The violence and vandalism in the capital on India’s 72nd Republic Day undermines the on-going agitation against agricultural reforms and exposes the political agenda behind it. At the same time, it raises questions about the form of non-violent direct action adopted by interest groups in recent times.
On January 26, two factors stood out: first, the Delhi police exercised remarkable restraint in the face of naked aggression. The protesters had the cops on the run, whipping out swords, hijacking buses and weaponising tractors. Small wonder 150 policemen were injured, many of them severely.
Second, for the first time since the protest began in November last year, the leaders and ardent supporters of the anti-reforms campaign were on the defensive. They did themselves no favours by ducking responsibility and passing the buck to infiltrators and “rogue criminal elements”.
Bizarrely, some of them continued to maintain their ‘tractor rallies’ were peaceful and the violence was instigated by the police, even as protesters threw agreed-upon ground rules to the winds, broke barricades and drove recklessly on populated streets.
For example, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait blamed “miscreants trying to sabotage protest” for the violence, but his own followers deviated 20 kilometres from the agreed route and trundled into Delhi’s ‘Fleet Street’, the scene of a clash with police.
As the day progressed, cracks began to show in the farmers’ front, with a blame game of sorts. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) general secretary, Hannan Mollah, went so far as to describe the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, which had apparently jumped the gun and started the rally well before the appointed hour, as “betrayers”.
Symbol of Sikh faith
Their discomfort increased when protesters raised the nishan sahib at Red Fort, as if to recall the Battle of Delhi (1783), when Sikh forces, led by Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and Baghel Singh, had captured Lal Qila and hoisted their flag. The symbol of the Sikh faith is usually planted at gurudwaras or in a spirit of fateh (victory) by Sikh soldiers.
Visibly shaken, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) leaders began pleading with farmers to abjure violence and stick to the plan. One of them asked the media not to play visuals of the chaos, for fear of instigating further clashes. The triumphalism and bravado of the previous weeks had disappeared by the evening, giving way to a series of disclaimers: ‘Putting up a flag at Red Fort was never the aim’, ‘Indisicipline or violence will seriously damage the movement’ and more to that effect.
The fact is that the protesters got carried away by international media attention. Two weeks into the ‘siege’ of Delhi, it was obvious that the ‘peaceful’ demonstration was a powder-keg, but its leaders chose to sharpen, rather than tone down their rhetoric, refused any meaningful dialogue, dissed the Supreme Court-appointed panel tasked with reviewing the contentious Farm Acts and repeatedly held out threats of “intensifying” their protest.
The Centre was rather tentative in its approach. In the showdown with the protesters, it blinked first. The offer to suspend the Farm Acts for 18 months was interpreted as a sign of weakness and emboldened the leaders of the farmers’ front. Now, more than ever, the Centre cannot afford to back down. To do so would be to invite a million mutinies.
It is high time that civil society as a whole consider how public protests, a legitimate right of each and every citizen, are being framed. The ‘my way or I block the highway’ approach undermines the spirit of direct action and non-violence is instrumentalised to spike the lawkeepers’ guns. The protesters refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue or to acknowledge the awful inconvenience caused to non-stakeholders.
The state, meanwhile, comes across as a hapless bystander, as if unaware that such passive-aggressive protests can easily spin out of control, or become triggers for violence. Last year, the government failed to take concrete steps to resolve the Shaheen Bagh protests and even worse, to contain the ostensibly ‘peaceful’ backlash against them, with the result that the Delhi Riots erupted, claiming 53 lives.
Moral high ground lost
The farmers’ protest gained global support because it was touted as peaceful; that USP no longer obtains, thanks to stark visuals of naked swords, tractors charging police barricades and protesters on the ramparts of the Red Fort wielding sticks and clubs.
The moral high ground has been irrevocably lost and those who saw the protest as politically motivated have been vindicated. The politically-aligned elements within the farmers’ front will attempt to spin the news their way and shift the onus to the long-suffering Delhi Police or to unnamed saboteurs.
The protesters have threatened a march to Parliament next week. If violence is truly unacceptable, then the leaders of the campaign had best take a leaf from Mahatma Gandhi’s book and suspend the agitation. The cause of farmers would be better served if they just went home.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.