EXPLAINER: Why India's farmers are revolting against PM Modi

NEW DELHI (AP) - A sea of ​​tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors and horses stormed India's historic Red Fort this week - a dramatic escalation of their protests that pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.
The AP explains what is at the heart of two months of demonstrations and what it means for the Modi government.
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Most of the protesters are farmers from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, the two largest agricultural producers. They are calling for the repeal of the laws passed by Parliament in September that will favor large corporate farms, destroy many farmers' incomes and leave those who own small plots behind when large companies win. Modi has billed the laws necessary to modernize Indian agriculture.
Due to the population structure of Punjab and Haryana, many of the protesters in New Delhi happen to be of the Indian Sikh minority religion, although their complaints are based on economic rather than religious problems. Protests are also taking place in other parts of the country among Indians of different origins.
Non-farmers have also joined in in recent weeks, and protests picked up steam in November when farmers tried to march into New Delhi but were stopped by police. They have since promised to settle on the outskirts of town until the laws are repealed.
What are your concerns?
At the center of these protests are Indian farmers' fears that government action to introduce market reforms in the agricultural sector will make them poorer - at a time when they are already frustrated with their waning influence as the government turns India into a center wants for global companies.
The new legislation is not clear whether the government will continue to guarantee prices on certain important crops - a system that was put in place in the 1960s to help India sustain its food reserves and prevent shortages.
While the government has said it is ready to continue the guaranteed prices, farmers are skeptical and want new legislation saying that such prices are their legal right.
Farmers also fear that the legislation signals that the government is deviating from a system in which an overwhelming majority of farmers only sell to government-sanctioned marketplaces. They fear that this will leave them at the mercy of companies that are no longer legally obliged to pay them the guaranteed price.
The government argues that this should give farmers more choices about who to sell their products to.
The law also prevents farmers from bringing contract disputes to court, leaving them with no independent remedies other than government-appointed bureaucrats.
These perceived threats to their livelihoods terrify India's farmers, who are mostly smallholders: a staggering 68% of them own less than 1 hectare of land. In some states, farming families earn an average of just 20,000 rupees ($ 271) a year. ___
Farmers make up the most influential electoral bloc in India - and are often romanticized as the heart and soul of the nation.
Politicians have long considered it unwise to alienate them, and farmers are especially important to Modi's base, too. Northern Haryana and several other states with sizeable peasant populations are ruled by his party.
Since the law was passed, Modi's government has lost two partners in the political alliance and some of its own leaders warn it to proceed cautiously.
The protests against the Modi government are the largest since he came to power in 2014. They come at a time when the country's economy has recovered, social conflicts have escalated, and protests have broken out against laws that are deemed discriminatory and the government was asked about its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Modi government says the legislation will benefit farmers by increasing production through private investment.
The government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months - but that has not satisfied farmers who want a full repeal.
The Modi government also initially attempted to discredit the Sikh farmers by dismissing their concerns as motivated by religious nationalism. Some leaders in Modi's party called them "Khalistanis", a reference to a movement for an independent Sikh homeland called "Khalistan" in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Under Modi, India has seen a rising tide of Hindu nationalism that has stirred up minorities, mostly Muslims. Some leaders of Modi's party and India's free-running television channels, who have long advocated the government's Hindu nationalist policies, have labeled the farmers "anti-national," a label often given to those who criticize Modi or his policies.
But such accusations seem to have failed and to further anger the farmers, many of whom are family members serving in the Indian army, police and civil service. Since then, citizens have joined them and the protests have grown in strength.
Although this poses a huge challenge to his government, Modi's popularity is still rising and his approval ratings remain high due to his Hindu nationalist policies.
Many agricultural experts agree that the Indian agricultural sector needs reform, but question the way the Modi government put the laws in place and the involvement of businesses in agriculture.
"Leaving farmers at the mercy of the markets would be like a death sentence," said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural expert who has campaigned for income equality for Indian farmers for the past two decades. "We talk about people who feed us."
Critics also highlight what they see as the Modi government's tendency to push through reforms without reaching consensus. When the laws were passed in parliament, Modi's party refused to prolong the debate, despite repeated requests from the opposition. It was also refused to refer the laws to a special committee where members could discuss them further.
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