The events of the 72nd Republic Day in Delhi and the central government’s inability to sympathetically engage with peaceful protests do not augur well for the health of India’s multi-ethnic democracy.
Twice in a span of 12-months, thousands of women and men have gathered in and around Delhi to peacefully protest for weeks contentious laws pushed by the government, and passed by Parliament amid stiff opposition. On both occasions, their entreaties have largely gone unheeded in a country that still honours Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as the father of the nation, and extols his method of non-violent protest, or satyagraha.
Last year, the Shaheen Bagh protest lasted a hundred days. It inspired over a hundred similar protests across India from the middle of December 2019 to the third week of March. The protests were non-violent and imbued with the spirit of nationalism as participants waved the tricolour and took oaths on the copies of the Constitution. The Centre refused to engage with the protestors.
The protests dissipated, even sought to be discredited, after the communal violence in northeast Delhi at the end of February, and eventually ended once COVID-19-related lockdown was imposed. The protests were against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens. If the Union government seemed in a hurry to implement the CAA and the NRC then, little has been heard on either since. Interestingly, the CAA rules were not framed even a year after Parliament had passed the law.
The ongoing farmers’ protests started in September in Punjab against the three farm laws, which Parliament had passed that month. The farm unions, including those affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said the government did not consult them.
While the Centre has agreed to engage with farmers, the talks have meandered. Farmer unions complain the Centre is negotiating in bad faith, while it in turn has accused them of being intransigent.
After protesting in Punjab for 55-days, the farmers travelled to the outskirts of Delhi on November 27. They have sat there ever since, and joined by farmers from Rajasthan, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Moral and material support has come from across India, even from abroad.
The protesting farmers say that returning home without repealing the three farm laws is not an option. They are convinced that the implementation of the laws would eventually mean they getting dispossessed of their land.
During the January 26 ‘tractor parade’, at several places the police used teargas against the farmers, or barricaded the route of their march. While much of the ‘parade’ passed off peacefully, some of the farmers clashed with the police. The video clips of the scenes emanating from the Red Fort look unseemly, and could discredit the movement. There are already fears within the movement that the January 26 violence could drive a wedge among the 450-odd farmers unions supporting the movement, and weaken it.
What needs to be remembered here, especially by the government and those who rush to discredit the protests, is that the protesting farmers, especially those from Punjab, have a keen appreciation of their history — their running feuds with the rulers in Delhi from the time of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, to the British and also the Indira Gandhi years.
As the first of the Punjabi farmers migrated to North America a century back, these protesting farmers are acutely aware of the lot of small farmers there once corporates moved into agriculture some four decades back. These protesting farmers are fighting for their lands and their way of life. They fear losing the battle might reduce them to landless migrant labours — like the ones who currently come from Bihar to work on the bigger farms in the region.
If the government’s strategy is to tire the farmers into returning to their homes, it seems to have underestimated the trust deficit between itself and the protesting farmers. A lot of the farmers sitting at Delhi’s borders point to repeated promises of the government of the last six years that it will ‘double farmers’ incomes’, but failed to deliver. Farmers argue that a growing economy might still have persuaded them to sell their lands and settle in cities, as some of them from the region did over the last decade, since farming is arduous work with poor returns — but not anymore.
Many farmers believe that decisions such as demonetisation, rollout of an underprepared Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the prolonged lockdown in 2020 caused the shutdown of thousands of MSMEs, which in turn helped bigger corporates — and that the farm laws would replicate that model in the agriculture sector.
New Delhi should be wary of the mistakes that were made by the then rulers in the 1970s and 1980s. Punjab is a border state, and on this occasion has found support from influential sections of agriculturists from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh as well.