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View | Farmers protest: Modi govt amicably resolves agitation that seemed unending

Mini

What PM Modi has done is unprecedented. Yet, it marks a continuum with a unique democratic culture of mass protests that governments try to be seen as responding to. Institutional democracy responds to ‘direct democracy’, as it were, with institutions not standing above the people.

View | Farmers protest: Modi govt amicably resolves agitation that seemed unending
The agitation against the three farm laws that were repealed by Parliament after a unilateral announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems all set to end, with farm unions agreeing to vacate the protest sites after a victory march. The recent letter by the Union Agriculture Secretary to the farm unions was also accommodative vis-a-vis other demands such as a committee on the minimum support price (MSP) guarantee, removal of cases against farmers, etc.
The end of an agitation that blocked approach roads to the national capital for more than one year — perhaps something unprecedented in the world — has lessons for democracy that go far deeper than the technical issue as to whether the laws were good or bad for farmers.
First, it shows how intellectuals in India have been wrong in painting the state, particularly under the Modi government, as harsh. While many claim, in a completely ahistorical manner, that India is on the verge of “fascism” — a very misleading application of a term signifying an ideology that killed several million in Europe in its heyday — the fact remains that the continuum of a unique democratic ethos in India has to be seen and accepted.
With Mahatma Gandhi being the tallest modern Indian leader, there is little doubt that Indian democracy will always have space for spectacles of non-violent public dissent and protest.
This happened when Dr. Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister and also happens when Modi is Prime Minister. Both the regimes faced spectacular public protests. The Anna Hazare protests were iconic and saw large crowds converge on the streets of the capital. With Pranab Mukherjee playing a key role, the government doused the flames, also calling a special sitting of Parliament where Mukherjee showered praise on Hazare. The one undoing of the UPA government was the attempt to forcibly oust Ramdev from his protest site at night, when police action led to a stampede in which one woman, Rajbala died.
Similar mistakes did take place during the tenure of the present government, too, as police were sent into Jamia Millia Islamia and police action was taken in the national capital against protesting JNU students. The action was largely lathi-charge and was severely criticised by liberals.
However, there was no police action against women protesters at Shaheen Bagh, even as the protesters blocked a road for months to demand repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019-2020. It was the pandemic that brought this protest to an end in 2020. The Act, however, stayed.
It is the farm agitation, with farmers largely from Punjab, Haryana and western UP protesting, that has in the most significant way revealed the wider continuum of an Indian democracy of public dissent and its normalization, something Dr. BR Ambedkar had warned against.
The farmers blocked approach roads to the national capital for more than one year to demand repeal of the three farm laws that had sought to liberalise the agricultural produce marketing regime, permitting contract farming and selling of farm produce outside the APMC system. The system itself wasn’t abolished. Nor was MSP abolished. However, more options were opened to farmers. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana – where government procurement at MSP takes place regularly -- thought that this would soon enough make corporates dictate conditions to them. None knows how the farm laws would have eventually turned out, as farmers in most parts of India anyway sell their produce far below the MSP, which is announced on 23 crops. The merit of the laws is now no longer the key issue, as Parliament has repealed them.
The key takeaway of the last one year is the response of Modi to the protest. He allowed it to go on for more than one year, with the police just stationed on the borders but taking no action. In fact, cops were seen eating at the Langars that served food, sweets and tea at the protest sites. On January 26, in fact, farmers in an act of defiance planted the Sikh flag Nishan Saheb at the Red Fort. There were altercations between farmers and the police on that day, with many videos showing cops jumping off the road to save themselves from the farmers.
Yet, things returned to normal and stayed so, till a car belonging to Union Minister Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ allegedly mowed down four farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri in north-central UP. In retaliation, the farmers lynched four persons, including two BJP workers and the driver of the minister. Even after this, the authorities negotiated with Rakesh Tikait and promptly offered cheques of Rs. 45-lakh each to the families of farmers who had been killed. The minister’s son Ashish Mishra was booked.
After a long-drawn and largely peaceful stalemate, which also meant discomfort for commuters who travelled from NCR to Delhi, the Prime Minister suddenly announced the repeal of the farm laws. He defended the laws but said that he was unable to convince a section of farmers. The language stayed reconciliatory: “Hamari hi tapasya mein kuchh kami reh gayi hogi (there must have been some shortcoming in our devotion).” He did it on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, clearly reaching out to the Sikh minority, which was the most active in the farm protests.
I can’t remember when a government last took back its own law in the face of public protest. Yes, the 42nd constitutional amendment act brought during the Emergency, with the opposition in jail, was reversed by the 44th constitutional amendment act, but this was done by the Janata government that replaced Indira Gandhi. The Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act, legislated by the Nehru government in 1958 to give special powers to the armed forces in disturbed areas, saw long-drawn protests — including a record 16-year fast by Irom Sharmila — but was never repealed by any government.
In many senses, what Modi has done is unprecedented. Yet, it marks a continuum with a unique democratic culture of mass protests that governments try to be seen as responding to. Institutional democracy responds to ‘direct democracy’, as it were, with institutions not standing above the people.
Liberal and left intellectuals commit not just a fallacy but a blunder by evoking fascism to attack the BJP government. Perhaps they are aware there is no comparison but make the comparison nevertheless on ideologically partisan grounds. There has never in India been a parallel to Hitler, who is accused of the holocaust; of getting Jews thrown in gas chambers. The toll of the holocaust is believed to have been 6-million lives.
In India, there has never been such a situation, as its imperfect democracy always excels in protest.
One needs to remember that the present leadership is also a product of the protest against the Indira Gandhi government that began with the JP Movement of 1974. Unfortunately, that was also the only time that a government in India chose to break with the legitimacy of the public culture of dissent in the country and imposed the Emergency.
It was also punished by voters after that.
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