Uniting With Farmers Is OK – Where Was Opposition During CAA Stir?

Those coming out in support of farmers now were earlier muted in their criticism of CAA and NE Delhi riots.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Farmers stage a protest at Singhu border during their ‘Dilli Chalo’ march against the Centre’s new farm laws, in New Delhi, December 2020. Image used for representation.
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The decision of the majority of opposition parties to support the ongoing farmers' agitation stands in sharp contrast to their ambivalence during the agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), spontaneously started in December 2019.

For most of the period when the agitation ran its course before the COVID-19 pandemic provided the government an opportunity to subdue the protests, the opposition parties acted like a deer caught in the headlights.

In contrast, opposition parties had resoundingly opposed the three Farm Bills when they were debated in Parliament earlier in 2020. Furthermore, they were quick to back the peasants’ agitation that has led to the Centre-imposed rail blockade of Punjab.

These parties were, earlier this year, muted in their criticism of the government's handling of communal riots in northeast Delhi and the systemic targeting of members of minorities communities and civil society activists, many of whom are still under detention.

Opposition Is Unsure Of Criticising Govt Decisions That Are Ideological

Like the present farmers' stir, the 2019 protests too had been started by disparate groups and citizens who had little or no interest in entering electoral politics, but were united by their opposition to the contentious citizenship law.

The choice of opposition parties to join forces with the protestors in this instance, although they kept an arm’s length from the CAA stir, indicates that the bulk of India’s opposition is unsure of criticising government decisions that are ideological in nature.

This reflects the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the past few years to posit its political posture as the only one which is in national interest.

After its re-election in May 2019, the Modi government enacted a series of laws that reflected its ideological positions. These included those on issues related to citizens' right to fair trial, their power to question the State on issues people consider critical, the relationship between the Indian Union and the (now erstwhile) state of Jammu and Kashmir in today's context, besides those pertaining to personal laws of minorities and linking religious identity with Indian citizenship.

Most Opposition Parties Had Refrained From Supporting Anti-CAA Protestors

Amendments in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Right to Information Act, the passage of the law criminalising instant divorce among Muslims, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution (which stripped J&K of its statehood) and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill were these measures which left the majority of the opposition in a dilemma, for they feared further isolation from the sense of the majority community.

Consequently, when citizens' groups and members of civil society began staging protests from December 2019 across several states in the country – barring the left parties and a handful of others who lent support to the anti-CAA agitators – most opposition parties refrained from coming out in support of protestors.

Muted calls of repealing the CAA was indicative of the BJP’s triumph in building a narrative where frowning on democratic processes and the right to protest was no longer considered politically inappropriate.

It is this sentiment that results in viewpoints like the one articulated by NITI Aayog CEO, Amitabh Kant that “too much of a democracy in India” makes “tough (economic) reforms” very difficult in the country and this ostensibly acts as an impediment to India's growth.

Inability Of Most Political Parties To Confront Patriarchy

The farmers' agitation as well as the anti-CAA stir are certain to be noted as watershed protests by historians of the future. Eminent historian and public intellectual Romila Thapar has stated in a recent interview that the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh brought back “memories of the gatherings associated with the anti-colonial national movement of the 1940s.”

The Shaheen Bagh dharna was similar to the protests she referred to, because the “anti-colonial mass movement had reached out to women as well.”

After a long gap, women in contemporary India played a role that was not limited to hugging trees, picketing liquor shops and wearing khadi. Instead, they were at the forefront, “attending meetings and adding their voice to the protest.”

In contrast, the farmers’ agitation is firmly led by men although women are present in limited numbers and their roles are limited, especially on matters related to the course of the agitation. The 'missing' women from this agitation is somewhat like the Bharatiya Kisan Union agitation in 1988 when the sit-in at Delhi's Boat Club paralysed the capital and coerced the government into making concessions.

It reflects the inability of most political parties to confront patriarchy which continues seeing women as little more than mothers, sisters and wives of the leaders and cadre.

The three decades plus years that have elapsed since 1988 is also the period when the BJP has emerged from being a marginal political player - with just members in Lok Sabha – to the most dominant political party in India with a majority of its own in the Lower House.

How BJP Ensured That The Majority Of Opposition Became Diffident

Over these years, the BJP and affiliated organisations have secured greater support for their definition of Indian nationalism and the basis on which the nation and Indian nationhood is to be marked.

In simple terms, this means that the BJP has not just ensured greater adherence to the tenets of Hindutva, but has also made the majority of opposition diffident when it came to ideologically locking horns with the party.

Rahul Gandhi told journalists after meeting President Ram Nath Kovind along with other opposition leaders that the farm bills “were an insult to farmers” who were “protesting in cold weather”.

Such sharp words and concern were absent from the opposition vocabulary throughout the anti-CAA stir and events that followed. It even cost them the support of people, as reflected by the verdict in Bihar, where the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM upset the RJD applecart in the Seemanchal region.

What Opposition Parties Today Can Learn From VP Singh-Led Opposition In Late 1980s

After having stayed away last year for fear of losing further ground, opposition parties now sense an opportunity similar to what was seized by the VP Singh-led opposition in the late 1980s. Back then, although political parties were kept out of the farmers’ stir by Mahendra Singh Tikait, the post-1986 peasant movement was heavily interlinked with the emergence of a new opposition political conglomerate.

A tactical alliance between all anti-Congress forces, including the BJP and the left parties, led to the defeat of the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress in 1989.

But while three decades ago, both VP Singh and Tikait ensured that their agitations were socially inclusive and gave ample space to Muslims and minority concerns (and Dalits) on their bandwagon and charter, this is no longer being considered imperative.

Furthermore, as the absence, from the delegation to the President, of most of the twenty-odd opposition parties who backed the farmers' demands because of alleged Left-Congress hegemony showed, a rainbow alliance against the BJP is yet to emerge as it had against Rajiv Gandhi.

(The writer is an author and senior journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He covered the 1988 farmers’ siege of Delhi for The Sunday Mail newspaper. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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