‘Media Glare Is Fading, Not The Resolve Of Sikh Farmers’

Amrit Pal Singh (23), a BBA student who assists a US-based doctor at Tikri Border in providing medical support to protesting farmers, says they are ready to ‘weather’ any challenge

It has been nearly six months of the farmers’ protest, but we are in for the long haul. The numbers might be dwindling par jazba poora barkarar hai (the resolve is firm). You will find many of us from Punjab staying put here until a proper solution is found to the farmers’ grievances. The media interest is also dwindling but we know that those mediapersons who are still coming here are the ones who were truly invested in the issue right from the beginning. It warms my heart to see the exchange of views between protestors and mediapersons; after all interviews are about exchange of views.

I have been assisting Dr Swaiman Singh, a US-based doctor who has set up camp at Tikri Border and has been providing seva non-stop to protesters since January. Apart from registering my voice at the protest, I also serve as his assistant and accountant.

Amrit with Dr Swamiman Singh (seated first from the left)

After taking due permissions, we have turned a local bus depot into a medical camp where we provide basic medicines, first-aid facilities and have provisions for dental as well as eye check-ups. We also provide masks, sanitisers and have been trying to step up the processes here when it comes to Covid testing.

Apart from this, I do seva wherever it is required, right from providing medical support serving langars, to doing basic everyday chores like cleaning the washrooms etc. Summers are fully upon us and the trolleys that kept us safe during winters are now turning into tandoors literally, we can’t sleep in them any longer. So I contribute in the making of temporary bamboo and iron shelters to keep us safe from the heat.

Amrit with his team of medical volunteers at the protest site

While we are providing coolers wherever possible, we farmers are used to working in extreme heat and cold conditions. So extreme weather does not bother us too much. However, we need to take care of our elders and others and hence these shelters.

We had anticipated water shortage in the beginning of summers and we did suffer a bit because of shortage of water and milk, but things are back on track now and we have proper water supply. Dr Swaiman has set up big water filters at regular intervals so that the protesting public can access clean drinking water.

Amrit Pal with fellow protesters at Tikri Border

The recent Baishakhi celebrations provided us with renewed vigour and that day saw a huge rise in numbers. Many common people, artists and sportspersons came to show their solidarity and gave us a much needed shot in the arm. They might have gone back home as of now but they have told us that they are with us in spirit.

We are ready to ‘weather’ anything in order to find a solution to the problems of farmers but we sincerely hope that the government listens to us. Hamare buzurg itna kuch jhel rahe hain, wo sacchai ke liye sab kuch jhel sakte hain to hum bhi jhel sakte hain. They are our guiding light summer or winter cannot dampen our jazba.

India Has Violated Its Obligations To UN On Peasant Rights

When the offices of the UN Secretary General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association supported the Indian peasants’ right of peaceful protest and assembly, they were reminding the Indian government of its general human rights obligations under the UN treaties that India has ratified and voluntarily undertaken to enforce at the national level.

These top UN diplomats were cognisant of India’s response to the largely peaceful and unprecedented peasant protests in the form of disproportionate and impermissible law and order measures. Such measures are tantamount to criminalising the current peasant protests and are prohibited by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (the UNDROP).

It took more than seventeen years of campaign by the La Via Campesina, a global network campaign of peasants and rural workers organisations, to reach the milestone of the UNDROP’s adoption by the UN General Assembly on December 17, 2018. At this time, the Indian government has committed to follow the UNDROP which it not only voted for but actually proactively co-sponsored and campaigned for at the UN General Assembly.

The UNDROP brought peasant rights within the ambit of human rights and aimed to strengthen intergovernmental coordination and transnational agrarian solidarity. It is the first ever international law instrument that grants human rights to the majority rural population of global society and provides guidance to the governments on guaranteeing these rights. The UNDROP provides a framework for countries and the international community to strengthen the protection of the human rights of peasants and other rural people and to improve their living conditions.

The UNDROP’s fundamental premise is that the peasant and rural workers constitute 80% of the world’s population and are often victims of human rights violations and suffer from poverty. Peasant and rural landless workers, especially women, do not have equal control over land and other natural resources, or access to education and justice. It recognises the dignity of the world’s rural populations, their contributions to global food production, and their ‘special relationship’ to the land, water and nature, as well as their vulnerabilities to evictions, hazardous working conditions and political repression. 

The UNDROP is a blueprint for potential national legislation dealing with the rights of peasants and rural workers. Although currently it is technically non-binding in a strict sense, it uses the term “shall” implying legal obligations of the countries and is an honour code that all UN members have agreed to uphold and incorporate in their national policy framework. Until it becomes a treaty with its own independent enforcement mechanism, the UN has deferred the UNDROP’s monitoring and instead asked all countries including India to include the UNDROP implementation measures in their periodic reports to the other UN human rights mechanisms.

Importantly, the UNDROP prohibits criminalisation of peasants and rural workers protests and calls upon all countries including India to ensure that it shall not subject them to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments when they exercise their right to freedom of expression and assembly. It also recognises the peasants and rural workers’ right to life, security of persons, freedom of movement, thought, opinion and expression, as well as association.

Despite India’s commitment at the UN not to criminalise any peasant struggle, the government introduced drastic measures in response to current protests such as interrupting access to water and electricity, limiting access to protest sites, barricading and fortifying protest sites, deploying paramilitary forces, disrupting internet services, registering criminal cases, arbitrarily detaining, torturing, and inflicting custodial and sexual violence against the protest leaders, protesters, supporters, and journalists.

From the beginning, the government acquiesced to the ruling party’s political propaganda apparatus that has engaged in a systematic vilification and dehumanisation campaign about the protests. It failed to publicly condemn all off and online attacks, and the use of hateful and misogynistic language against those connected with the protest.

The UNDROP requires India to ensure the primacy of peasants’ rights specified in the UNDROP over all international agreements, including those regulating trade, investments and intellectual property rights. For that purpose, it further mandates India to take legislative, administrative measures with full consultation of its rural populations. The government in drafting three farm laws has not made good faith efforts to facilitate the peasants’ right to actively participate in the legislative process.

The UNDROP states that India is obliged to take measures to favour peasants selling their products in markets and allow their families to attain an adequate standard of living. The measures enshrined in the three farm laws including the government’s unwillingness to give statutory power to the Minimum Support Price (MSP), adversely affecting the peasants fair access to the market and adequate standard of living, thereby breaching its commitment to the UNDROP.

Without any philosophical or ideological shift at government level or its explicit reservation to the implementation of the UNDROP, India’s volte face reveals its apparent intent to not comply with the UNDROP’s key provisions. The Indian governmental leadership understands the gravity of the situation about the agrarian crisis and protests, and understands its obligations to the peasants, yet it is making a strategic decision that dispute resolution and conflict prevention efforts are not worth the political costs.

A very simple understanding of the holistic configuration of the current protest dynamics indicates various imminent warning signs for the protests spiraling into a larger unmanageable crisis, with devastating consequences for peasants, rural workers, police and armed forces, their families, and the whole social fabric. Even now, a staggering number of protesters continue to die.

The government’s continuous failure to resolve the farm bill dispute, may result in one or more different scenarios, such as aggressive law enforcement actions or incidents of random and scattered violence or even a prolonged low-intensity rural armed conflict, with unimaginable human and material loss. 

ALSO READ: Farmers Agitation Is Modi Govt’s Biggest Test

The protest has gradually reached a monumental juncture nationally beyond the strategic encampments at various entry points to New Delhi, with increasing global support. It is slowly starting to receive attention from the UN human rights processes. On February 11, 2021, the La Via Campesina representative spoke at a high-level special event of The UN Committee on World Food Security and said that “thousands of farmers in India are on the streets for over [the past] 75 days demanding a fair support price for their harvest. They are worried because of the entry of big agribusinesses and contract farming models that will push down their incomes further and they will have no chance to bargain.”

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her oral updates on the global human rights situation in more than 50 countries at the 46th session opening of the UN Human Rights Council, provided much needed and belated impetus to protests when she highlighted that “continued protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers [in India] highlight the importance of ensuring laws and policies are based on meaningful consultations with those concerned. I trust that ongoing dialogue efforts by both sides will lead to an equitable solution to this crisis that respects the rights of all. Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles…”

Given the global attention the protest is receiving, it is likely that peasants and rural workers globally may observe the forthcoming International Day of Peasant’s Struggle on April 17, 2021, in support of the Indian protests. This day commemorates the massacre of the peasants and landless workers by armed forces in 1996 in Brazil while protesting for comprehensive agrarian reform.

If the government had been more transparent nationally during the drafting of the three farm bills, upheld its commitments under the UNDROP, and discharged its ethical responsibility and legal obligations to diligently implement them, it could have averted this crisis that continues to bring immense pain, suffering, and trauma to all, and that also has inflamed a toxic socio-political culture of intolerance.

The writer is a former UN human rights monitor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda

Agriculure In Crisis – 300 Million Landless Labourers

When India became free in 1947, the country’s population was around 340 million. The bulk of the population was involved in agriculture. During the Moghul rule, the land was owned by the emperor and the Jagirdars and Zamindars appointed by the Moghul controlled vast tracts of land for the purpose of collecting the land revenue. The farmers were virtually landless. I have seen these poor exploited souls walk towards the sheds of these landlords like cattle after the day’s toil to sleep for the night and get some rice and daal for food.

During the freedom struggle, a promise had been made that the land will be given to the tiller. The aim was to get rid of feudalism and revive the country’s agricultural economy that had been ruined and could not produce enough food for the nation. Famines were common both during the Moghul and British eras. Nearly three million died during the Bengal famine of 1943

Independent India’s government took quick steps to abolish Zamindari and Jagirdari to distribute land to the landless farmers. Depending upon the availability of land in each area a limit was placed on the maximum that a tiller family could get. The poor farmers were still using ancient techniques in farming that did not bring a good result.

