Praises for Putin’s “toughness” regarding dissent. Hardly a slap on the wrist or even a gentle scolding to Saudi Arabia. And of course, the infamous “love letters” to Kim Jong Un. For four long years, the Trump administration made a mockery of the United States’ support for democracy worldwide by openly praising, emboldening, and justifying authoritarian leaders. Comprehensive lists of these sins have been regurgitated in many other spaces, and the consequences of the Trump administration’s rhetoric will continue to be felt for decades to come.
The ongoing farmers’ protest in India, however, presents an early opportunity for the Biden administration to begin to repudiate this shameful trend. In doing so, President Joe Biden can reassert the role that the United States has long aspired to play on the world stage: an advocate for the rights of all people.
WHAT IS THE FARMERS’ PROTEST?
Since last fall, up to a million farmers have been protesting outside of New Delhi in opposition to three agriculture laws that the Modi government had rushed through parliament. The new laws amount to a deregulation of the agriculture sector in India, empowering the private sector to play roles previously reserved for the government in terms of purchasing and storing foodstuffs. Roughly 58% of Indians rely on agriculture to feed their families, with about 85% of farmers possessing five acres of land or less. These demonstrators fear how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reforms will adversely affect their livelihoods, given how the measures will remove long standing minimum price supports, force them to sell to massive corporations, and eliminate their few remaining paths to legal recourse.
When you consider solidarity strikes from labor movements and other Indian citizens, the farmers are now engaged in arguably the largest protest in world history. But while their demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful, the response of the Modi government has not.
For every norm President Trump smashed and words he uttered that gave cover and credence to autocrats and their actions, President Biden should be twice as forceful in the opposite direction. And the farmers’ protest is the perfect place to start.
When the protests began in northern Indian agricultural states in September 2020, they were initially ignored by the central government. But when they moved to the outskirts of New Delhi in late November, Indian police and paramilitary forces responded with baton charges, tear gas, and water cannons. Since then, India’s response has gotten worse: further police brutality, including against medical personnel; internet shutdowns (a pattern of practice under the Modi government) and resource cutoffs at protest sites; and the detention of journalists like Mandeep Punia. There have also been arrests of activists on ridiculous, trumped-up charges. For example, 21-year-old climate change activist Disha Ravi faced charges of sedition for allegedly providing Greta Thunburg and other international advocates a “toolkit” of sample social media posts in support of the protests, and 25-year-old Dalit labor activist Nodeep Kaur faces counts of attempted murder, rioting, and others after a incident between police and her union. While Ravi was released on bail on February 23, Kaur remains in custody.
HOW HAS THE UNITED STATES RESPONDED?
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s response to these profoundly anti-democratic actions has been muted. A tepid, bulleted answer to reporters’ questions from the State Department earlier this month vaguely affirmed the right to peaceful protest, but it also included language that could be read as praise (or at least acceptance) of the farm laws. Similarly, a readout of a diplomatic call between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi reported that the president called “a shared commitment to democratic values” the “bedrock of the US–India relationship.”
These milquetoast, going-through-the-motions sort of responses were likely never enough for a country purporting to champion democracy on the world stage, and they certainly are not enough now. For every norm President Trump smashed and words he uttered that gave cover and credence to autocrats and their actions, President Biden should be twice as forceful in the opposite direction. And the farmers’ protest is the perfect place to start.
President Trump had no inclination to challenge Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist bent (birds of a feather, after all). But President Biden owes him no such ideological kinship. And while economists can debate who precisely the Modi government’s deregulation will benefit, there should be no disagreement that an increasingly flagrant assault on freedom of speech, freedom to protest, and freedom of the protest are unacceptable from a country that wishes to call itself the world’s largest democracy.
I’ll spare a dramatic closing about this being President Biden’s “first great test” of leadership on the world stage. No one denies that his administration is faced with a daunting number of herculean challenges. But India is undeniably playing host to a unique moment in world history, thanks to the steadfastness of her farmers. We know how the Trump administration would have responded — their views on peaceful protest are painfully clear, if entirely dependent on the former president’s agreement with the protestors. The question that remains is how — or indeed if — the Biden administration will choose to do better.