Monday, May 23, 2022

Farm Law Repeal: Civil Society Must Take Lessons From Farmers To Reclaim Their Rights

The announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take back the farm laws is unprecedented. It can have far-reaching consequences provided civil society seizes the opportunity.

Farm Law Repeal: Civil Society Must Take Lessons From Farmers To Reclaim Their Rights
Farm leaders not going back is illustrative of the trust deficit the people of the country have in the political leadership, even the elected government. Outlook Photo/Suresh Pandey

It has been more than a day since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the government will repeal the three contentious farm laws in the next session of parliament. Modi apologised to the people, though did not say a word about the 671 farmers who laid down their lives in the nearly-year-long protest. He requested the farmers to go home. Yet, the farmers are staying put at the protest sites. If anything, the numbers of farmers and workers arriving at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur is multiplying in view of the programme already outlined: mark one year of the farmers’ protest in Delhi on November 26.

In any parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is expected to be the most trusted leader. If this were true in India, upon the PM’s request, the farmers could have moved back. But they are not going back. This is illustrative of the trust deficit the people of the country have in the political leadership, even the elected government. This deficit is not party or government-specific, though it has increased manifold in this regime. People’s faith in the government is eroded.

The farmer body, Samyukt Kisan Morcha, has cautiously welcomed Modi’s announcement, but has announced it would meet soon and deliberate on its next steps in ‘marathon sessions’, according to Darshan Pal, a farmer leader. Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Balbir Singh Rajewal and Rakesh Tikait have all said that unless the government’s promise is carried out not only in speech but in letter of law, they are not moving back. If anyone knows how governments betray, it is the farmers. Political leaders have betrayed the agrarian sector for over half-a-century. SKM also wants other demands addressed: minimum support price, electricity bill, air pollution commission among them.

Remember, withdrawing the electricity and air pollution commission ordinances were promised to farmers last December in their 11 rounds of talks with the government. Yet, the government went ahead and passed the Bills in the Monsoon Session, even as the farmers held their rival farmers parliament a few hundred metres away. How can then the farmers believe the government?

While trust deficit is illustrated, there is something deeper here. In his entire public life, Modi has never taken back any decision. He has carefully built his image as a Hindutva strongman to keep right-wing eco-system charged. Ever since farmers started raising concerns about the farm ordinances when notified June 2020, the BJP pushed its entire machinery to counter the farmers. Modi himself led the campaign, pressed the corporate media into action while a section in his party unleashed the trolls on social media.

The right-wing is stunned. The farmers are jubilant, they find validation of their stand, consider it Baba Nanak’s blessing. A section of the Hindutva eco-system is trolling the prime minister. The electronic media, which accused the farmers of being anti-national, Khalistani, andolanjeevi, has been backing the farm laws until now, is now trying to put its foot on the ground, reclaim the rug the PM pulled from under their feet.

The most assertion for this sudden announcement is: it is timed for the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections. If that is true, it is half the story. The full story is, the BJP realised, in spite of its vicious attacks, the farmers protest has gained popular support. As the farmers protest prolonged, the right-wing propaganda machinery failed, more people learnt of agrarian distress, they could relate to it through their own impoverishment. The support of the poorer classes, which the BJP took for granted through religious polarisation, is fast vanishing. This erosion goes back to demonetisation, to mismanagement of taxes, the fact that in seven years our economy has tanked and the Sensex has risen multi-fold.

If Modi thought he would win over Sikhs—who form a significant percentage of the protesting farmers— by making the announcement on Guru Nanak’s 552nd birth anniversary, he might be left underwhelmed. As soon as Kartarpur opened recently, pilgrims flocked to the Gurdwara. They did not wait to thank home minister Amit Shah or former Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. It is the same with the decision to repeal the laws. No one is thanking Modi. People see it as a result of their tireless struggle and consider it Guru Nanak’s blessing.

This is what the Sangh, which has built its whole structure on being the arbitrator of religion, does not realise. The BJP’s choice of timing shows us how the Sangh is now out of touch with the pulse of the people, at least in Panjab. It also shows that religion alone no longer works the way it used to earlier—the Sangh has stretched religion beyond recognition.

The final illustration from the announcement is what it shows to India’s civil society: the right-wing stands on hollow legs, if pushed enough, if pushed consistently, it will step back. The announcement is a turning point and has now set a glorious example to seize the opportunity. The farmers have opened a door, we now need a million solidarities and resistances to sustain our nation. As I type this note, labour codes, the Citizenship Amendment Act, the targeting of women, of Dalits, of Adivasis, come to mind. I hope we learn from the farmers protest and develop the capacity and strength to reclaim democracy for the people of the country.

(Amandeep Sandhu is the author of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines)