Gul Panag is deeply saddened by the fact that farmers are being labelled anti-national, urban Naxals and their protest tainted with the most dreaded word in Punjab, that it is Khalistan-inspired. In an interview with Outlook's Lachmi Deb Roy, she talks about how farming runs in her blood and how the government rushed through the Farmers’ Act in the middle of the pandemic.
How do you empathise with the farmers and what brought you here?
The concerted attempt that was being made to undermine and discredit this protest actually brought me here to Singhu. And the fact that this was a bonafide protest against laws that the farming community at large seemed to be not taken in consultation with them is the reason behind the protest. So, it is a bonafide legitimate protest where farmers are exercising their right to protest for a law which they find not right for them. And most importantly it is their constitutional right.
I was aware of this protest all the way since September when the laws were finally passed in Parliament. There are two narratives that I had a problem with, one was the concerted effort to make it look like only the Punjab’s farmer is part of the protest which isn’t true. The first lot that I actually met was from Haryana. And there are farmers from UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. So that was the first narrative that was making the rounds that only the Punjab farmers that have a problem, which was wrong. The second issue is every attempt has been made to discredit this protest, to undermine the protest and to give it all kinds of labels like anti-national, urban Naxal as well as the most dreaded word in Punjab that is Khalistan-inspired protest. I think this is absolutely unfair.
Every farming family in Punjab has also sent a soldier to the Indian Army. So, what exactly is the message that the nation is trying to give us? For serving the country both through agriculture and through the army we get labelled as terrorists and that for me is the most painful part. A sense of betrayal is what brought me to the protest. And I want to ask was there even an iota of truth in that narrative certain powers were trying to play?
On calling the farmer’s protest, a paid protest…
I don’t know who these people are, but clearly, they aren’t very smart because the Math won’t add up. It’s clearly not the official line, but line taken by those who support the government. And who in turn are the unofficial spokesperson. There are one lakh people at the Singhu border living and an additional rolling crowd of 75,000 to 80,000 people every day.
Farmers feeling betrayed…
Farming as a livelihood and farming as a way of life has been part of India for a very long time and farming has been done in a particular way in the last 40 to 45 years. Now, overnight if you want to change that way without building consensus, without taking the stakeholders on board, without winning their trust, there is bound to be a sense of betrayal.
On reforms of farmers’ bill…
No one is against reforms. But selling reforms and winning over the people who will be affected by the reforms is much harder than winning an election. If the same effort was put into winning over the farmers, this bill wouldn’t have had a problem at all. Sadly, the priority is about winning elections and not winning the hearts of the people. When three sweeping laws impact over 60 per cent of the country’s population, then certainly we need to understand why the farming community is feeling the way they are feeling. It’s not the British government that you can just impose laws and walk away. It’s a democratically elected government won with such an incredible majority, it is their duty and their responsibility to win over people who disagree with them. Reform isn’t about passing laws; it is about creating the right environment of passing the laws and making those laws acceptable.
Secondly, the manner in which the law was passed. Not just this law, but amendments to the labour law as well. They were passed as an ordinance in the middle of the lockdown, then when they were introduced in the parliament and the manner in which they were passed without a healthy discussion or debate. All this makes the farming community question the intent of the government.
This government has an overwhelming majority in Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha so what was the need to do this? Perhaps they thought that in the middle of the pandemic, there would be no ability of the farmers to organise and protest these laws.
Coming from an army background and your connection with farming…
Farming community and armed forces community is largely the same. My grandfather before he joined the army was a farmer’s son. He served in the army and came back and farmed. My father’s brother after retiring as a general and came back and farmed. My father served for 40 years in the Indian Armed Forces and now farms. So, in Punjab, the farming community and the army community is the same. Almost all serving personnel from Punjab in the Indian Armed Forces are from farming backgrounds. My father lives in the village right now. I hold 2.5 acres of agricultural land that I have inherited.
Why is there an urban disconnect between an English-speaking Army officer’s family and a farmer? I found it outrageous when my right-wing pro-Government friends said, “Look at the farmers speaking English.” What kind of insult is this to the farmers of Haryana and Punjab? Are you saying farmers are uneducated and they don’t have the right to voice their concerns? A major percentage of the country belongs to farming backgrounds.
Becoming a farmer by law and how is it not an Opposition’s conspiracy?
Farming has been an important part of my life starting from the sowing season of paddy as it’s great fun for children to get messy in the fields before the saplings are planted. You are a farmer as per Indian law if you inherit the land and three generations of your family has inherited farming land. Outrageous statements have been made that this is just an opposition conspiracy, if the opposition has the power to organise the way the protest is organised then they would have been in power and not this government.
It is very petty to call this protest as a conspiracy by the opposition. If the Opposition can mobilise this many numbers of people in the protest, then they clearly don’t have confidence in the ruling government. It is only because they have confidence in the ruling government that they are protesting because they want and they believe that the ruling government will listen to them. To quote the Prime Minister, he said, “World will soon say, India is the mother of democracy.” But my question is do they want to be the mother of democracy or do they want to be the murder of democracy?