It has taken time to revive agriculture. To the credit of independent India that it fought a threatened famine in Bihar in 1966. I was all over Bihar then and can say with confidence that few millions would have died but for free India. Not a single person died of hunger-of course the food was imported in large quantities from the United States.

Then came the effort to educate the farmers of new practices, new seeds from India’s agricultural research institutes that the country’s first Prime Minister established. India achieved what is known as the green revolution. Today the country feeds a population of 1300 million and its granaries are overflowing with stocks. The country is an exporter of food grains.

However, over the years, with population explosion and subdivision of small holdings of the farmers in the villages upon the death of original landholder the holdings in most cases have become uneconomic and resulted in the creation of landless estimated around 300 million.

The land has passed on into the hands of big rich farmers who bought it from the small farmers for a pittance. The country is once again facing the emergence of new landlords some of whom own village after village, pay no taxes as agricultural income is tax-exempt. These landlords not only own vast chunks of the land but with income-tax-free earnings now run hotels and miscellaneous other businesses. Many of these new feudals are politicians for whom politics is a business of protecting their landholdings.

Where do we go from here? Will the farm laws enacted by the government help the landless and reduce poverty in the countryside or help poor farmers. If one has to go by any other country’s example, then it has to look at the United States of America where small farms have totally disappeared into the hands of Corporates. Do we want that to happen in India? It can happen, after all, India’s corporates will love tax-free income from agriculture.

It is time to talk to the farmers, the landless, the people who know what is happening in rural India if poverty has to be eradicated. The big farmers, rich as they are not happy that the new laws may give them competition from the Corporates. In any case, the rich farmers including Corporate agricultural companies need to be taxed say on income above a certain level. Let it not be forgotten that agriculture was exempted from tax in the past to make it attractive for farmers and others to invest at a time when no one wanted to invest in agriculture.

Corporates in agriculture may pay better wages to the landless or more money to the small farmer for taking his land on contract. Will they? Or will they go for greater mechanical farming reducing the numbers of labourers required America’s agriculture is totally mechanised?

The agitation by the farmers rich or small, whatever, has now run for over four months. There is no end in sight. Farm laws were enacted without consulting the farmers or their unions. It is not just the BJP that is responsible for these laws even the preceding governments had thought of such action.

The way opposition works in the Parliament – shouting slogans, not studying the Bills, with no debate on proposed legislation. These laws which may be seriously defective get passed by a majority because the opposition whose job it is to highlight such defects is usually not there in the House having walked out.

It is time that the Opposition parties seriously consider their role in Parliament. Is it merely to shout slogans, run into the well of the house, walk out and give free hand to the government to get through legislation virtually without any debate or due consideration. The net result people suffer and agitate if a defective law is passed.

To this author, the Farmers agitation has highlighted the crisis in agriculture that the Farm laws fail to address. In the years ahead, with a rising population and hardly any population control measures, the country is only going to witness far greater numbers of landless poor. It is time to consider the solution and face this crisis.

The Prime Minister has promised to double the income of the farmers and the Farm Laws are said to be a step in that direction. Will the Farm laws really do that or just double the income of rich farmers? Time to sort this out in consultation with the farmers big and small. Bring this agitation to an end and find the solution for rural poverty.

(The author of this opinion piece is the chairman of ANI)

EXCLUSIVE–Nodeep Kaur: You Must Fight To Live With Dignity

Nodeep Kaur, the 24-year-old Dalit labour rights activist who was jailed for raising her voice against Haryana factory owners and farm laws, says her fight against injustice is far from over

It is rare and difficult for a woman to become a full-time activist. When a woman raises her voice for a cause, it is taken lightly. I learnt this at an early age, when my mother used to work in the fields and raised her voice for a rape victim. Later, I saw this at every stage of my life and most recently at the farmers protest on Singhu border. There were so many women who had come there but rarely were they given a chance to express their views on stage.

My mother taught me that if we were to live with dignity, we must raise our voice. I have seen her struggle, and the discrimination and the torture that a farm worker may face at the hands of big landlords. My mother always said the poor must stand unitedly to get their voice heard. Or we would be crushed.

Two years back, in 2019, I came to Delhi to be with my sister Rajvir Kaur. This was a time when protests were being held in the capital against Citizenship Act and NRC (national register for citizens). I felt moved by its social impact and actively took part in the demonstration.

When the lockdown was implemented, my father lost his job. As our financial situation dwindled, I looked for a job to support our family. Some of my friends in Kundli (Haryana) told me that I could find work in the factories there and I went ahead. I again witnessed how the factory owners were exploiting the labour.

In every industrial area, the factory owners keep a bunch of roughnecks who do not let labourers raise their voice. The labour is not supposed to challenge the factory owners for their due legal rights. There were longer hours and many workers had long pending wages. The proprietors used lockdown as an excuse to hold their dues. I knew the unity was important if the labour had to take on the owners. I joined the (Mazdoor Adhikar) Sangthan there.

