India declared itself a sovereign, democratic and republic state with the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950. The Constitution gave citizens the power to choose their own Government and paved the way for democracy. A democratic republic is a form of government that functions on principles adopted from a republic and a democracy. All modern republics have been founded on the idea that sovereignty rests with the people. Since citizens do not govern the state themselves but through representatives, republics may be distinguished from direct democracies, though all modern, representative democracies are, by and large, republics. The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the Constitution under Article 19. Public protests are a hallmark of a free, democratic society in which the voice of the people should be heard by those in power and decisions be reached after proper discussion and consultation.
Democracy is measured through several indicators, like electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of the Government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. India was at the 51st position in the 2019 Democracy Index’s global ranking and was included in the ‘flawed democracy’ category, in spite of its sturdy electoral practices. The Democracy Index provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories. Democracy, it is said, is not just an election, it is our daily life. Flawed democracies are nations where elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honoured but may have issues, such as media freedom infringement and the suppression of political opposition and critics.
Right to peaceful assembly
The right to peacefully assemble allows political parties and citizenship bodies or unions to question and object to acts of the Government by peaceful demonstrations, agitations and public meetings to launch sustained protest movements. The right to protest is one of the core principles on which a democracy, as also the republic, survives and thrives. Since 2015, India’s record on various democracy indices has declined drastically. There is no measure to judge a country’s credentials as a republic, but a state of a republic can be assessed through the indices of democracy that include civil society participation and civil liberties. Both have declined significantly in India since 2015.
Being a republic is not just the absence of monarchy; it is much more. In a republic, the power is held by the people and their elected representatives and therefore, a consultative approach to decision-making should take precedence over the ramming down of laws on the strength of a legislative majority. In a Constitutional democracy, the government must uphold the Constitution and still represent the will of its people. Therefore, two questions arise. Did the passage of the three contentious agriculture laws represent the popular will of people? Are the Central laws in keeping with the basic structure of the Constitution, given that agriculture is a state subject? Another question that begs an answer is: didn’t the Citizenship Amendment Act CAA) also violate the Constitution, given that it discriminates against a section of people on the basis of their religion?
Standing their ground
The answers to the above questions are still awaited, given that the Supreme Court is yet to decide on the Constitutional validity of the CAA and the farm laws. It is for this reason that for two years in a row, Republic Day celebrations in the national capital will be held under the shadow of raging protests against laws passed by the Centre. Last year, it was the agitation against the CAA. This time, farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping at Delhi’s borders for months, demanding the repeal of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee for the minimum support price (MSP) for crops that are declared by the Government every year.
Seen through the prism of fundamental right and popular will, the farmers’ protest is a fitting display of a kind of ‘movement culture’ against the government’s non-consultative approach. It is an unrelenting display of determination and solidarity, aimed at claiming the fundamental right that the Constitution gives to citizens. What we are witness to on the borders of Delhi, the capital of Republic of India, is a protest that is led by a committee of farmers’ unions. Sustaining a protest of thousands of farmers in the bitter winter of Delhi over the last two months in the face of a discrediting campaign by the Government has not been easy. But they have held their morale high, determined in their resolve to accept nothing less than their two basic demands.
They have celebrated New Year, Lohri and Makar Sankranti together in the midst of their protest; Republic Day on January 26 will be the high point of the protest that has gone through 11 rounds of talks with the government, but to no avail. The deadlock is far from over despite the Supreme Court’s order to put on hold the implementation of the three farm laws. Farmers have also rejected the proposal put forth by the government to suspend the farm laws for a mutually agreed period of one-and-a-half years. While the court has asked protesting farmers to ‘maintain peace’ on Republic Day and join the proceedings of the court-mandated panel to ‘peacefully resolve the dispute’, farmers have refused to appear before the committee because they believe that all the committee’s members are ‘biased’ and are in favour of the laws. They also do not see the committee as a solution to the deadlock.
The success of the farmers’ agitation in getting widespread sympathy and moral support from non-farming sections of people across the country has not only pushed the Modi government on the backfoot, but also forced the Government into holding talks. The proposal to suspend the farm laws for an 18-month period is a major climbdown for the government from its earlier tough stand to end the deadlock. This means, to a large extent, the protest has succeeded in making the government listen to the farmers’ demands. This is in sharp contrast to the massive protests against the CAA last year, against which the Government did not hesitate to use police force and security agencies responded with violence, arrests, interrogations and conspiracy charges.
The government, to a large extent, succeeded in discrediting the anti-CAA agitation because it did not evoke widespread sympathy and trust from the non-Muslim population, who saw the anti-CAA protest as only a problem of the Muslim minority, though the protests were about protecting democracy and the Constitution. This is because the anti-CAA protests were perceived by the government and people as an issue of citizenship for the Muslims, while the farmer agitation, though led by Sikh farmers, has expanded to include a range of activists and social groups, whose core opposition to the farm laws is premised on the pro-market and pro-corporate heft of the legislations. The anti-CAA protests, after the Delhi riots and the pandemic-induced lockdown, were forced to wind up. But the farmers are refusing to budge and the government does not have the option to turn a deaf ear or stick to its hard stand.
The writer is an independent senior journalist.