The Centre will repeal three contentious farm laws, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday, nearly a year after the legislation faced massive protests. The announcement marks a significant change of stance from the ruling party, whose representatives have time and again defended the three laws.

On Friday, Modi sought forgiveness and said that “perhaps there was something lacking in our penance”, but the prime minister and some of his top party leaders have lauded the three reforms over and over again. Some of them have called the farmers “misguided”, alleging they are being motivated by separatists and “anti-national” elements.

Here is how Modi and senior BJP leaders defended the three laws and what they had said about the farmers protesting the legislation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

On December 12 last year, about two weeks after tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, started protesting at key entry points to Delhi, Modi claimed that the reforms would be beneficial.

“To strengthen the country’s agriculture sector many steps have been taken,” Modi had said. “It has become much more vibrant. Today, India’s farmers have the choice of selling their produce in the ‘mandis’ as well as outside them.”

Three days later, on December 15, Modi once again supported the farm laws. He even accused the Opposition parties of misguiding the protesting farmers. “Farmers gathered near Delhi are being misled as part of a conspiracy,” Modi had said in Gujarat.

The prime minister went on to claim that these agricultural reforms had been demanded for years. “The agriculture reforms that have taken place are exactly what farmer bodies and even opposition parties have been asking over the years,” he had said. “Many farmers’ organisations have also demanded in advance that they should be given an option to sell food grains anywhere.” 

Modi has defended the laws in Parliament too. In February, Modi said that the legislations were not coercive. The new farm laws were introduced in an attempt to improve the agriculture sector and provide options, the prime minister had said.

“We brought in three laws regarding agriculture,” he had said during his address in the Lok Sabha in reply to the Motion of Thanks on President’s Address. “This was part of a response to the crisis facing agriculture sector… Let us understand, as far as the protests are concerned, our farmer brothers at Delhi borders have been a victim of various rumours.”

In March, Modi batted for more participation of the private sector in agriculture. “Mostly, the public sector has contributed to research and development in agriculture,” Modi had said while addressing a webinar on the implementation of Budget provisions for the agricultural sector. “Now it is time to increase the participation of the private sector. We now have to provide options to farmers so that they don’t limit themselves to growing wheat and rice.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar was the Centre’s main representative in the rounds of talks that the government held with farmers – none of which could not break the impasse.

Tomar has repeatedly defended the farm laws and claimed that they were beneficial for the farmers. During the talks, Tomar had offered to make amendments to the laws but always reiterated that the essence of the reforms would remain.

On December 13, the minister had called the farmers’ apprehension about the entry of private companies and individuals “baseless”. Tomar had expressed confidence in the farm laws, saying that it was important that whenever a government did something good, there was a period of struggle and pain.

“Those who move ahead of times make history and those who believe in status quo cannot make history,” he had said.

Toeing Modi’s line of argument, Tomar had asked the farmers to “not fall prey to the white lies” of the Opposition about the new agricultural laws. In an open letter to the farmers on December 17, the minister claimed that the Modi government was committed to welfare of the farmers, and stressed that the new legislation were aimed at benefiting them.

In January, Tomar claimed that most of the farmers and experts were in favour of the new agricultural laws. “Most of the farmers, scholars, scientists, and people working in the agriculture sector agree with these laws.”

Tomar had added that the Supreme Court’s stay on the implementation of the laws has put an end to the question of its withdrawal. On January 12, the Supreme Court suspended the implementation of the laws.

In June, Tomar even said that the Centre was ready to talk to the protesting farmers but not about the farm laws.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh

On December 14, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tried to placate the farmers, saying the government would never take “retrograde steps” that could possibly damage the rural economy and the agriculture sector. “The recent reforms have been undertaken with the best interests of India’s farmers in mind,” Singh had said on Twitter.

Days later, in an interview to ANI, Singh had asked the protesting farmers to engage the government in a logical debate on every clause of the new agricultural legislation, and allow the administration “to do the needful to address their problems”.

However, Singh had reiterated that the laws were a much-needed reform that would benefit farmers. He also accused the Opposition of spreading fears of farmers’ exploitation by corporations.

He had claimed that the government had consulted farmers before enacting the contentious legislations.

Singh said:

  “I have myself seen the laws and I am aware of the problems of the farmers. The farmers should at least see the implementation of these laws for two years as an experiment.”  

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar

Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar has been on the frontline of defending the farm laws and castigating protesting farmers to the extent of threatening them over the last one year.

In October, Khattar was seen in a video asking people to form volunteer groups who would “pick up sticks” and employ a “tit-for-tat” tactic on farmers protesting against the Centre’s contentious farm laws.

The Haryana chief minister’s comment came amid a fresh spell of clashes between the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and farmers protesting against the agriculture laws.

In August, Khattar had defended the police action against protesting farmers in Karnal district earlier in the month. “Although the officer’s choice of words was not correct, strictness had to be maintained to ensure law and order situation there was kept under check,” Khattar had said when asked about Karnal Sub-Divisional Magistrate Ayush Sinha’s remarks to “smash the heads” of the protesters.

The chief minister claimed that he was receiving calls from people asking him to deal with farmers protesting against the laws in a strict manner, but that the administration was still exercising restraint. The chief minister accused the Punjab government of misleading the farmers, adding that freedom of speech has its limitations.

Khattar had said:

“If I flex my muscle and move my fist in the air and my fist hits your nose, that cannot be construed as my freedom.”

On June 30, Khattar had told the farmers protesting against the three agricultural laws not to test the government’s patience. “We have maintained patience but they keep threatening us that the chief minister can’t visit, the deputy chief minister can’t visit the villages,” Khattar had said at a press conference. “Those running the government have a responsibility to meet and attend people. No matter how much they provoke us we are keeping our calm since they are our own people from Haryana. But it won’t be good for anyone to cross their limit.”

In January, Khattar had affirmed that the central government would not scrap the contentious legislation. “The government is not going to repeal these laws,” Khattar had said after he was forced to cancel an outreach programme on the farm laws. “It is certain. Even if state governments are to be exempted, there will only be amendments.”

Other leaders

On December 14, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath had claimed that the agitation had been hijacked by “anti-nationals” as part of a “conspiracy to destabilise” the country.

The very next day, Union minister Nitin Gadkari hinted that the ongoing farmer agitation was being hijacked by people with different agendas. He had alleged that there were “some elements that are using this farmers’ movement to defame them and take the agenda to another angle”.