Is it a farmers’ 'sit-in' when the protest stretches over many invisible miles, or is it the whole society marching on command headquarters?
The farmers’ movement rocking the Delhi region, with its ripple effects spreading, appears unique due to its patterns of participation and mobilisation, which lend it spectacular social energy articulated in wholly peaceful fashion. Whether it has the potential for wider political impact will depend on its staying power.
The Narendra Modi government’s efforts to discredit it as a “Khalistani” plot – as Sikh farmers are its most visible element -- or the devious result of the Congress’ machinations have cut no ice, but the government continues to play a perception game through the media.
Mr Modi’s reputation is for not going back. Thus, mind games are being played to tire out the protesters. But if these tactics don’t succeed quickly, an unlikely prospect since Prime Minister Modi is stuck in a rigid pro-big industry position which farmers read as being anti-farmer, the government could be headed for a very chilly winter.
Large-scale protest movements and mobilisations, by their very nature, have about them a degree of latent militancy. This doesn’t always mean violence, although it can degenerate into that, causing irreversible injury to the cause itself, as in the Assam, Punjab and Kashmir agitations in the 1983-93 decade.
The protests that rocked the country during the JP agitation in the 1970s, culminating in the Emergency, did not involve people’s violence but the active willingness to give battle to the State appeared ever present and the air was seldom free of tension, although the movement had the participation of Gandhians.
The Anna Hazare movement, which led to the undoing of the Manmohan Singh government, appeared to have been brought together for that very purpose by its BJP-RSS core. It wore the clothing of an anti-corruption campaign as Dr Singh was perceived as a man of unshakeable integrity. It attracted idealists, had extensive urban middle class and media backing, and proved a greatly successful affair, even giving birth to a political party which bends to sectarian Hindu sentiments when in trouble rather than to any known principle.
In sharp contrast, while the entirely peaceful anti-CAA movement of last year, mostly involving Muslim women -- usually seen as homebound – in urban settings across the country, did gain international attention, it failed to receive wide national endorsement, although it campaigned with rare courage on a very important national issue -- the communal changes made by the Modi government in citizenship laws.
The present government, with its religion-based orientation, and near monopolistic influence on the media and social media, demonised this movement and harassed and punished many of those involved, with the judicial system remaining quiescent and lackadaisical.
Based on a broad appreciation of these historical events, in which this writer was a keen professional observer, it’s not hard to see that the truly massive mobilisation of farmers at Delhi’s Singhu border with Haryana at the national capital’s northern end, from where the road leads to Punjab, has characteristics that separate it from anything in recent decades.
Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is its participation and mobilisation quotient. The movement eschews political links and is about the farmers’ demands alone. It challenges laws that were first brought through the ordinance route and then passed with unseemly haste in Parliament without discussion and rushed through the Upper House bypassing established voting procedures. But it’s not just Punjab’s farmers who are at the Singhu border, every section of Punjab society and many from Haryana are out there laying siege to the nation’s capital.
While every state in India is primarily agricultural in terms of population, in Punjab and Haryana non-farmers appear closely linked to the farm sector. There appears something emotional and organic about this, unlike in other states. It’s this link that gives the agitation its all-of-community character instead of a single occupation colour.
Farm holdings are small, and this part of the country was among India’s poorest in 1947 for want of irrigation. But irrigation and power availability through the Bhakra-Nangal, and vastly improved yields through green revolution technologies, made Punjab and Haryana relatively prosperous. On this edifice has rested education, sports, physical and health infrastructure, industry and the arts. This is why writers, poets, artists and sportspersons are returning their national awards in solidarity with the farmers, who are also likely to be relatives. But it’s useful to note that good yields turn to a reasonable income only due to the assured minimum price or minimum support price (MSP), a subsidy in economic terms which distorts the market. Is it necessary for the government to fight that subsidy if it has made entire regions economically viable and socially stable?
A day’s visit to the Singhu border is a fascinating experience. There are miles of tractor trolleys. During the day protesters mill about and listen to speeches or run the countless “langars”, or community kitchens, where free food is respectfully served to all -- including the hordes of Delhi’s poor who show up -- according to the precepts of “sewa”, or service, in Sikhism. At night they sleep in their tractors or under them. There are no shops of any kind. Camaraderie flows. There is much talk about “Modi conspiring with big industry to finish the farmer”.
It is said that the riders in Chenghiz Khan’s amazingly mobile 13th century army slept on horseback, covering distance even when asleep. The diesel-run steel tractor is the Punjabi farmer’s steed racing to take on the Modi government. Social solidarity is his weapon. Women and the elderly are also zealous participants. Delhi’s Muslims too run free food stalls. The protesters say they are stocked for a few months and can replenish. Backing them are Punjab and Haryana traders, teachers, journalists, social workers, industrial workers -- well, nearly everyone except the BJP and RSS outfits.
The farmers are on the Haryana side in Sonepat district. On the Delhi side, facing them, are thousands of Delhi police, CRPF and Rapid Action Force personel, all under home minister Amit Shah. There is unspoken political tension. The tens of thousands of protesters radiate energy. The BJP government in Haryana is a likely first casualty if its MLAs come under public pressure. This is one movement that can’t be reviled as “anti-national”, or “anti-Hindu”. Its protagonists can’t be asked to go to Pakistan or Rome.
Also, new labels have to be found. Is it a farmers’ “sit-in” when the protest stretches over many invisible miles, or is it the whole society marching on the command headquarters?