What India’s Farmers Really Need – The Empathy Of Our Leaders

Today, the ‘nameless, faceless, caste-less, religion-less’ Indian farmer stands confused, refused & worse – accused.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
An Indian farmer looks skyward as he sits in his field with wheat crop that was damaged in unseasonal rains and hailstorm at Darbeeji village, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Image used for representational purposes.
i

In India, as in several other nations, the COVID pandemic has inflicted untellable pain in the underbelly of its marginalised and often invisible communities. Much before the pandemic, the Indian farmer was already reeling under the punishing strains of worsening agrarian distress, that had led to a spate of farmer suicides. The dire situation was evenly spread with the highest suicide numbers reported from Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The nameless, faceless, caste-less and religion-less ‘Indian farmer’ was a monolithic conception, and the government rightfully recognised the urgency to address the crisis, on priority.

‘Doubling farming income by 2022’ became a project – not fully based on factual possibilities, firm plans or committed budgets, but still necessary to suggest a sovereign aspiration to assuage the distraught farmer.

But as amongst the worst sufferers of the COVID interlinkages, the farmers’ groundswell of insecurity, vulnerability and angst has spilled into Delhi.

In the freeze of the Northern Indian winter, that nameless Indian farmer stands confused, refused and worse – accused.

Why Can’t We Give Farmers’ Movement The Same Dignity As 2011 Anna Movement?

It’s not about right or wrong, it is not about the supposedly propped political support, it is not even about the farmers not knowing what’s good for them – it’s simply about perception, a perception felt by those who are hurt the most. Much like the ostensibly apolitical Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, which later saw many of its key participants bearing political identities – this too may have political nudges, as all societal movements do.

But unlike the anti-corruption movement of 2011 which was spared the identity of region, political affiliation, religion or anti-nationalistic motives, sadly this farmers movement is not getting that matching dignity.

Unlike then, a powerful counter-narrative of alternative facts, charts and media spinning is deployed to crush the unequal, unorganised and hapless farmer – the desperate empathy seeker, is instead being shown the purported ‘decisiveness’ of the governmental intent.

The farmer, who too had suffered the curse of black money and complicated tax structure and had suffered the same ‘decisiveness’ of the government in demonetisation and GST, has good reasons to be wary of the Farm Bill pushed through the convenient cover of the COVID-induced circumstances.

The Indian Farmer Needs To Be Spoken To – And Not By A Bureaucrat Or Minister

The farmer needs to be spoken to, not by some meaningless bureaucrat or enfeebled minister, but perhaps given that the ‘Indian Farmer’ is at least 60 percent of the nation, someone far more significant.

The powerful machinery of governmental and leadership outreach has the option to, engage or dismiss – it must choose carefully and sensitively.

It is easy to give this movement a name of a prominent state, a political party or even more regrettably, a defunct secessionist movement like ‘Khalistan’ – but that is also to deny the existence of any concern. Like the economy, pandemic management, border issues and societal polarisation – to now posit that there are no problems in the life of the Indian farmer, would be both, incredulous consistent and morally unpardonable.

Like all societal movements, there will be odd apples who sully the frame; the choice to nuance their relevance and significance onto the whole movement is also a matter of choice for the media, partisan echo-chambers, government and society at large.

It is a simple script to push the already ‘pushed’ into an even more squeezed position and then elicit some truly wrong statements from a few, then blow them up, amplify it further, and discredit the entire movement of genuine despair under the fashionable altar of ‘anti-nationalism’.

Like the constitutional query in CAA and NRC had ultimately earned specific ‘identities’, this too runs the same risk. What is worse, we potentially discredit the hand that feeds.

An Empathy Deficit – What Leaders Like Obama & Jacinda Ardern Rallied Against

Every age in time begs a specific adjective from its leadership – today, amid this unprecedented global pandemic and meltdown, that stirring leadership yearning is for empathy.

The presence or absence of empathy cannot be demonstrated in words, it can only be felt. Often confused with sympathy, which is borne of situational superiority, empathy has a reassuringly equalising quality about it.

Much before Barack Obama became the POTUS, he shared his prescient thoughts with wide-eyed students that ‘empathy deficit’ was far more dangerous than the much bandied, ‘federal deficit’. The statesman had warned: “We live in a culture that discourages empathy” – and urged students to remember that, “the world doesn’t just revolve around you”.

Later, when Obama made it to the White House, he did well but often erred. He made some good decisions and some not-so-good ones. But his successor, who would struggle to even spell empathy, let alone understand its subtleties, leaves behind a very different societal residue from the one left by Barack Obama – the essential difference has been empathy.

How New Zealand PM Jacinda Taught Us Empathy

The story goes that Donald Trump had perfunctorily called up the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden (who exemplifies empathy as a leader), in the aftermath of New Zealand’s worst terror attack. The POTUS had wanted to know if the United States could do anything, and the answer that he got from a clearly grieving but calm Jacinda Arden was, “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities!”

It couldn’t have been a palatable instinct for one leader, but an equally natural one, for the other.

Jacinda demonstrated that it wasn’t a moment to take names, ascribe motives, or imply contexts for the situation – it was a moment to hold hands and heal. Her powerful expression was “they are us”, and that defined the subsequent tenor of the narrative.

The traditional script of thundering retribution, ‘counter-facts’ and the usual politics of division, were given a clear miss. More importantly, the New Zealand PM also demonstrated that empathy does not mean indecisiveness or weakness, as a slew of administrative and security protocols were changed, perhaps to the displeasure of some, but her overt spirit of empathy and inclusivity made the changes acceptable.

Our Nameless, Faceless Farmers Deserve Our Empathy And Our Hearts

Just as the Anna Movement was not just about the middle class, Delhiites or some political parties (even if it was so in parts), but a larger reflection of the nation’s disgust and apathy towards its then ruling class, the farmers movement too needs to be afforded the same identity agnosticism.

The ‘us versus them’ narrative is a perversely perfect antithesis to the much-required underpinnings of ‘they are us’ – and the choice is with the leadership to choose between the two.

If indeed, the leadership decides to show empathy, the railing vitriol and inelegance emanating from the bandwagon on the sidelines will accordingly play a more inclusive and empathetic tune.

To reiterate, the farmer may not be wholly correct in his/her assessment of concerns, but that is not the most important thing, the lack of empathy by those in power, to allay the fears of their supposed ‘own’, is far graver.

Almost Gandhian on matters of compassion and leadership, Jacinda Arden views her political leadership role akin to a ‘bridge’ between opposite-ends, often conflicting opposites, but both sides requiring equal measure of patience, dignity and empathetic concern. The truly strong leader of New Zealand insists, “it takes courage and strength to be empathetic” – we too need similar statesmanship; our nameless, faceless, state-less and religion-less farmers above all, deserve that – and our hearts.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!