Nodeep Kaur addresses the media during a press conference

When we started helping labourers get their pending wages, the factory owners were alarmed. During one of the protests they even fired at us. And when the protesters retaliated, the police came to their rescue and protection. Law enforcement agencies unabashedly sided by the rich.

Yet, we were able to get the dues of some 300 labourers paid. The factory owners felt the heat. There are thousands of workers in the area with similar cases. Paying their dues would be a financial and prestige setback for the proprietors. Besides, if it worked in Kundli, then they feared that it will have an effect on other industrial areas as well.

Meanwhile, as labourers we lent our support to farmers protesting against Central laws right from November 26, the day when the protests started. We raised a tent at Singhu border from day one and also organized a labour strike to express our solidarity and support to the farmers. More than 2,000 labourers took off from their work and came marching to the farmers protest site.

We thus came across as a threat to both the local industrialists as well as the state. So in a planned manner, when we were protesting peacefully on January 12, the quick response teams of the company came. While I was talking to them, the police began lathicharge on the protesters, including women. They dragged me. It was natural reaction of my fellow labourers to resist the action. But for this, I was charged with unlawful assembly, trespass, criminal assault, intimidation and even attempt to murder. Clearly, they wanted to create a sense of fear in others and keep the factory owners in good humour. That’s why I believe the arrest was all planned in advance and accordingly executed.

As told to Mamta Sharma

‘Disha Will Get Justice When Illegal Case Against Her Is Quashed’

Rajani Santosh, a co-activist of Disha Ravi, rues the fact that instead of highlighting the illegal procedure of Ravi’s arrest, the media was busy vilifying a 22-year-old climate activist

Since August 2019, I have been volunteering for several environmental groups for research and advocacy on local environmental issues like waste management, illegal tree felling, water wastage and most recently the farm unrest. Together, we have been trying to declutter, simplify local environmental-friendly practices and along our journey, we are constantly educating ourselves too.

Disha Ravi has been part of the same group of conscientious citizens in Bengaluru who are trying to make a change. Be it Central farm laws, anti-coal campaigns or local climate issues, Disha has been at the forefront of mobilizing young people for petitioning, demonstrating, forming human chains in an orderly and peaceful way. She is also a vocal advocate for animal rights and a vegan too. Law-abiding citizens of her generation who live simple lives are a rare breed.

Therefore, as a co-activist, the news of her arrest (in the Toolkit Case) came as a huge shock. It was chilling to see her being vilified in the media. The Centre’s manipulations and Karnataka govt’s involvement in her arrest should have been highlighted as an attack on Indian federal structure! But instead of speaking about the manner in which a 22-year-old was picked up by the police of another state, reporters were digging out details about a protest toolkit.

Disha and her band of activists in the Fridays For Future (Bengaluru chapter) have been on ground since late 2018 (when she was in college). Learning the science, economics and politics behind the climate crisis, she saw a role model in Greta Thunberg. She voiced her opinion before the powerful and spoke in a language that motivated youth to speak for themselves in other countries.

They organised walks, plogs, conferences, panel discussions since 2019 on a range of social issues. You can see from the timelines on their social media accounts how these students consulted senior environmentalists like Dr Yellappa Reddy, Dr Harini Nagendra, Leo (ESG) and other experts.

Rajani (inset) feels Disha is a rare example of climate conscious citizen of her generation

I do not think the arrest has dampened the spirit at all. It will only make us work closely with each other. Her arrest has brought one fact in focus: that environmental activists have a stake in farm laws because these laws push for farmland consolidation which will lead to loss of biodiversity-based agri-models of our country.

The bail order for Disha Ravi was a relief. However, what happened was wrong and she will get complete freedom only when the case against her is legally quashed. We are in a climate emergency and very few voices are speaking up. Sadly, environmental cases get attention only when there is loss of many human lives due to unnatural floods, glacial bursts or similar man-made disaster. Soon, the issue gets buried under news TRPs and we move to the next calamity.

For now, Disha is lying low and speaking to very few of us, and I think that is best for her now. But I am in touch with her lawyers and we shall take this case to its logical, legal conclusion.

‘Choking Water Supply At Singhu Was Mindless, Heartless’

Wazihul, 19, describes the humanitarian and health crisis caused by hasty barricading of farmers protests sites at Singhu and Ghazipur borders. But protesters were not disheartened, he says

I am an engineering student and I feel strongly about the ongoing farmer protests, which is why I ensure that I extend my support to them whenever and wherever possible. Sometimes I go to the Ghazipur Border, which is closer home and sometimes to the Singhu Border, to express my solidarity with the farmers. Post the turn of events on Republic Day and in anticipation of the Chakka Jam on February 6, the government decided to barricade the farmers wherever they were positioned.

The hasty barricading was done using nails, concrete and barbed wires at the Ghazipur site and blocking even water tankers at Singhu. Clearly, not much thought was put into it. Which is why for many days the farmers couldn’t make use of portable toilets at Singhu Border. This was no less than a humanitarian and health crisis.

