Anatomy of a Resilient Protest: Ten Tactics From Farmers’ Playbook
The farmers at Delhi’s borders have weathered waves of attempts to delegitimise their protest.
The farmers’ protest at New Delhi’s borders has now been on for over a month. Despite a welcome by water cannon, tear gas and lathi charge, lakhs of protestors have continued to speak in one voice, stay organised and not blink on their core demand.
At a time when the government has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to digest large protests, the farmers’ movement at Delhi doorsteps has resiliently mounted a disciplined campaign and sustained it.
The farmers, who’ve camped out on highways, have not just successfully withstood an unforgiving winter but also dozens of delegitimising attacks and misinformation campaigns.
The farmers’ movement has emerged as a unique playbook on how to plan, prepare and scale up an agitation without flinching at provocation and bending at intimidation. What, then, is the ‘secret sauce’ of a protest that has managed to put the ball in the government’s court, forcing it to take heed and respond to the demands?
The Quint spoke with several protesters on the ground who have been working in different capacities for the last several weeks. Farmers, doctors, union leaders, and organisers on the ground identified the specific factors that kept the protest going.
1. Two Months of Punjab Protests
All the protesters The Quint spoke with cited that prior to the Delhi protests, the foundation for the long-haul movement was laid in Punjab with two months of large-scale and spirited protests against the freshly passed agricultural bills.
They explained that the momentum and patience for a six-month long protest was built during the initial Punjab agitations.
“In Punjab the protests were on for two months, fuelled by anger against the way the bills were passed. The protests were happening on a pretty big scale. Roads were closed, trains were shut, people were sleeping out on the streets,” said Ashutosh, spokesperson of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).
“And the central government ignored the protests completely. The arrogance of the government in not listening to the farmers is what built up this sustained anger among the protesters,” he added.
Kanupriya, former president of Punjab University Students’ Council, explains that it was during this phase that farmers “learnt of the nuances in the bills, listened carefully to their leaders, honed their arguments and prepared for the long winter protests.”
2. Putting Pressure on Politicians & Parties
What started with the BJP’s oldest allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), has percolated to other parties and politicians across north India. A defining characteristic of the protest has been the farmers’ ability to exert pressure on politicians across the spectrum to make their position on the issue clear.
Dozens of non-BJP politicians and parties have expressed support for the protests, including the BJP’s Haryana ally, Jannayak Janta Party (JJP). Five MLAs from JJP have expressed support for the ongoing farmers’ agitation and have demanded that the three recently enacted farm laws be withdrawn.
“Farmers peacefully protested in several constituencies in Haryana whenever they saw attempts at dividing farmers along state lines. When the public is supporting an issue it becomes difficult for parties to oppose it as they too need to be seen as representatives of people.”Deepal Lamba, general secretary of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj Abhiyan
3. Political Protest But No Political Hijacking
Union leaders explained that as part of their plan there was clear consensus that the stage is a sacred place where only farmer leaders would speak. Allowing politicians to get on the stage would dilute the credibility of the protests and open the doors for “pro-government media” and the BJP to attack them as politically motivated.
A farmer leader pointed out that even though many politicians have expressed support, this movement doesn’t have a single big political face associated with it. The people are leading this movement and it is being run by the public and there is great clarity in our demands, he said.
While Delhi CM and Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal did visit Singhu on 27 December, it was at an event organised by the Delhi government.
4. Putting The Ball in The Centre’s Court
An important strategy that has lent momentum to the protests has been its success in moving the ball onto the Centre’s court and forcing it to respond.
According to union leaders, earlier there were narratives being spread that the farmers aren’t interested in talking to the Centre. But then they wrote multiple letters asking for a time for discussions.
“Earlier, the ball was in the court of the protesting farmers. What the movement has done is put the ball in the court of the government. And it is evident now that the Centre isn’t being transparent about its negotiations. This has also led to a swell in solidarity and support for us,” said Deepak Lamba, of Jai Kisan Andolan.
5. Punjab-Haryana Unity
Protest organisers explained that a major factor in sustaining the protests has been their motto of unity at all costs between farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Farmers said there were multiple attempts to drive a wedge between the states but the protest sentiment had percolated into Haryana through bordering regions like Hisar, Sirsa and Fatiabad and rapidly spread across the state.
