations says it has been denied access to Bhasan Char, a remote and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to which Bangladesh moved 1,600 Rohingya refugees last week. The U.N.’s call for a safety assessment of the island comes amid concerns from the United States over whether the relocations were voluntary or forced.

Twitter controversy. It’s been a mixed week for Twitter in South Asia. Last Sunday, several famous writers including Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh expressed alarm over Twitter’s suspension of writer and activist Salil Tripathi. A fringe right-wing Hindu outfit called the Deshi Army claimed victory for the suspension, but it was unclear why exactly the decision was made.

Tripathi, who wrote an essay for FP last month called “Why India Has Become a Different Country,” told me that Twitter later asked him to remove a personal list of muted users that he maintained. Tripathi is now back on Twitter. The surprising aspect of the temporary suspension was that it targeted a well-known advocate of human rights and free speech, even as abusive trolls often swarm the social media platform.

Meanwhile, Twitter flagged a post by politician Amit Malviya as “manipulated content,” marking the first time it had targeted a prominent member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.


And Finally…

Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year-old Indian American inventor, landed on the cover of Time magazine last week as its first ever Kid of the Year. Rao has invented a device that identifies contaminations in drinking water and an app that detects cyberbullying. Imagine being a South Asian teenager right now. On the one hand, there’s the obvious pride and sense of representation at seeing a young brown girl on the most recognizable cover on earth. But on the other hand, imagine all the parents going, “See? Instead of those video games, this is what you could be doing!”

I’m excited to see what Rao does next.


That’s it for this week.

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Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports