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In-Depth | Will COVID-19 second wave blunt the edge of farmers’ protest as it did to the anti-CAA stir?

In-Depth | Will COVID-19 second wave blunt the edge of farmers’ protest as it did to the anti-CAA stir?

The government has asked farmers to go back from Tikri and Singhu protest sites in Delhi to avoid spread of COVID-19. While the fear of an outbreak worked at Shaheen Bagh a year ago, the farmers appear a far more determined lot.

In the monsoon session of 2020, when Parliament passed three agriculture-related bills, little could anyone have divined that it was paving the way for a farmers’ agitation, which was pegged as the biggest in India’s history.

The sporadic stirs that began in August 2020 with the unveiling of the three farm reform bills, took a mainstream turn after they turned into laws.

Beginning in Punjab and Haryana, the protest reached Delhi in November 2020, when farmers’ unions in the two states called for a 'Delhi Chalo' movement.

The Delhi Police rejected their request to march to the national capital citing COVID-19 protocols. The farmers faced water cannons and tear gas as the police tried to disperse them. However, nothing dampened their spirit and they continued to protest choking the capital’s border.

It has been more than five months now and the farmers continue to camp at Delhi’s borders demanding a repeal of the three new farm laws and a legal guarantee on the minimum support price (MSP) for their crops, as they fear that the new laws will dismantle the MSP system and corporatise farming.

The government, on the other hand, has denied that it is trying to put an end to the MSP and the mandi (wholesale market) systems through the new laws. Multiple rounds of talks between the Centre and the farmers’ union leaders have ended in a stalemate.

In this period, the farmers have braved severe cold weather, heavy rainfall and the sweltering April heat; tear gas, water cannons and lathicharge (cane charge) among other tribulations, but nothing has broken their morale.

More than 300 farmers have died due to a range of causes, including accidents and exposure to cold weather, according to Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) chief Gurnam Singh Chaduni.

However, now the protesting farmers are facing a bigger challenge – the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, which is ravaging the country. But before talking about this health crisis, let’s talk about the three farm laws in some detail.

Why farmers are protesting

In September 2020, Parliament passed the three agricultural bills, which turned into laws after President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent. The three laws are: Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020.

Armed with these new laws, the Narendra Modi-led government dramatically changed the decades-old Indian system of selling agricultural goods, which the Centre claims, is aimed at resolving the country’s long-standing agricultural crisis.

The three laws each deregulate a different aspect of the agricultural system: sale, pricing and storage of goods. They allow farmers to sell their goods to private buyers outside the state-run markets and create a system for contract farming. Taken together, the laws open up spaces for private investors.

The farmers say the new system will put an end to the MSP system, but the central government is denying the charge.

Going by the statute, the new laws do not get rid of the guaranteed minimum prices but they do eradicate previous restrictions on corporations buying land and stockpiling commodities beyond a certain level.

The laws allow business units to bypass 'mandis', markets where farmers’ produce is normally sold, and make direct deals, which cultivators worry will be less subject to regulations.

Rakesh Tikait, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, carries farm reform law copies to burn them in a bonfire during a ritual known as "Holika Dahan" as part of Holi celebrations at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. (Image: Reuters) Rakesh Tikait, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, carries farm reform law copies to burn them in a bonfire during a ritual known as "Holika Dahan" as part of Holi celebrations at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. (Image: Reuters)

How have farmers continued their protest amid pandemic?

The farmers’ protest started on November 26, 2020. On that day, India recorded a total of 43,082 new COVID-19 cases.

As the daily infections begun declining and the recovery rate started improving, the protest gathered steam with thousands of more participants joining in.

The stir garnered not just national but international support. Tweets by renowned pop-star Rihanna and climate-activist Greta Thunberg favouring the protesting farmers stirred up a hornet's nest.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau too jumped in, supporting the right of farmers to hold peaceful protests in India. In several countries, people of Indian origin came out in support of the protesters.