Barricading the protest site triggered a crisis

Even the policemen on duty and the public which had come in to extend support to farmers, were using whatever few facilities were functional. I leave it to your imagination to understand the situation created by the heartless and mindless decision. Women were having the most difficult time because of the lack of public facilities. Some were forced to relieve themselves in the open.

In times like these, when the pandemic hasn’t yet subsided (and even otherwise) hygiene is of paramount importance, the basic facilities should have been taken care of.

One of the things which I noticed was that the langar sewa, a lifeline of sorts for the protesting farmers, was also affected because of the protest sites being turned into literal fortresses. Perishable grocery items were difficult to reach because of the bandobast.

ALSO READ: ‘Providing Food To Farmers Is Sacred Act’

Earlier, we could access the main protest site directly, but later we had to take a long detour to reach the spot. Needless to say that this path was full of mounds of waste materials and one needed to be extremely careful while entering and exiting the protest site.

Even though the farmers and their supporters were disappointed with the measures in place, they were certainly not dispirited. In what can be said to be an extremely impressive step, as far as marks of protest go, the farmers planted various saplings of flowering plants as well as vegetables etc. Talk about keel ka jawab paudhon se dena (a fitting response by planting saplings to defy steel spikes).

Farmers planted saplings in response to spikes and barricades

The whole world is watching us and I feel that the way the government is treating the farmers is not in good taste. I hope the farmers remain optimistic and the government, a bit considerate and the matter gets resolved soon in favour of the farmers.

Farmers’ Agitation Is Modi Govt’s Biggest Test

Forget the Covid pandemic; forget the economic downturn; forget election debacles or political crises. The biggest test that the Modi regime, soon to turn seven years old, has been subjected to during its ongoing tenure is the deafening protests by farmers against the changes that the Indian government has sought to bring about in the way farmers are able to grow, market, and price their produce.

In the last three months, protests by farmers have reached a crescendo. On January 26, which was India’s 72nd Republic Day, a group of angry farmers deviated from their designated protest route, tried to storm the historic Red Fort, and clashed with police. As that was happening, a few kilometres away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was presiding over the official Republic Day celebrations on Delhi’s Rajpath.

At least 70 farmers have died during the raging protests against three laws that the government has passed. And, the protests, which began in the northern state of Punjab, have now spread across the country. What makes the controversial farm laws and the protests against them such a big trial for Modi and his government? For an answer, let us first recapitulate the new laws and their impact.

The three new farm laws change decades-old policies regarding procurement and storage of farm produce. One law permits the setting up of mandis (or trading places) that are de-regulated from government control—that is, where farmers can sell directly to all traders at prices they negotiate rather than to only government licensed traders; another law permits farmers to enter into contract farming through deals with corporate entities and to grow whatever crops they decide to under contract; and the third allows traders to stock produce with less restrictions than at present.

The government’s rationale for these changes is ostensibly this: they will enable farmers to sell at whatever prices they want and to anyone they want to; and to be able to enter into contracts that could assure them regular and steady streams of income. From the ongoing protests, which have been escalating, it is quite evident that the farmer community has not bought this logic.

Farmers and their supporters feel that especially the smaller farmers whose incomes are meagre will be hit by the new measures. First, their produce volumes are too small for them to be able to negotiate prices with traders who aren’t regulated—thereby they would likely be exploited. Second, although the government has assured that the mandi system will not be dismantled, farmers fear that the new “unregulated” mandis will consequently do exactly that, and that small and medium farmers will suffer. Lastly, contract farming, they fear is a way of giving the corporate sector easy access to the farm sector.

Nearly 60% of 1.3 billion Indians depend either directly or indirectly on agriculture, which accounts for 18% of the GDP. But the farm sector is severely skewed. Almost 70% of Indian farmers own land that is less than 2 hectares (20,000 sq. m) in area. And as much as a quarter of Indian farmers subsist below the poverty line. Moreover, because of lack of alternative employment opportunities millions of Indians depend on the farm sector without really contributing to productivity.

Against that background, reforms in the agriculture sector are overdue. But changing the system of pricing and procurement of crops without other structural changes in the sector cannot be a solution. In fact, it could lead to further suffering for millions of Indian farmers. The farmers’ protests are a sign of how acute the problem is. And, for the Modi government, it is the most critical test that it faces in its tenure thus far. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi announced a sudden decision to demonetise large currency bills. Ostensibly, it was with the intent of limiting or detecting unaccounted money in the system. What resulted was: widespread suffering for small traders, daily wage earners and other large segments of the population that operate in the “cash economy”. Those with so-called unaccounted wealth went largely unscathed.

Demonetisation was certainly a critical test that the government faced. But its effects—on economic growth and on small businesses—were not nearly as serious as the impact of the new farm laws have been. Over the last few days, the clashes between farmers and the authorities have turned more violent, particularly in the areas surrounding the capital city of Delhi. The authorities resorted to blocking of Internet in various areas around the capital and neighbouring states—purportedly in efforts to curb social media interactions. Police resorted to tear gas and baton charges against thousands of protestors. Already, the ripples of what is happening in India have reached the world outside. And questions are being asked about the true value of democracy in a country that prides itself as being run on the highest democratic principles.

