The announcement by the Prime Minister, of repealing the three notorious farm laws that were passed by Parliament, is definitely a big victory for the farmers movement and those who have been protesting these unjust laws for the last one year.
The government failed to the extent that BJP lost one of its oldest allies, Shiromani Akali Dal at that time when the government took this decision. It felt that farmers would be tired of the protests and would go back home after some time, but that did not happen.
The BJP tried its best and we saw all kinds of efforts to damage the protests. Initially, farmers were threatened with counter protests. Farmers faced protest at the Singhu border as well as Tikri border when local goons were brought in to protest against the farmers under the pretext that it was disturbing traffic and creating problems for the locals. Then came the historic day. The Farmers decided to march into Delhi on the Republic Day riding their tractors. Police hesitantly gave them permission and created chaos at the Red Fort. The government got a handle to suppress the movement as anti-national.
Propagandists on prime time were already shouting loudly to take ‘stern’ action against the ‘terrorists. Every effort was made to instigate the locals against the farmers. A swift police action was being planned at all the three border areas. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath thought that it was a suitable time to act at the Ghazipur border and hence things were being planned. BKU leader Rakesh Tikait was addressing farmers at Ghazipur border and tears flowed when he spoke, which created a massive outrage in the entire Western Uttar Pradesh belt. The authorities in Muzaffarnagar had warned their counterparts in Ghaziabad to desist against taking any action as it would only create a massive crisis. Rakesh Tikait’s call made the farmers more determined as they started marching towards the Ghazipur border. Before January 26, 2021, it was Singhu border which was the main scene of action but after Rakesh Tikait’s call Ghazipur border became the focal point of the farmers movement.
The massive participation of the farmers from Western Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana actually thwarted the move of the ruling party to make it an issue of “national vs. Anti-national” as they had to deal with their own constituency which has voted with them massively in the last two general elections and 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election. If it were merely an issue of Punjab’s farmers, then BJP would have succeeded in isolating them and making it their favourite, we versus them issue but they failed because Bhartiya Kisan Union led by Rakesh Tikait became more vocal and participated with greater strength.
In the last one year, over 750 farmers got killed in these peaceful protests. While all those who laid down their lives for a cause are called ‘Shaheed’ or ‘martyrs’ yet it should not be ignored or forgotten that ultimately it is the union government, its political leadership of the day, that failed them and looked extremely insensitive to the basic demands of the farmers. Anyone who is aware of the extremities of north Indian weather can vouch how difficult and hard it would have been for men women and children of all ages, to sleep under the open sky in hot humid months from April onwards, followed by a rainy season in Monsoon, and again extremely cold weather particularly from December to February. Many farmers died due to cold weather, and so many others were compelled to commit suicide, but we heard not a single word of sympathy or solidarity.
In the last seven or eight years since Narendra Modi became prime minister, the government, BJP or its ministers have never ever uttered a single word on deaths of people in movements whether student protests or that of anti CAA-NRC or farmers’ protest. The whole premise and focus of this governance model was to completely ignore or shout down those stories of pain, agony and anger. So much was the insensitivity that this government patted on its back for ‘successful’ handling of ‘Corona crisis’ even when we all saw, India was one of the worst in handling the crisis with over 4.65 lakh (four lakh sixty five thousand) deaths, but not a single word of morning, sympathy or failure by the regime. Instead, any one questioning the government was shouted down and faced stringent laws. Media became a lapdog of the government which has completely lost its credibility as it was merely broadcasting stories to malign the opponents and glorifying the ‘supreme leader’. All this only created an extremely insensitive society where deaths and brutality have been normalised.
One should not forget how the media was ‘monitoring’ everything at the protest sites. ‘Fakenews’ ‘reporters’ were pushed to the protest sites to bring stories of dissent among farmers as well as to ‘show’ the ‘world’ how ‘lavishly’ the farmers were living at these protest sites. It was said that the farmers were drinking milk, eating dry fruits and living in luxurious AC huts. Many times, it was also shown as if they were not farmers but goons and terrorists but that failed. Having been to some of these protest sites and speaking to many people including activists and those associated with the movement, I can only say that I found political understanding of the farmers far superior to that of the urban English-speaking middle classes.
