Quantum of democracy: Stark contrast in the regime's treatment of farmer and CAA protestors

NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant’s statement that "too much democracy" makes it tough for the government to implement reforms betrayed his government’s preferred corporatist approach to the messy business of governing a country with a multicultural franchise. But with the social media aflame with opprobrium, the ruling regime had to rapidly distance itself from its golden boy’s comments. There is good reason, though, not to take too seriously Ravi Shankar Prasad’s robust defence that his government is “proud of our democracy” either. After all, this is a government that leverages its brute popular majority in Parliament as the blunt instrument to push through agendas that do not always reflect the pluralism implicit in democracies. And nothing illustrates these contradictions better than the contrasting manner in which the government has treated the farmers protesting against the three farm reform laws and those who gathered at Shaheen Bagh to demand the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).


Farmers, who have blocked access to the national capital, pushing up the prices of vegetables and groceries, have been given the kid-glove treatment: six rounds of talks so far with concessions and modifications and emollient statements from the agriculture minister, all in the spirit of bandobast that disrupted far more traffic than the protestors, were vilified as “anti-national” and worse by saffron heavyweights whose freelance incendiary comments precipitated the worst communal riots in Delhi since 1984. Many protestors have been jailed on the flimsiest of pretexts, which makes you wonder whether we have too little democracy rather than too much. 


The irony is that the farmers’ case is decidedly weak, as many respected agricultural experts have pointed out. Indeed, the Modi government has shown some rare courage in taking on a powerful funding lobby – the artiya network -- to dismantle an age-old monopsonistic powers that long outlived its utility in the nation's food economics. Note that farmers at the protest, noticeable for their relative affluence, steadfastly refuse to budge from their maximalist demand for repeal, even though the government has committed itself to retaining the Minimum Support Price that guarantees them a market, never mind that this policy plays a large role in the ecological damage of north western India.


While their Rabi crops mature in the fields, large farmers use the spare time to flock in ever larger numbers with their chaupals to see if it can meet the farmers halfway.


The same spirit of dialogue did not apply to the CAA law and its terrible twin, the proposed National Register of Citizens NRC). CAA granted citizenship to all non-Muslim minorities in Muslim majority countries, which implicitly defined Indian citizenship in a way that contradicts the country’s foundational doctrine. Taken together with the NRC, which requires documentation that three-quarters of Indians lack, CAA holds the threat of rendering millions of Indian Muslims (the majority of whom are poor) stateless. But where Home Minister Amit Shah has been at the forefront of the (so far unsuccessful) negotiations with farmers, to CAA protestors he had only this to say: “Let them protest, we will not budge.” 


And the Supreme Court, which bestirred itself in the middle of a pandemic to grant Arnab Goswami bail (in a spurious case against him, it must be said), has been strikingly unobtrusive on CAA. Some 140 petitions challenging the CAA have been languishing before the apex court for over a year, according to a recent report in The Hindu. In October, the court sonorously pronounced that “public places should not be occupied” – suggesting that their honours have a decidedly limited understanding of the nature of protest.


It is interesting that activists of all shades are piggybacking on the farmers’ agitation to put up posters at the Tikri blockade of all those arrested under the Kafka-eque Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – from Sudha Bhardwaj and other Bhima Koregaon “conspirators” to JNU students Umer Khalid and Sharjeel Imam. But the validity of the latter two issue couldn’t be more different from the current one. For many, they also represent the kind of democracy we should be proud of.

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