Farmers' agitation: Perils of a non-consultative government

Indications are that the Narendra Modi government is preparing to retrace its steps in the face of the farmers’ protest. Whether farmer leaders presently committed to a full repealing of the farm laws finally agree to key amendments in them remains to be seen.

The anger of the farmers is only now being given credence by the government after having ignored it for two months. Their refusal of official hospitality and insistence on bringing their own food and tea to the negotiations expresses a total lack of faith in the government.

The Modi government is on the back foot after the BJP’s party propaganda machine failed to convincingly establish that the agitators were linked to separatist ‘Khalistanis’. Such tactics had worked more successfully last year against agitations demanding annulment of the new citizenship laws. The mass arrests under the UAPA used to quell protests against the citizenship amendment law cannot be replicated in the farmers’ context. There a Muslim minority was sought to be marginalised by a majoritarian discourse. Large-scale arrests of farmers can have more serious consequences given the preponderance of youngsters from Punjab and Haryana in India’s armed and paramilitary forces.
Perhaps Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh was hinting at Pakistan’s readiness to back separatist involvement when he warned the government of “national security risks” should the farmers’ agitation continue. With Jammu and Kashmir already disturbed and China’s aggressive manoeuvres in Ladakh, the government cannot afford restiveness in Punjab.

This would not be the first time that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has had to backtrack from a legislation it had staked its prestige on. In his first term, Prime Minister Modi had to drop the land acquisition ordinance in the face of farmers’ anger.  Prime Minister Modi’s first response then too, was to blame the Opposition for “misleading" the farmers. However, when he eventually capitulated and let the ordinance lapse, he claimed in his radio message “I am ready to accept any suggestion in the interest of farmers”. Had this attitude persisted the prime minister would not be staring at another face-off with farmers again.

Farmers sitting at Singhu Border during their protest against Farm law, in New Delhi on Thursday.

The Modi government was not unaware of the objections of the farming community this time. A report in the Indian Express has revealed that on issues most under dispute – Minimum Support Price (MSP) scheme, mandi system, dispute resolution and contract farming -- Opposition MPs had warned the government not to go ahead. The MPs who cautioned the government of farmers’ apprehensions that phasing out of procurement at MSP would leave them at the mercy of private players, cut across party lines and included former prime minister H D Devegowda (Janata Dal--Secular), Pratap Singh Bajwa (Congress), K Shanmugasundarm (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Binoy Biswam (Communist Party of India), Arvind Sawant (Shiv Sena) Rammohan Naidu (Telugu Desam Party) and S R Balasubramoniyan (All India Anna DMK).

Those who cautioned against downgrading the markets or mandis under the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) included  K Ravindra Kumar (TDP), K Keshava Rao (Telangana Rashtra Samithi) Anubhav Mohanty (Biju Janata Dal),  Mahua Moitra (Trinamul Congress), Sukhbir Singh Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal) and K Ragesh (Communist Party of India –Marxist).

Similarly, MPs also tried to warn the government against leaving dispute resolution to magistrates and district collectors. They also cautioned against the pitfalls of contract farming.  Treasury benches were clearly warned of an impending farmers’ agitation should the ordinance be passed into law by Naresh Gujral (SAD), Ravneet Singh Bittu and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (both Congress). Yet the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar defended the proposed legislation on every count.

Nor did the government pay attention to protesting farmers blocking trains in Punjab for two months. VM Singh, a farmers’ leader, has revealed that five leaders of the agitation had given Defence Minister Rajnath Singh a memorandum listing farmers’ objections two months ago. Their march to Delhi is the consequence of the government ignoring these voices.

Ironically, while Prime Minister Modi was dedicating a six lane 73-km National Highway (NH-19) connecting the holy cities of Prayagraj and Varanasi, his party’s government in Haryana had just finished digging up National Highways to prevent farmers from marching to Delhi. Deep trenches were dug on the highways at Samalkha, Haldana, Sonepat, Murthal and Kundali and concertina-wire fences installed at the Singhu border.

Digging up a National Highway to render it impassable or unsafe for travelling is punishable under the National Highways Act (Section 8B, Punishment for mischief by injury to National Highway) with imprisonment up to five years or fine or both. So Haryana Chief Minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, a former RSS apparatchik and a personal appointee of PM Modi, was deploying illegal tactics against a peaceful civilian march.

None of this squares with Prime Minister Modi’s claim that every voice in the country is important for him and none more than that of farmers. Clearly Punjab and Haryana could be ignored as long as the protests remained local. Neither state counts much for the BJP in terms of the number of Lok Sabha seats. But once farmers had camped at the gates of the national capital, any flashpoint could trigger violence which would be noticed across the country as well as internationally. The Sikh diaspora has already successfully marshalled international criticism in Canada and the United Kingdom.

What will backtracking on the farm laws signal? While the government would try to make a virtue of its “flexibility”, it could revive faith in the efficacy of popular protests in reversing unpopular policy measures. The industrial workers are already restive because they think that the new labour codes are designed to tilt the balance from labour to corporates.

If the Modi government, made arrogant by its huge legislative majority, does not rethink its peremptory way of functioning, it will face more headwinds. The need to become more consultative will be the most important lesson for the government from the farmers’ agitation.

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