ALSO READ: The World Is Taking Note Of Indian Farmers’ Protest

The police and authorities’ action against famers’ protests have also spilled over to affect others. A freelance journalist, Mandeep Punia, who was covering the protests, was arrested on the border between Delhi and Haryana last weekend. He was granted bail after spending two days in custody and much outrage. Others have had cases filed against them for reporting or broadcasting news that has been considered “anti-government”.

But the more serious issue is that India’s mainstream media has almost been rendered toothless in recent years, particularly after the current government came to power in 2014. It does not require media experts to see how the majority of mainstream TV news channels and print publications largely avoid taking on the government and critiquing its policies. When they choose to do so the critiques are of the milquetoast variety, tailored not to ruffle the feathers of those in power too much. In any democracy, the role of the media as the fourth estate should be that of a watchdog. In India, at least when you look at it from a dispassionately distanced point of view, it may seem that the mainstream media is more of a lapdog.

For the Modi government, the farmers’ agitation has other possible consequences. The farm sector’s voters aggregate as the largest block during any election. And although the government at the Centre is safely ensconced for the next four years, there are crucial state elections that are due and those could be impacted by which way farmers decide to vote. Also, if the agitations escalate and food supplies are affected across India, they could have other economic consequences such as inflation and distribution bottlenecks. Already reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic, the economy could be hit further. For the Modi government the farmers’ agitation over the controversial laws could be something that could bring it to its knees.

‘Govt Had Laid A Trap, Farmers Walked Into It’

Gurpreet Wasi, a volunteer at Singhu border protest site, recounts what happened a day ahead of the Tractor Rally and how the Machiavellian state led the farmers into a trap

I am an ordinary citizen of India. I have been on ground since the day farmers set up camps around Delhi in November 2020, as a Khalsa Aid volunteer. Lakhs of farmer camping in the bitter cold of Delhi is a humanitarian crisis. Getting up to help them was a natural reaction as well as a debt I owe to Punjab, the birthplace of my parents.

The Tractor March was a historic event, hitherto unseen in modern India. Around 2 lakh tractors, and 7-9 lakh famers, asserted their right to walk the national capital, mark the Republic Day, and renew our pledge to live by the Constitution of India. The Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, a joint front of 40 farmer unions, and police authorities had agreed upon a route and the parade was to begin around noon.

Wasi and her friends are in support of farmers protesting at Delhi borders

On the eve of the Parade, I went to Singhu border to distribute tricolor turban materials to make the march spectacular. My friends had helped me put together green, white and kesari turbans. I was there when a faction of people, who are not part of the Morcha, suddenly announced that they won’t follow the route decided between the authorities and the Morcha. Deep Sidhu, a known BJP mole, appeared on stage with the help of a group of Nihangs, with a provocative speech.

I returned a bit wrecked, a bulk of the turbans still in my car. I could not sleep a wink that night trying to estimate the impending danger of this adverse turn.

ALSO READ: ‘Red Fort Violence A Bid To Discredit Movement’

Deep Sidhu is a familiar name at the protest; farmers never trusted his intentions or his suddenly developed ‘Sikhi’. His affiliation with BJP was not hidden. Yet, over the months he had gathered a following of adrenalin-high youngsters.

I also received a message from a friend that a media insider had told her that ‘action would start early in the day’. True to her ‘insider tip’ a group of farmers (not part of Morcha) appeared on the borders at 8 AM as did empty DTC buses so that ‘public property’ could be damaged conveniently and captured on camera.

And before you know it, TV screens were awash with aggressive protesters entering the Red Fort. A religious flag (Nishan Sahib) was tied on a conveniently vacant pole to prove that the protesters are Khalistan supporters – a narrative this government has been trying to push from the beginning. The farmers had literally walked into a dangerous trap laid out for them.

The irony is that all 40 farmer unions started the Tractor Parade on the route agreed upon and at scheduled time. Along with a group of friends, I witnessed this peaceful parade for hours together. People of Delhi were showering flowers on them. But not a single TV channel covered this official tractor parade.

Social media anarchists had been in convulsions about the leniency of Delhi Police and Supreme Court in ‘allowing’ the parade. Now, we know that the soft gloves were hiding daggers underneath. The farmer’s historic parade went horribly wrong; they returned disappointed and bewildered, wondering if their 63 days of penance in Delhi was undone in a single masterstroke of the Machiavellian State.

There are questions that beg answers. Who gave access to Deep Sidhu into a fortress like Red Fort, that too on Republic Day? Who opened its locked Iron doors? Troops were seen falling off the walls of Red Fort like matchsticks. How did anyone so strategically place a camera on the adjacent side to catch the drama? Is this a Netflix soap?