Farmers resorted to different kinds of protests but everything was peaceful and democratic. The entire movement is an example of how to fight peacefully against a repressive regime. But it is also a fact that the current regime could not afford to antagonise the powerful farming communities in the election season. According to an article published in Down to Earth magazine, the total number of farm related protests in 2020 was 2,188 as per National Crime Record Bureau data which was 19% more than the previous year. It was also reported that prior to that farm protests had considerably reduced in India after the 2013 land acquisition act was passed and making ‘consent’ an extremely important factor as well as compensation for the acquired land was being provided under well laid terms and conditions.
In the last two years, there were several all-India general strikes called by the farmers, several Chakka Jams, rail rokos and most of them have been peaceful even when the police resorted to highhandedness. The horrific incident in Lakhimpur Khiri where the son of a union minister was involved in the terror incident crushing several farmers and a journalist under his fast-moving SUV will never be forgotten. The minister is still there, and his ‘illustrious’ son got arrested after the Supreme Court intervened. It defined how the government under the current regime was functioning and ‘care’ for public opinion. While the chums of the government were freely abusing the opponent, misusing the constitution and had no faith in India’s inclusive pluralistic culture, those who questioned the unconstitutional means and deeds of the ruling party were arrested under stringent laws where procedures were created to humiliate and intimidate them. The fake news wallahs were provided Z plus security to abuse the constitution as well as the people of India but no questions were asked.
It is ironic that these laws were passed through highly undemocratic means. As the opposition were protesting in parliament supporting the demands of the farmers the government was determined to crush the opposition voices. It brought ‘experts’ to unleash its propaganda against the farmers and support the bill. The one man who stood apart in this entire exercise and spoke with courage and conviction is Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who on the floor of the house as well as elsewhere said that the government would have to withdraw these bills. Mark my word, he had said, you will have to withdraw it. He proved correct and stood taller than any of his contemporaries.
Even when the prime minister made a long speech today, he was sure that the ‘majority’ of farmers all over the country actually ‘supported’ the law as it would have benefitted them. Narendra Modi then went on to say that the ‘government’ was unable to convince a ‘few’ of the farmers, and that he does not want to make any one feel left out hence in the greater ‘national’ interest, he was withdrawing the bill. Though this announcement itself is highly objectionable and unconstitutional, as the prime minister or any minister actually cannot announce any policy level decision outside the Parliament. The announcement ethically should have been made in the Parliament first, but then Narendra Modi and BJP does everything according to the political calculation and as the party was finding it difficult in the Uttar Pradesh elections due for early next year, he decided to announce it. Of course, these days, he wants to ‘speak’ to people every day giving the ‘Darbari media’ ‘enough’ material for discussion for their prime time shows. He does not want to leave a single day without being in the limelight. Today was Guru Nanak Jayanti as well as the birthday of former prime minister Indira Gandhi but the entire country erupted in joy after the prime minister made the announcement of repealing the law. It was unthinkable in recent times for Narendra Modi to concede defeat or regret on anything but political fallout of the farm bill was much more powerful and dangerous to make the prime minister and the government show its back to its crony friends.
Just before we forget as we are habitual in doing so, we must understand what has the government been doing through amendments and new bills for the farmers. Some of the achievements of this government to benefit their cronies during the last two year when the country wanted a better response to handle the corona crisis, when people were dying in the absence of Oxygen and the Ministers said in the Parliament that none died due to that.
They are amending the Indian Forest Act to help their crony friends at the cost of Adivasi lives.
They diluted the environmental clauses and did not want to publish the mandatory notices regarding a new project in local languages only after the Delhi High Court spoke strongly for it.
They wanted to remove the ‘consent’ clause from the land acquisition act so that they can do things at their whims and fancies.
Through legal interventions they actually helped their cronies which flouted the clause under the act under which any company which fails to initiate a project within five year of the contract will have to return the farmers land.