On January 26, 2021, the number of new infections had fallen to 12,689. It was also the day when the farmers’ tractor march to highlight their demands turned violent. Tens of people broke barriers to storm Delhi, dissolving into unprecedented scenes of anarchy.

In February, the COVID-19 cases started rising and soon enough, the country was reeling under a second wave of the pandemic. The new daily cases stood at 16,488 on February 26; 62,258 on March 26 and a whopping 4.01 lakh on April 30-May 1, according to Union Health Ministry’s data.

Farmers gather in front of the historic Red Fort during a protest against farm reform laws on January 26, 2021 in Delhi. (Image: Reuters) Farmers gather in front of the historic Red Fort during a protest against farm reform laws on January 26, 2021 in Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

How COVID-19 second wave may affect farmers’ protest

The farmer unions seem determined to continue their protest, despite a sharp rise in novel coronavirus infections.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of 40 protesting farmers’ union that is spearheading the fight against the farm reform laws, has announced multiple guidelines and precautions to be undertaken at protest sites.

Addressing a farmers' panchayat at Prem Nagar village in Haryana's Bhiwani district, BKU leader Rakesh Tikait asked villagers to follow all COVID-related protocols like wearing masks, following social distancing norms and maintaining hygiene.

"Don't hide the disease if you get it, if anyone falls sick, get timely treatment and you will be alright," he counselled.

In the avalanche of deaths that have followed the second wave, the farmers' stir that was grabbing national and international headlines, has been overshadowed.

On the government’s front as well, the issues have been apparently put on the back burner. Formal talks between the Centre and the protesters, which happened 11 times between December 2020 and January 2021, has not resumed since February, when the daily infections started rising.

Farmers block an expressway to mark the 100th day of the protest against the farm reform laws, near Kundli border. (Image: Reuters) Farmers block an expressway to mark the 100th day of the protest against the farm reform laws, near Kundli border. (Image: Reuters)

How pandemic stalled anti-CAA protests earlier

This is not the first time that a major protest has been hit by COVID-19. In March 2020, when the virus first struck the nation, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were in full swing.

The stir, which began after the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, took off when Parliament passed it on December 11, 2019, with protesters demanding scrapping of the new law.

The Act seeks to fast-track citizenship for persecuted minority groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The six minority groups that have been specifically identified are Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis.

According to protesters, by imposing a religious requirement, the new citizenship law is non-secular and discriminatory, especially against the Muslim community. Additionally, protesters expressed concern about the implications of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the way the CAA might play into this.

The agitation gained huge public support across the country, including students, politicians, social activists and other individuals.

Though the protest took place in many cities, national capital Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh grabbed special attention where it was spearheaded by women.

Like the farmers’ protest, the anti-CAA agitation was also rocked by violence, adverse weather conditions and other hardships faced by protesters. But they refused to end the movement - till the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation hard.

The protest started wrapping up at various cities as the virus spread across the country, but agitators at Shaheen Bagh refused to budge. However, on March 24, the site was cleared as coronavirus-enforced lockdown had to be imposed from midnight. With this, the 101-day protest came to an end.

The country moved from lockdown to ‘Unlock’ (a term used by Centre to relax COVID-19 curbs) and the farmers’ protest gathered steam, but there was no sign of the anti-CAA protest resuming.

Candles spell out "No CAA" during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi. (Image: Reuters) Candles spell out "No CAA" during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) claimed that the Shaheen Bagh protest, which was aimed at the Centre for bringing in a new controversial citizenship law, was scripted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its leadership dictating every move of the agitators for electoral benefits. The claim was made a day after several members of the minority Muslim community from Shaheen Bagh joined the BJP.

The Supreme Court, too, in its verdict on October 7, 2020, had said that occupying public places like Shaheen Bagh for protests is not acceptable and such a space cannot be occupied 'indefinitely'.

Will history repeat itself?