Why were some tractors turned around at Nangloi and not allowed to move to Najafgarh as planned? Why did police barricade routes to Akshardam and Geeta Colony that had been approved for the parade? Was it to create confusion? Tell me who is the biggest beneficiary from this situation? You will have all the answers there.

Wasi (left) has a string of questions that point at a conspiracy

Do you think the farmers would throw away months of their sacrifice to a few moments of madness? How can it make sense to anyone but those who are without reason, without a shred of humanity? Don’t you see this is most dangerous conspiracy and machination to sabotage the Farmers’ protests?

This sordid dance of a failed democracy was amplified on the mouthpiece TV channels. I am sure all of us who stayed home watched it, some with glee and others with dismay and disgust.

Most of the farmers thought that most Indians were looking at their plight with sympathy and that India knows that they stayed non-violent. But at the end of the day when they returned to base, broken and badgered in body and spirit, ‘Dilli’ had painted them and the most generous community of India as goons and terrorists.

It’s a tragedy to witness simple, gullible farmers who travelled from faraway places like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab and Haryana who decorated their tractors to Delhi Roads to make their parade their voice, were made scapegoats on the altar of politics.

As told to Mamta Sharma

‘Red Fort Violence Was A Bid To Discredit Farmers Protest’

Imran Malik, 25, who participated in Tractor Rally from Ghazipur border to Seemapuri, says the march was peaceful and orderly. He feels the violence at Red Fort could be an attempt to discredit the movement

On January 26, I left my house early in the cold morning to stand in solidarity with our farmer brothers and sisters and take part in Kisan Tractor Rally with a few like-minded friends of mine. I am a resident of Delhi and support the farmers protest against Central agriculture laws. I come from a family of farmers in Uttar Pradesh and feel duty-bound to support our ‘anndatas‘ (providers).

We reached the Ghazipur border around 10 am, given the traffic was moving at snail’s pace. The atmosphere at the gathering point was electric; everyone around stood up for one another in true spirit of Republic Day celebration. There was an endless sea of tractors at the border and one could sense the binding spirit of the people fighting for their fundamental rights.

The security, as in every Republic Day, was really tight but the participants were also self-disciplined. A few people could be seen listening to the Prime Minister’s speech on their phones to find out if he had anything to say about them. The speech got over at around 12 pm and we came to know that many farmers present at other borders had removed the barricades and entered the National Capital.

ALSO READ: Global Implications Of Farm Laws

Soon, there were messages and news received on mobile phones that at certain points, there were clashes between protesters and police. Looking at the orderly march that I was a part of, it was imaginable that miscreants had penetrated into the rally participants. Kuch shararati tatvon ne movement ko bigadne ki koshish ki (Certain anti-social elements tried to discredit this movement).

However, there was no untoward incident in our cavalcade. We carried the Indian Tricolour with us and our tractor (belonging to a friend from Muradnagar) also had a music system fitted in it. We felt like we were all part of one nation, one voice. Indeed, it was a national festival.

Malik says his column of rally was orderly and peaceful

Our procession marched as was planned earlier and we moved from the Ghazipur border towards Seemapuri. En route, we met with posse of policemen, but the exchanges on both sides were cordial. After all, most security personnel in India too come from farming community. Rare is an extended family in India which is not involved in farming in some way or other.

By this time, around 1 pm, we received reports and messages that many protesters have entered Red Fort. I had no plans to go to Red Fort, so I left from home. Later I saw visuals of violence and clashes. I strongly condemn such incidents.

At the same time, the episode has forced the government to sit up and take note. The state has finally begun to listen to the people it claims to serve. Over the last few years, any group or individual who expressed any dissent would be treated disdainfully and dubbed as anti-national, or be blamed for identity politics.

But the government has been unable to find any chink in the formidable farmer protests. Ye movement bikhra nahi. The tractor rally yesterday was a symbol of determination that the farmers want to see this through to its logical end. The farmers are agitated because they are staring at a bleak future. The government which bulldozed its way through every other movement, such as one at Shaheen Bagh, should better sense the mood of the public and initiate dialogue in earnest.

Winning A Battle Does Not Win A War

In a civilian protest rally of a million or so, it should not surprise even the most naïve that a few hundred will take matters into their hands, run amok and engage in dramatic acts to gain attention. Governments often like these unplanned breakouts. They exploit the indiscipline of a few to the hilt, squeezing every drop of advantage they can get, even justify sending in the armed forces to crush the dissent. The mass tractor rally in Delhi has given the BJP government at the Centre that opportunity. It is yet to see whether it milks the situation or acts wisely. The media is already on the script.

The narrative of violent elements having hijacked the protest and secessionists hoisting the Sikh flag on Red fort (Lal Qila) are the headlines. There has been little coverage of the other 99% of the peaceful protestors.

But neither Farmers’ leaders not the millions around the world supporting the farmer protest should feel guilt, remorse or surprise. The leaders are not professional sergeant majors trained to manage a battalion of troops in discipline. Nor are the millions of volunteer protestors a well-heeled army of ‘marching’ cadres. The discipline of armed forces was on show a few miles away at Rajpath. The creative indiscipline of ordinary people was evident at the farmer protests.

