Ever since it began more than two months ago, the farmers’ sit-in protest at Delhi’s borders against the Central government’s three controversial farm laws has been remarkably peaceful. The peaceful nature of the agitation, despite name-calling and attempts to malign it, has helped the agitating farmers keep the focus on their stated goals: legal guarantee for minimum support price (MSP) and repeal of the three farm laws that the government had pushed through Parliament in September last year.
What happened on Republic Day last Tuesday did damage the defining image of the protest – farmers camping peacefully in the biting cold of Delhi, determined in their opposition to the farm laws. But things have changed quite quickly. With more farmers, particularly from Western Uttar Pradesh, joining the stir, the agitation has intensified and the government seems to be on the backfoot again.
Republic Day disgrace
After the significant gains the protest had made in the last two months, the Republic Day disgrace came as a big setback for the agitation. There is no denying that the tractor rally taking a violent turn did hurt the protest movement, but with Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella body of farmers’ unions, disassociating itself quickly from the riotous scenes and violence, calling it ‘undesirable’ and ‘unacceptable’, the focus is back on the farmers’ demands.
What went wrong and why and how the designated route of the rally was violated, despite visible attempts by the protest leaders to ensure that the agreed route was followed and peace is maintained is a matter of investigation. It is also a matter of investigation to identify, prosecute and punish the rogue elements who clashed with security forces, breached peace and caused riotous scenes in the heart of Delhi on a national day of significant importance.
The fact that farmers have been protesting peaceably for more than two months and simultaneously talking to the government during this period to resolve the standoff, is an indication of the fact that force and violence was never the option they ever considered to press for their demands and mount pressure on the government.
We do not know what was responsible for the peaceful agitation turning into a tractor parade of hardliners who created a violent mess. What we also do not know is how the security forces were found wanting in anticipating trouble when fear of something untoward would happen during the tractor rally was quite palpable a day before. Whether and why the well-trained Delhi police were not adequately prepared to handle the unruly scenes and vandalism at Red Fort, where a religious flag was hoisted next to the tricolour, remains a mystery.
What is also a mystery is the fact that the religious flag was reportedly allowed to stay there for hours, despite the presence of a large police force. Not only was the inaction on the part of police obvious, it also strengthened the allegations of conspiracy to discredit and weaken the agitation, which has so far not shown signs of tiring out.
While the acts of disgrace on the Republic Day temporarily discredited the farmers’ protest and the Red Fort visuals suited the narrative of the Government, these have, however, not affected the general sympathy of the people for the agitation, which seems to have recovered from the setback and emerged even stronger, with more farmers from Uttar Pradesh joining the protest on the Delhi-UP border.
What has unnerved the Government is the high morale of the farmers. What is equally disconcerting for the government is that even after two months, and particularly after what happened on January 26, the effort to delegitimise the agitation and limit the discontent to only one or two states – mainly Punjab and Haryana – has failed.
Despite the mainstream media’s best effort to peddle the Government’s narrative, there is a lot of silent support for farmers, who have remained focused on the real issue. This means the distractions of one day have failed to weaken the agitation. It also means that farmers have come to terms with the fact that they are fighting a really long battle, given that they are pitted against the might of the state, which is unlikely to give in to their demands easily.
In a democratic society, violence has no space and farmers know that only non-violent agitation will further their cause. Therefore, only discussion, consultation and consensus are the best options to resolve the impasse. The farmers are not ready to settle for anything less than scrapping of the three laws and legal guarantee for the MSP. In 11 rounds of talks so far, the Government has agreed to amendments relating to clauses on stubble burning and electricity, but has refused to repeal the laws.
The Supreme Court has paused the implementation of the laws for three months. The Government has proposed to pause the laws for 18 months but farmers have rejected the proposal. At an all-party meet on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the Opposition parties that his government is approaching the farmers’ issue with an open mind and the proposal to freeze the farm laws for one-and-a-half years still stands.
Modi has also defended the farm laws, saying they would benefit the farmers, not harm them. This has been said time and again by the Prime Minister and agriculture minister. However, no one from the Government has so far tried to explain what the benefits from the laws are for farmers. If indeed farmers stand to gain from the laws, the simple question is, why has the agriculture minister not been able to convince farmers in 11 rounds of talks to end the agitation?
Since the laws loosen the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce that have protected farmers from free market, farmers fear the new laws will threaten decade-old concessions and weaken their bargaining power, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by private companies. India needs a whole host of reforms, including agriculture. But reforms cannot be done without addressing people’s anxieties and concerns, neither due deliberation can be short-circuited in framing laws.
The way to carry out farm reforms to dismantle the decades-old agriculture market must happen through dialogue because fear and suspicion will derail the process. Fear and suspicion are indeed the major reasons behind the agitation and stalemate between farmers and government. Farmers have indicated that they are ready for talks with government.
Having already won half the battle, farmers need to be little more balanced in considering the government’s proposal to hold the laws in abeyance for one-and-a-half years, a face-saver for the Government, while all the concerns raised by them are thrashed out by a committee. One-and-a-half years is a long time and it is unlikely that the government would risk another major agitation, with barely a year-and-a-half to go for the next general election.
The author is an independent senior journalist