Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies have both tried to allay farmers' fears about the new laws while also dismissing their concerns. Some of his party leaders have called the farmers “misguided” and “anti-national,” a label often given those who criticize Modi or his policies. (Image: AP)
The ongoing protest by farmers — an estimated 200,000 of whom are sitting on the doorsteps of Delhi — is the biggest upsurge of common people to challenge the might of the all-conquering Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the nearly seven years of the Narendra Modi government’s rule.
It is an organic social movement — neither led nor backed by any mainstream political party — the kind of which India has not witnessed in decades. These protests have galvanised similar ones across India, and the world has sat up to take notice.
Each passing day of this peaceful upsurge, and with more farmers trooping in from across north India to join the protesters, the popular legitimacy of the central government gets eroded.
The farmers appear prepared for the long haul, and have time and food stocks to last them until the harvest season in March-April.
At stake, however, is not merely the credibility of just one party or a government, but also of the corporate world. Incidentally, even the Congress leadership has been asked to step aside, as have several media-friendly activists.
Farmer organisations have appealed to people to burn an effigy of not just the Prime Minister, but few of the corporate leaders in villages across India on December 5. They believe the three contentious farm laws are intended to profit big corporates at the expense of farmers.
The strength of the movement is in its ability to remain united on two core demands (repeal the three farms laws and have a new law on MSP), overcome all efforts to defame it, and not succumb to even the vilest of provocations. Yes, there has been violence and people injured during the protests. All of it was the handiwork of the Haryana Police and other central police forces. Not one police personnel has been injured.
There has also been destruction of property, but not by protesting farmers. It is still not known who ordered the digging up of the roads to stop the farmers marching to Delhi. Imagine governments stopping trains with the intent to frustrate farmers from coming to the national capital to sit on a peaceful protest!
Farmers from Gurdaspur, many of them ex-servicemen, who’ve guarded the nation's borders, have found it perplexing that they cannot march to the country's capital.
It is unfortunate that sections on social media were hell bent on painting the farmers as Khalistanis, while the protests have been peaceful and non-sectarian.
It is no longer a movement of only Sikh farmers. If farmers from Punjab have led the way, first continuing the protests in that state for 55-days, and then marching on to Delhi, their Hindu brethren from neighbouring Haryana have joined them now.
It is important to understand why the protests against the farm laws have originated and gathered momentum in Punjab. This is because farmer organisations, which are not affiliated to any particular party, are stronger there. In Haryana, the effort has been at an individual and community level. Strong contingents of farmers are trooping in from Western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan now that they have completed sowing and crushing of sugarcane.
As farmers of all hues cook and eat together, in the glorious Sikh anti-Brahminical traditions of langar and degh, it is a movement that has broken religious and caste barriers.
Singers and artistes, and even sportspersons, initially from Punjab, but increasingly also from Haryana, have joined in to speak the language of brotherhood and support to farmers. Their songs reflect the misgivings against privatisation of mandis.
The people of Punjab and Haryana have never felt this close to each other in decades. Long held mutual prejudices have dissolved. Households on the Delhi-Haryana border have taken to supply tea to these farmers. Not just gurudwaras and mosques, even temples have opened their doors to these protesters.
A week into the movement, the affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, such as the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, have expressed some reservations about the three laws.
The Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), the BJP’s coalition partner in the Haryana government, has now threatened it might quit if the Centre does not heed the farmers.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had already parted ways with the BJP after initially supporting the laws. Now, the BJP’s Rajasthan ally Lok Sabha MP Hanuman Beniwal has also demanded the laws should be amended.
The movement comes in the wake of widespread economic distress and job losses because of COVID-19, and also the collapse of social welfare schemes, particularly the MNREGA, as the Centre has turned miserly in disbursing funds to the states. Rural inflation has galloped in most states.
Beyond its core demands, the movement questions the increasing centralisation of decision making in a federal structure, lack of consultations with stakeholders on the ground, including on subjects such as land.
The success of the movement has the potential of teaching the rest of India that did not vote for the BJP in 2019 (62.6 percent), how they not only can fight majoritarian, unitary impulses, but also the dispossession of their lands and resources at the hands of big corporate groups.
It is always difficult to make sense, and be dispassionate, about events when they are taking place. But there are enough people on the ground documenting these events which in hindsight could come to be described as a silent revolution.