The central and Haryana governments have urged farmers to vacate the protest site in view of the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the country.

The farmer unions allege that the government is trying to "use coronavirus as an excuse to quell their agitation".

"The government is trying to use coronavirus as an excuse to quell farmers' protest. They used the same trick last year. We will not let it happen," Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav said during a press conference at Delhi's Singhu border on April 19.

In a conversation with Moneycontrol, Yadav stated that the farmers’ protest will not go away. “Farmers are quite determined that they should not allow their protest to be dispersed,” he said.

According to Yadav, the farmers are clear that they have to fight the government and COVID-19 at the same time. “For this, we have taken elaborate COVID-19 precautions for all our morchas (protest sites). Vaccination camps have been opened and we are also spreading awareness among people about following COVID-19 behaviour. We are strengthening our medical facilities in each morcha for the safety of the people,” he told Moneycontrol.

Asked about the government’s appeal to the farmers to end their protest and to return to their homes amid the COVID-19 surge, Yadav noted: “I do not see how we pose any threat of spreading novel coronavirus infection because we are like an ordinary village. Tikri or Singhu borders, where protests are going on, is like any other basti or colony in a city. Since those bastis are not being demolished to combat COVID-19, I see no reason why our protest has to end to control the transmission of coronavirus infection.”

Comparing the anti-CAA protest to the farmers’ stir, Yadav had earlier told a newspaper that protesters in Shaheen Bagh were forced to leave amid the rise in coronavirus cases putting an end to their agitation, but things are different this time. "That time, there was a sense of doom, a sense of 'you don't know what would happen' with corona. It was just the beginning… we didn't know anything at that point. Now, that unspecified sense of doom is not there, and therefore, while at that time the government could use that as a pretext to get the protestors to move away, using that now would be utterly cynical," Mint quoted Yadav as saying.

Farmers and agricultural workers attend a rally against the farm reform laws in Barnala, Punjab. (Image: Reuters) Farmers and agricultural workers attend a rally against the farm reform laws in Barnala, Punjab. (Image: Reuters)

What farmers' leaders are saying

BKU leader Tikait has been saying that the farmer unions are ready to discuss the three contentious agriculture laws with the Centre whenever it wants to resume talks, but asserted that the discussion would have to be about repealing the legislation.

The farmers have to carry on with their agitation for long, but they would "certainly not return to their homes without a victory", he said while addressing a farmers' panchayat at Prem Nagar village in Haryana's Bhiwani district.

Tikait reiterated that the protesting farmers will continue the agitation peacefully till their demands are met.

Can anti-CAA stir resume?

The anti-CAA protests had to wrap up because of the pandemic, but the central government has hinted that it will eventually implementation of the new, albeit controversial, citizenship law.

During the poll campaigning ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, Union Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated that the process of granting Indian citizenship to refugees under the CAA will begin in the near future.

According to Shah, the Modi government had in 2018 promised that it will bring in a new citizenship law and kept its word when the BJP was voted to power in 2019. However, after the country was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, its implementation had to be kept in abeyance, he said.

While the Centre is likely to stand by its decision of implementing the law, the protests had mostly disappeared even when the pandemic situation had improved temporarily. Though, a small-scale protest was held in Assam in December 2020.

Asked if the anti-CAA protest could revive, Yadav told Moneycontrol: “It's very hard to say as the Census 2021 is not happening because of the second wave COVID-19. Whatever the Home Minister may say, the fact is that the Census is not happening right now and the National Population Register (NPR) is also not happening right now. If it is not happening at the moment, no step is needed.”

However, he noted that “unless we fear that the government has some plan on going ahead with the NPR, right now there is no cause for protest or revival of the movement.”

Talking about the fact that Shah has reiterated implementation of CAA, Yadav said: “The fact is that nothing is happening on the ground. I suppose when the government does unroll it, that is when a second mobilisation might take place.”

Read more weekly in-depth articles from Moneycontrol here

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