There is also a long history of agent provocateurs disrupting well-intended peaceful demonstrations. Often state security services deliberately provoke or leave windows open for the aberrant breakaway groups. Yogendra Yadav, one of the farmer leaders, has already made a statement accusing the police of deliberately letting the sideshow happen.

Moreover, fringe groups who rarely get any publicity or support, piggy back on legitimate mass movements with dreams of precipitating a ‘revolution’. It happens everywhere in the world.

This sort of passionate acts and violence happened in the otherwise peaceful Rath Yatras led by Advani but which ended in the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Breakaway violence gave Trump headline excuse in America’s Black Lives Matter. It has happened in most big protests in Britain such as miners’ strike and the poll tax. It happened in the demonstrations in 1982 in Punjab.

ALSO READ: Global Implications Of India’s Farm Laws

It will be highly disingenuous of the Government to exploit the side show in the otherwise very peaceful demonstration to distract from the issues and use it as an excuse to crush the farmers. It will be a punitive win.

The vast majority of farmers concentrated on their intended protest. There were families, elderly and children. Many protests took place in other parts of the country. All the protests were otherwise peaceful except the ones in the Capital.

The Government may take out its old playbook and start the game of distraction tactics, arrests and charges. It will be tempted to make claims that national security is under threat and hope for a anti farmer public opinion wave to crush the protests. The now very compliant Indian media houses will oblige. Yet the Government may wish to make risk assessment of this failed policy.

This has been tried many times before. The exploitation of some indiscipline was exploited in 1984. The legitimate movement for greater state rights was labelled as a secessionist terrorist campaign. But it backfired with two prime ministers assassinated, a fractured country, demoralisation in the Army, rise of a new political fundamentalism and a country on brink of bankruptcy in 1992. It took some 15 years to get back on keel.

This time the farm laws protests are not confined to Punjab but have spread throughout the country. This time there is also a bigger menacing neighbour than Pakistan willing to exploit internal dissent. No number of shiny Rafale jets can control people’s movements as the mighty USA has found in the Middle East.

The grievance of the farmers are real, much as the Government would like to delude itself that it has been hijacked by Communists and secessionists. It is simply about land.

The country fights for every inch of land against its neighbours and invaders. The neighbouring countries want to expand territory and gain access to resources. India, like every country has a huge armed infrastructure in place to protect that every inch of land.

Farmers too fight for every inch of their little patch of land against predatory corporates and big money. Corporates want to take over their land to exploit the resources. Unlike a country, the farmers only have their legs and their will to fend off policies that favour corporate takeovers of small farms. What is so difficult to understand about that?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not been able to convince the farmers that his brand new wonderful laws are really for their (farmers) benefit. He has lost the argument. Pushing it with tyrannical or dictatorial force is neither democratic nor in the best interest of the country.

But Modi is no tyrant. Tyrants destroy those nearest them to consolidate power. Modi is too dependent on the party and the RSS to be a real tyrant. Does BJP want its image to be like the Baath Party of Iraq?

Modi is also not a real dictator. Dictators don’t usually bring in policies that endanger their rule. They are careful. Modi is a victim of his own myth rather than a true dictator

Moreover the Indian democracy does not really let tyrants or dictators last for long. Modi is a man caught in his own mythology. His party has built a persona of Modi the strongman who never does a U-turn. These sort of hyped-up public profiles do not work well in democracies. They end tragically for the person. They usually serve the interest of those who build the myth.

That is what happened to Margaret Thatcher. She fell on her own sword, brought down by her own party and financiers when they needed her no more. That is what happened to Trump in the end. That is what is happening to Boris. That may well be the tragic political end of Modi as those close to him dig in the knife and burst the myth. Democracies are built to oust despots, tyrants and dictators, not to boost their rule. Indian democracy is no different.

Powerful politicians are those who can do U turns without looking weak. PM Modi has left little scope for himself to open his arms and say sorry to farmers and repeal the laws. He and his coterie of myth makers think that will shatter the image of the strong man. It is foolish and its is dangerous. It is not political art. Politics is the field of compromises and sometimes the compromise has to be total for longer survival.

This is now a dangerous impasse for both Modi and the country. A heavy handed response and attempts to malign the farmers could trigger deep resentment and rebellions.

The fact is that both farmers and the government feel there is a need to bring in reforms. But the Government has listened to the wrong economists and policy advisors. Most of them are old retired economists still hooked on GDP rather than comprehensive economics that incorporate aspects such as security, people’s contentment, life opportunities etc.

Exploiting the side show in farmers protest and using the law and armed force may win the battle. But winning a battle does not win a war. That is what the Government should consider seriously. It will be best to treat the aberrant group of protestors just as that and let it be. Concentrate on the issue and the other 99%. Repeal the laws, work with farmers and bring a better set of policies and laws in place. The alternative is not good.