Like the Land Acquisition Act, the government will definitely work on a different plan to bring these things so one need to be alert. It can act through states by suggesting land is a state subject. Various states have already amended their land laws as per the guidelines of the Center. If things don’t work politically, judiciary is an alternative though the current trends of judicial activism give some hope. We wish it become more active and ask questions which political parties or media is unable to do yet a careful scrutiny of all the judgement of former Supreme Court judge Justice Arun Mishra on land acquisition, forest, slum dwellers cases will make an interesting point that Adivasis became ‘encroachers’ in their own land they protected centuries. We know what happened after that. The order was reversed when there was a huge uproar but still various methods were used. Justice Mishra is now chief of National Human Rights Commission openly endorsing the government policy on everything.
Why were farmers so vehement to protest these bills? All the three bills were aimed to protect the business interest of the private corporations and create their monopolies. The farmers had understood it well that their land and life were endangered.
Don’t forget the statement by the National Security Adviser at the police academy in Hyderabad that the ‘fourth generation’ war should be fought against ‘civil society’. When the top officer of the government thinks this way, it is clear how they want to ‘govern’ the country. It is ‘My way or High way’ where the common person will find it hard to walk through without the preconditions imposed on them by those in power or who manage them.
We should not ignore the fact that the withdrawal of these bills is not love for the farmers but to get back to the basics of elections. Western Uttar Pradesh and particularly Jats became the supporters of BJP in the last two decades. Frankly, speaking after the Mandalisation of Indian politics, Jats sided more and more with the “upper caste” parties and BJP was natural for them. BJP’s Hindutva agenda got pushed in the farming belt through 2013 Mujaffarnagar riots which isolated Muslims in the region and made them unwanted. The polarisation has always been used by BJP for its power games but in the process Jats got politically marginalised. So much so that in a state like Haryana, where Jats voted for BJP, the party still has a chief minister belonging to the Khatri community. The farmer movement brought the old Jat pride and association with Muslims. Jat-Muslim unity actually was the last thing that BJP can think of as it is bound to create an extremely difficult situation for the party in the Western Uttar Pradesh where party leaders were unable to make any visit in their constituencies.
A massive turn out in Akhilesh Yadav’s rallies, as well as persistent efforts by Priyanka Gandhi to develop her party, are also creating problems for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Initially, BJP felt that ‘promoting’ Priyanka or Congress as their main ‘opponent’ would help them in Uttar Pradesh but it has boomeranged. Priyanka’s meetings and political activism has helped Congress at least in the narrative and perceptions which was not there initially. Uttar Pradesh is definitely giving BJP a nightmare and that is why the entire central cabinet will be campaigning there. It is not for any other reason the prime minister inaugurated ‘ Ganga Express High way’ and brought the air force fleet for a ‘show’. It was nothing but a purely election gimmick. The people did not get impressed. Next day’s rally of Akhilesh Yadav actually showed the mood of the people in the state. There are still three to four months and BJP leaders would go to town with folded hands, saying that the prime minister has taken a decision in ‘national interest’ and why Modi is ‘important’ for India. There will be other things too which will be ‘administrative’ in nature hence farmers’ battle is half won and until and unless there is a change in Lucknow in 2022, we cannot think that the bills are completely withdrawn as there are dangers of backdoor entry like the land bills or by changing the name etc. The MSP issue is still not resolved.
It is important for political parties in Uttar Pradesh to not let their guard down, as the culmination of withdrawal of farm bill should be in change of government in Lucknow which is essential for a political change in Delhi that India is looking for in 2024. The farmers have done their best and it is time for the political parties in the opposition to understand the feelings of the people of India, get united, form long term coalition and fight the battle with courage and conviction so that such anti-people laws never see the light of the day and consigned to the dustbins of history. This must give a lesson to all the political parties that they must not take people for granted and allow free flow of information as a credible media is the need of the hour to give a timely warning to the government about what is going on the ground. Unfortunately, BJP leadership was more grounded in this regard than the media and the result is Modi took a decision because he knows well that the political cost of ignoring his own constituents could be extremely high.
Let us hope the unity of the farmers, mazdoors and others will continue so that the idea of India is strengthened, and no government can dare to take such hasty anti-people decisions in future. Success of the farmers’ protest showed that powerful dictatorial governments can be brought to their knees through peaceful democratic protests, and yet it is important to understand that the battle is not won unless this show of strength and solidarity reflects in political change in the coming days.
*Views expressed are the author’s own.