“In south Haryana, there is a water shortage issue. What the government did was try to divide Punjab and Haryana on water issues by raking up the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal issue. But the people of two states did not allow this to be escalated,” Lamba said.
Kanupriya, former president of Punjab University Students’ Council, says it is important to understand that “of course, there are debates and arguments but there is no fight among the people.” Kanupriya has been at Singhu border for weeks and says, “The flags under which people have organised may be different but the struggle is one. There is clear understanding of this.”
6. Discipline At Core of Protest Strategy
Protest organisers said that discipline has been a core tenet of their protest strategy. It is the inherent decorum and discipline of the protests across all the borders that has sent out the right message about the protests.
AIKSCC’s Ashutosh said there have been provocations but there’s a strong awareness among farmers that the protests have to be peaceful in order to succeed. “For two months farmers protested in Punjab and it was completely peaceful. This is why, whenever a young protester or junior cadre member has said something in anger, seniors have immediately intervened and counselled the person to remain calm and peaceful.”
Moreover, organisers also add that there is also an awareness that the whole nation is watching the protests and millions have their eyes on the farmers.
“Therefore, there is an awareness of how to conduct themselves, how to speak about issues, what to say and all this comes from a deep-lived experience of agricultural issues,” Kanupriya added.
7. Effective Intra-Farmer Messaging
How does a movement sustain its spirit and determination to stay put for weeks on end? This despite little interest from the Centre in ceding to their demands for a complete repeal of the laws?
Those working on the ground explained that soon after the passage of the bills, the fears and concerns with the new laws were communicated effectively to the ground level for weeks. This helped the farmers gain clarity and understand what’s at stake and how this personally affects them.
Dr Ajay Pal Natt, a doctor who hails from Mansa district of Punjab and co-founded The Trolley Times newspaper, said that because of the effective messaging by different farm unions “there was an awareness that this was an existential battle.”
The effective messaging has been aided also by “the government’s own arrogance,” said Ashutosh, adding “bringing the law through a ‘chor darwaza’ or backdoor and unwillingness to talk to farmers have injected a deep fear that the real motive of these laws is to help others and not them.”
8. A Clear Demand
Repeal or nothing – this has consistently emerged as the core demand among the protesting farmers and the 40-odd farmer unions that have set up base around the capital. Despite appearances of assurance to farmers by the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar as well as Home Minister Amit Shah and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, farmer leaders have rejected proposals for amendments and stuck to their single-point agenda of repealing the three laws.
“The success of a movement depends on how clear one’s demands are,” said Trolley Times co-foudner Ajay Pal Natt. “The time that farmers spent at the Punjab protests for two months helped them sharpen their arguments against the bills and refine their agenda. This is where the clarity in the core demand has come from,” said Kanupriya, adding, “This message has come from bottom up and not top down. This is important to remember.”
9. Farmers’ Own Social Media to Counter Misinformation
Among the cleverest strategies has been the emergence of social media platforms under Kisan Ekta Morcha banner and publications like Trolley Times that have worked towards countering the waves of misinformation and attempts at delegitimising the protests.
“What we are facing is a dangerous two-faced IT machinery of the government. On one hand, the government is saying they want to talk to us but simultaneously they’re also demonising us constantly,” he said, adding “even BJP MPs have openly said disgusting things about us.”
Baljeet Sandhu, head of the Kisan Ekta Morcha IT Cell, added that they realised it was important to move away from television channels and directly communicate information to the masses. “Our strategy is simple. As the movement progresses, our work is to capture all the developments happening. So, as and when information comes, we keep posting them,” Sandhu told The Quint.
10. Attracting Non-Farmer Solidarity
Farmer union leaders and organisers also highlighted that a large section of non-farmers, including doctors, lawyers, service people and students, have readily come in support of the protests, thereby granting it greater credibility.
They explained this is because there are millions in towns and cities today who may not be into farming but whose fathers, uncles or grandfathers were farmers.
“Many non-farmers have lent their support because their previous generation was in farming. Many of them may have moved to cities for jobs but their roots are firmly fixed in an agricultural family setup back home,” Lamba told The Quint.
“There is an growing sense that the farmers are fighting the good fight,” said Kanupriya, adding, “Yes, there are some traffic movement issues and local residents may feel inconvenienced but the langars you see are actually public langars for the passersby and people coming to see the protest.”
“Those whose trolleys and tractors are here, they make smaller langars among themselves in small groups but the larger ones are for those passing by.”
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