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.