On Friday, as the sun set in large parts of India, the day-long farmers’ protests and Bharat Bandh passed off peacefully with no police violence, lathi-charge or teargas reported, no mass arrests or detentions, and no forcible eviction of farmers, many of whom had blocked highways and roads, and railway tracks and trains, albeit peacefully, and in a collective, resolute show of non-violence. Even while the so-called Godi media chose to ignore it, social media was replete with images and commentaries of the mass protests all over the country; significantly in the South, in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, where thousands thronged the streets in militant non-violent protests against three agriculture-related bills.
The Centre in the recently-concluded Monsoon Session of Parliament passed three bills rather arbitrarily: the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and; he Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.
Farmers believe these bills will have long-lasting and negative effects on farming as they will give a free run to big industrialists, global sharks, cartels and multinationals. Powerful hoarders will have a field day, the minimum support price of farm produce will be manipulated pushing the farmers to abject starvation, debt and total dependence, and all kinds of dubious and sleazy market forces will be allowed to capture Indian agriculture.
The belligerent BJP-led central government, who chose to care little for dialogue or consensus in pushing the three bills, and which was so sure of its absolute and one-dimensional power, now not only finds itself on a sticky wicket – it is clearly on the back foot.
Indeed, the street has once again become a metaphor for non-violent protests, for the first time since the lockdown, which was preceded by massive peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and Citizen Registry (NRC) that rocked the nation with demonstrations and prolonged sit-ins across small towns and big cities for more than three months during winter last year and thereafter. Surely, after the massive Shaheen Bagh protests, which were replicated across the nation, and with the farmers coming on the streets physically, breaking all forms of collective phobia or the fear of a Police State, the use of the pandemic to crush democratic dissent can no more be used. The tide is rising again, this time with farmers in the lead.
On the first day of protests, the farmers’ life began earlier than most people in India, much before sunrise. There was fear that there could be a crackdown, especially in the states ruled by the BJP. Even now, there have been apprehensions that the central government, which has been rather uncompromising, might actually choose to crack down using the pandemic as an excuse, as it has done with peaceful dissenters against the CAA, which the protesters have condemned as discriminatory, communal and against the basic tenets of the secular Indian Constitution.
By morning most of Punjab was up in arms. Indeed, what found sharp resonance in Parliament earlier, especially in the Rajya Sabha, where the three bills were pushed by a voice vote in the din (with Rajya Sabha TV volume muted) and a division of vote was not allowed, and which the Opposition called as the murder of democracy, became resonant yet again on the streets all over India. Trains and highways were blocked but without any untoward incident.
At the Haryana-Punjab border, tractors blocked the roads even as ambulances and locals were allowed to move, and youngsters in thousands assembled in solidarity with the farmers. Punjab being the epicenter, the strong protests were spread across the state, with the farmers refusing to budge till the three bills are taken back, lock, stock and barrel, and the minimum support prices for farm produce legalized.
At the massive Nabha protests, again on railway tracks, men and women marched from long distances, to join in solidarity. A woman told BBC News (Hindi), “Narendra Modi tells his Mann ki Baat. So what about our Mann ki Baat? Another woman said, “The movement will be sharpened if the bills are not withdrawn. They are liars.”
The upsurge spread across the country, with thousands of rallies and dharnas. Farmers, workers, locals, trade unions, civil society organisations and students came out in hundreds of rallies in small towns and cities, in every state, holding red, green and other flags, marching in a disciplined and peaceful manner. ‘Standwithfarmers’ kept trending on social media. In Kolkata, the students of Jadavpur University marched through the streets singing songs in support of the farmers. There was overwhelming support for the agitation all over Bengal with the Left, the Congress and the ruling Trinamool Congress coming out in support.
The CPI-ML (Liberation), which is strong among the poor peasantry in Bihar, led protests across the state, led by its general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya. The CPI (M) organized rallies in several parts of the country even as its national protests have been continuing since the last few weeks demanding the scrapping of the bills, Rs 7,500 in every bank account of jobless workers, food for the poor from the public distribution system, an end to the selling of public sector assets like the railways and airports, and the release of students, intellectuals, activists and peaceful protestors from prisons.
Surprisingly, the CPI (M) organized massive and militant protests in Tripura, especially in Agartala, whereby thousands of people came out and broke the physical barricades enacted by the police at several points. People trickled in streams across locations, very angry and vociferous, though the clashes with the cops were never violent with the police giving way to the surging crowds.
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Several highways were blocked, including the important Bombay-Ahmedabad highway, where hundreds of women of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), blocked traffic. Ashok Dhawale, president of the CPI(M)-led All India Kisan Sabha, came to the site to give a solidarity speech. Dhawale, indeed, was the leader of the massive march of lakhs of farmers to Mumbai earlier from the remotest interiors of Maharashtra, including Adivasi areas, when the BJP government was ruling in Mumbai.
That long march of kisans with a sea of red banners struck a chord across the nation with round-the-clock coverage, including on social and international media, with the people of Mumbai coming out in total support. Indeed, the farmers deliberately chose the route and timing in such a manner so as to not to disturb the school students in their exams, or the locals in their daily affairs. Doctors, students, housewives had rushed in then with food, medicine and even chappals. Mumbaikars showered flowers on the annadaatas from their balconies and doors when they marched through the lanes. AIKS said 50,000 farmers protested across Maharashtra on Friday.
Over two dozen farmers’ organizations backed by scores of political parties have joined the protests. The Bharat Bandh was coordinated by the All India Farmers Union (AIFU), Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), All India Kisan Mahasangh (AIKM), among others, with the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) leading the protests. Ten central trade unions, all Left students’ organizations, joined the strike. Farmers’ bodies from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra called for a shutdown. The RSS-affiliated organizations like the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch did not take part.
Clearly, these mass protests are now likely to resurrect a new wave of peaceful resistance in civil society and by the Opposition parties, especially against the daily hounding and arrests of students, professors, intellectuals, journalists and dissenters, particularly from the Muslim community, on fabricated and flimsy charges.