People’s movements do not need politicians to succeed. If anything, it may be the opposite. ‘No manch (stage), no mike to politicians’ – that is how the farmers agitation stayed free of politics.
The repeal of the farm laws reveals the unsaid admission – that the three laws were ill-conceived and a result of a disconnect from rural India. This step-back by the Prime Minister may not have been possible if the farmers agitation was politically driven.
However, agitations have to be driven to be effective. The tumultuous year of protests had required steering through difficult months. Patience of thousands had to be maintained despite provocation. Peace had to be practised as a principle. From these efforts emerged the unlikely leader of the agitation – Rakesh Tikait. Once a police constable, and a politician, now he says he is just a farmer. "I am a farmer like everyone else. We are all alike," he said, speaking to this author.
'This Time, Farmers Set Their Differences Apart'
Tikait achieved a few things that were unprecedented, which did not catch the attention of the urban-focused, elite media anchors.
First, the farmers came together to represent themselves and other farmers across India. "This is different from the past, when farmers used to fight for the same cause but from different platforms," Tikait said. "This time, we set aside all differences to fight for a single cause."
The unity also allowed them to survive longer in the protests. Food was being sent from poor villages to the Delhi border to sustain the protesters. At the same time, Delhi media showed that farmers were consuming pizzas and enjoying the protests. Such vilification further unified the protesters and ensured they did not lose sight of the fight.
Second. Politics did not enter the agitations, even when different unions were participating. "Everyone wanted to work together. There were no differences and no controversy." Tikait added, "We had a rule – no manch, no mike to the politicians."
He argues that there have been many politicians before who claimed to represent farmers.
But there cannot be a movement if politics is involved ... Solutions are possible only when there is no politics in such movements. The governments too work for solutions and accept demandsRakesh Tikait
Any political support that came was independent and from party or organisational platforms, which were not shared by the farmers.
'We Thought of our Struggle as a Crop'
Third. There was a sense of pride and patriotism about the agitation. The resilience of the farmers and the rural poor helped them survive the winter cold and the summer heat. Even when the monsoons lashed the fragile tenements, these were rebuilt for each other by the farmers.
Challenges were difficult, but Tikait says he knew how farmers think. He says:
"Hardships are part of a farmer’s life. A farmer may work very hard and invest everything in a crop, and it may fail. We thought of the farmers protest as a crop – it may lead to a great harvest or fail. We are used to uncertainty, but we are also used to hoping for the best."
Fourth. The farmers holding the protest also had to uphold some principles. It was essential that the protests at different sites were peaceful. This was a special challenge because farmers were joining the protest from across the country and faced different degrees of distress in every state. The sentiment against the farm laws was high and drove them to the protests.
But peace had to be maintained so that the agitators were safe and gave no excuse for state action. Tikait says, "I have seen many such people’s movements in my life. But I have not seen such a large and long agitation that has remained peaceful throughout. We had decided there should be no violence from our side, and there was none."
'Media Didn't Understand Farmers Or the Agitation'
Fifth. The media misread the farmers agitation at various levels. It tried to make it peripheral, and look temporary. The TV news and debates built a smokescreen to convince viewers that the farmers agitation was motivated by vested interests. They neglected to mention that the protesting farmers were deeply committed and mostly poor. Ironically, however, this smokescreen to mislead the viewer also blinded the government from the real sentiment on the ground about the farmer protests.
"The media houses could not understand the farmers or the agitation," Tikait said, commenting on the coverage. "We looked at the protest like our work on the farms. It is routine, there is no loss and no gain. We were protesting against what was wrong."
He says that the protests would have continued but for the repeal. "I never thought at the beginning that this agitation would go on for so long. But we were prepared to go on."
To be prepared to go on despite the odds is a farmer’s way of life. Perhaps, there are no weak people, only weak governments.
(Dr Kota Neelima is an author, researcher and Director, Institute of Perception Studies, New Delhi. She writes on rural distress and farmer suicides. She tweets @KotaNeelima. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)