The violence on Republic Day in New Delhi by the agitated farmers has sullied legitimate protests, irrespective of what one’s views are on the farm laws. The farmers assembled in protest at Singhu and Ghazipur borders of Delhi for more than two months and have been attracting headlines and endless TV ‘debates,’ most of which have been critical of the movement.
The farmers have certainly used some novel and unique methods of protest. An entire township seems to have been established at the Singhu border. The huge ‘ langars ,’ libraries, laundries, gyms, kirtans and wrestling matches set up have evoked both admiration and mirth in equal measure. Questions have been raised over the financing of the movement.
The Supreme Court’s controversial intervention has evoked a variety of comments. The cases filed in the Supreme Court were challenging the Constitutional validity of these laws and gauging whether or not the protests were impeding on normal life of the citizens. But that the SC went beyond its remit and suspended the implementation of the laws temporarily, and formed a committee to bring about a resolution to the impasse, which raised many an eyebrow. The farmers were prompt in rejecting the Supreme Court’s overtures and refused to have any truck with the committee formed by making it a non-starter.
It was then the government made a climb down and offered to suspend the laws for 18-24 months and agreed to discuss “clause-by-clause.” The farmers could have used this window to call off their agitation but it drove itself into a corner by sticking to its “repeal of laws or nothing” maximalist position.
But with the needless violence on Republic Day at the Red Fort, all bets are off. This violence has brought about fissures in the farmers movement with the umbrella organisation — Samyukta Kisan Morcha — public distancing itself from the violence.
The danger here is that the Central government may use the Red Fort violence to forcefully break up the agitation at the Delhi borders which may lead to more violence. Whatever one’s views on the farm laws, that an agitation that was so far peaceful ended up becoming violent on Republic Day, which is unfortunate even from the view of future protests movements.
The violence will also make people forget that things should have never come to such a pass. There is also the danger of the whole farmers’ agitation being seen through the prism of “law and order” and the real issues of farm distress being swept under the carpet.
The way the farm laws were enacted — first bringing them in as ordinances in mid-2020 when the pandemic was peaking and then rushing through the Bills in Parliament and not referring them to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, as is usually the norm for important Bills — was what led to this impasse and marked a political failure on the part of the government.
The BJP is the most powerful party in India today with governments in many States and UTs. That it has some of the most astute and shrewd politicians who have turned winning State elections into a fine art is beyond doubt. That it is a party that has finger on the pulse of the people also cannot be questioned.
Then how did the BJP-led government at the Centre bungle so badly on the farm laws issue? How did the BJP, which has its ear so close to the ground, not see the groundswell of discontent brewing in the rural sector? Did it get carried away by “technocratic” advice to push through the farm laws amidst the raging pandemic under the rationale that one must not miss a crisis to push through critical reform?
Veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta has said in a video on The Print website that the government should have prepared the ground, especially in Punjab and Haryana, before enacting such far-reaching reforms in a sector that impact so many millions of farmers. There perhaps was a case for that. But giving more space to the States and taking them on board, especially given that agriculture is a State subject, would have been a better option — both politically and economically. A more decentralised approach to reform would have also led to policies more suited to the varying agro-climatic conditions across the country.
One can only hope the Republic Day mayhem was a one-off incident and the agitation itself does not have a violent denouement.