Can India’s Farmers’ Movement Help ‘Reclaim’ the Indian Republic?

A new chapter is being written in our republic as farmers challenge the writ and authority of the Indian State. 

5 min read

If we listen to PM Modi and much of mainstream media, the farmers seem ‘misguided’ and ‘simple-minded’. On the contrary, the farmers and their leaders see through the propaganda.

The farmers’ economic argument, backed by the likes of economists Kaushik Basu and Nirvikar Singh, is that the new farm laws will end up serving corporate interests more than that of the farmers, a view countered by the likes of Arvind Panagariya and Surjit Bhalla, discredited by their support for demonetisation.

The farmers’ unions have rightly demanded a complete repeal and had the foresight to reject the Supreme Court appointed mediation committee and the government’s offer to suspend the laws for 18 months. Suggestions that the farmers should have ‘come halfway’ miss the woods for the trees.

The question we should be asking is: what do the farmers lose if negotiations fail? Nothing.

Either the government withdraws or faces protests for three more years, till the next election. Farmers are prepared for the latter as they have the resources and the support of people and opposition parties. The government is on the back foot and hence a massive effort is underway to scuttle protests using every instrument of the State.


‘Identity’ as a Force Multiplier

Protests that were escalating since August 2020 reached a spectacular crescendo on India’s Republic Day 2021, as tens of thousands of farmers marched into Delhi for a pre-approved rally. Delhi saw a lot of turbans that day, be it ones in uniform colours by Sikh jawans on Rajpath or ones in myriad hues of Sikh kisans on tractors. In addition to these crowns, the former wore their regimental colour and the latter rode with their yellow/green union flag. Common to both was the Nishan Sahib, the kesari flag of Sikhs.

The symbolism of Sikhs in the protests has stood out and has even been acknowledged by PM Modi himself, when in December 2020 he ‘discovered’ that gurdwara Rakab Ganj stands right behind the Parliament.

This pandering would have looked more sincere if it were not for the troubled history of BJP and RSS’ relationship with the Sikhs.

BJP, its supporters, and the government (via the Attorney General in the Supreme Court) have spared no effort to link the farmer protests to the Khalistan movement. A connection so absurd and demeaning that Modi’s own Defence Minister came out saying that “Farmers are ‘annadatas’ (food givers), and shouldn’t be called Khalistanis and deserve utmost respect”.

This insinuation reared its ugly head when a small band of protesters hoisted the Nishan Sahib and the farmers’ union flag from the Red Fort on Republic Day, all in the presence of a towering Indian Tricolour flying high above. The Nishan Sahib symbolises Sikhism’s most significant marker, the gurdwara, which alongside langar, breaks the barriers of caste, class and religion. But not everyone is familiar with this fact.

How the Farmers’ Movement Bounced Back After a Brief Setback

The unions understandably disowned the hoisting of the flags as it would take away the focus from the farm laws, and questions have been raised by many including two former DGPs of police on the intelligence failure and how the police could have allowed it. But the act is also symbolic of a direct challenge to the not so benevolent republic that the Indian State now represents for many.

“We have showed the government our strength. We have been undermined and underestimated. Hope the government now understands that they cannot impose those laws on us. No matter what is thrown at us, we will still win,” said Joginder Badal, a farmer at the Red Fort.

The fault lines in India are stark. An act of defiance has been weaponised by the State to discredit a movement.

Forget the pliant media, union ministers or even the prime minister, no less than the president claimed an “insult to the national flag at the Red Fort”. This gave the ‘social licence’ to the State for a crackdown on the sit-ins and it nearly worked until farm leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal to stand his ground till his last breath. A cry that hit straight at the pride of the Jat community, who poured into the Ghazipur protest site in a massive show of strength, causing the UP police to beat a hasty retreat, flipping the narrative back in favour of the farmers. Multiple mahapanchayats in UP and Haryana since have consolidated this position.


False Equivalence of Violence

The very idea of a protest is shock and awe; it isn’t a guided tour. Restricting the tractor rally on Republic Day to a set route which itself was reportedly blocked by the police, was telling. The Delhi Police greeted the peaceful rally with tear gas and lathi charge, while residents stood in solidarity and greeted them with flowers and jubilation.

The police and protesters clashed at certain places and as if on script, almost the entire national media began ‘manufacturing consent’ by consistently playing out the clashes from an otherwise peaceful protest.

Holding protestors to the same standard as a trained police force is a false equivalence similar to the recent US Black Lives Matter protests. A narrative that solely focuses on police injuries, an occupational hazard, while treating injured protestors with contempt and ignoring the stark power imbalance between the disproportionate might of the State and the protesters.


A Majoritarian State

The Republic Day parade going on at the same time showcased the Uttar Pradesh tableau of the under-construction Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, ordered to be built by the Supreme Court on the very site of the demolition of Babri Masjid by mobs under the patronage of the Sangh Parivar.

It’s a telling commentary that society is so eager to evoke an imagined victimhood from the temporary raising of a minority’s flag from a vacant pole, while gloating over the State’s brazen display of religious majoritarianism via the UP tableau. The very idea that the parade itself was happening in the middle of a pandemic while the Parliament was forced shut, the only institution by which the farmers could have held the government to account, shows the scant regard for a well-functioning republic.

The real victim is the Constitution’s secular preamble, separating the Church and the State, when the project of a new parliament required an elaborate ‘bhoomi pujan’ to be presided over by the PM.


The Way Forward

The Constitution, which the Republic Day celebrates, has long been reduced to a mere symbol, bereft of proper understanding. The struggle and spirit of farmers to fight for their rights has captured people’s attention.

A new chapter is being written in the republic as farmers challenge the writ and authority of the Indian State.

Months of struggle has transformed into a leaderless revolution with local and international organising. One tweet mobilised international celebrities, activists, and lawmakers to discuss farmers’ protest and the backlash of the Indian State. This movement has gone beyond just farmers’ issues as it serves to inspire the republic’s discontent. It is this unconditional solidarity by a cross-section of society that can reclaim the Indian republic, not just from those who seek to ‘destroy’ it, but also from our own selves.

(Guneet Malik is a public policy professional and a graduate of the University of Cambridge. He tweets @guneet_malik. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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