PLAIN SPEAK – Arup Kumar Dutta

How was it that the farmers, who had been demonstrating peacefully for over two months, bearing with fortitude unimaginable hardships in the Delhi winter and even martyring themselves for the cause, suddenly exploded into such frenzied violence in full view of the nation on the hallowed Republic Day?

In the Monsoon Session of Parliament last year, the NDA Government had introduced three farm Bills, namely the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

The Government had insisted that the Bills were designed to bring about much-needed reforms in the agricultural sector. They would enable farmers to trade their produce outside the markets or mandis notified under the various State agricultural produce market laws.

However, the farmers themselves, especially those from some northern States, were not convinced. The haste with which this Government, given its pro-corporate image, passed the Bills induced suspicion in their minds. It had unilaterally steamrolled the Bills through the two Houses, using its overwhelming dominance in Parliament, without consulting the stakeholders, in this case the farming community.

The Opposition had at that time pleaded that the Bills be sent to a Parliamentary Committee for further deliberations, but this was rejected. With the Bills having raised genuine concerns not merely amongst the Opposition, but also the farming community itself, as well as Indian consumers, there should have been a broader discussion and debate.

The primary concern of the farmers had been that the entry of the cash-rich corporates might lead to exploitation of mostly uneducated farmers, and that private companies might stockpile agricultural commodities giving them the leverage to dictate price terms in the future. They were also apprehensive that the three bills would dilute the sanctity of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), and the authority now enjoyed by the mandis in determining pricing.

Rather than attempt a dialogue with the farmer unions to address such concerns, the NDA Government had stuck to its guns, thereby raising a hornet’s nest. Thousands of farmers from the northern States, responded to the ‘Dilli Chalo’ call by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee which is supported by a number of farmers’ organizations, and marched towards the national capital to register their opposition to the three Bills.

They came prepared with food and blankets in their trucks and tractors, indicating that they were there for a long haul. Union Home Minister Amit Shah urged them to converge at a designated place, but they refused, deeming the suggested venue to be an ‘open jail’ – clear evidence of the suspicion which existed between them and the Government. They finally chose to remain on the roads at the entry points to Delhi, and carry on their campaign from these spots.

The Centre, though taken aback by the vehemence and numbers of farmers protesting the Bills, continued to stress it would not interact with them, let alone concede their demand that the Bills be scrapped. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had chipped in, stating that the entry of private players will bring in much-needed investment to an agriculture sector that has stagnated for decades, and the farm Bills will benefit the farmers in the long run.

The protesters resisted every tactic employed at various State borders to take the wind out of their sails, indicating that they were prepared for a protracted showdown if the farm Bills were not repealed. Old and young, they braved the intense north Indian cold, with some even dying due to the inimical conditions. Initially, the Government endeavoured to wear the farmers down, even as a section of the pro-BJP media demonized them by hinting that anti-national elements had hijacked the protests. But this contention seemed to the world to have been refuted by the reality that the protests of the farmers were peaceful.

Ultimately, the determination shown by the farmers had prevailed, and the Centre was compelled to climb down. The possible political repercussions of the farmers’ stir in the Hindi heartland was another factor for this. On December 3 last, the farmers were invited for talks by the Government.

For the next few weeks, three Cabinet ministers, led by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, engaged in negotiations with members of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, but without being able to break the deadlock. Apart from resolving a few minor issues, such as concessions on electricity tariffs and stubble burning, no progress was made.

With the farmers sticking to their stand that nothing short of repeal of the farm laws would satisfy them, and the Centre unwilling to make concessions on these, it appeared to be a case of an irrepressible force acting upon an immovable object! With the series of discussions between farmers and the Government having failed to yield results, the latter thrust the onus of resolving the issue onto the Supreme Court of India, which passed some directives on the matter on January 12, 2021.
The Apex Court suspended the implementation of the three farm laws until further orders, and constituted a committee to hold talks with the contending parties. Surprisingly, the committee consisted of only those experts who had stated in public their preference for the farm laws and, unsurprisingly, was rejected by the Samyuktha Kisan Morcha, the temporary front for all the protesting farmers’ unions.

Then came the shameful events of January 26, India’s Republic Day! The farmers had earlier declared that they would hold a tractor-rally within the National Capital Region (NCR) on that day, and requested permission for it. Until then the farmers had not been allowed to enter the NCR. Interestingly, perhaps anxious that the farmers were determined to hold the tractor-rally, permission or no permission, the administration, to avoid a confrontation, had conceded the demand, but with certain provisos. The farmers were to proceed by a pre-fixed route agreed upon by their leaders, which would keep them away from the central region of the metropolis, thereby avoiding the Republic Day celebrations being officially held, and take them back to the points they started from.

The violence and bedlam which followed constitute one of the blackest chapters of post-independent India’s history. The nation watched aghast as the agreement to keep to an agreed route was breached by a section of protesters, barriers were broken and violent clashes took place with the security forces. The finale of this shameful episode occurred at the historic Red Fort where protesters hoisted flags of their own beside the national Tricolours.

This then is the crux of the farmers protest mystery. How was it that the farmers, who had been demonstrating peacefully for over two months, bearing with fortitude unimaginable hardships in the Delhi winter and even martyring themselves for the cause, suddenly exploded into such frenzied violence in full view of the nation on the hallowed Republic Day?

The answer to this is, clearly, agent provocateurs had infiltrated into the protestors, seizing this opportune moment to create anarchy and bring a bad name to the farmers’ movement!

But who were these agent provocateurs? What organization did they belong to and which were the shadowy forces behind them? Only an impartial and thorough investigation would unearth the true nature of the conspiracy against a peaceful and democratic movement. Unfortunately, in today’s India, such investigations are hard to come by, and the actual truth might never see the light of day.

Equally clearly, the objective of the instigators had been to destroy the democratic and legal sanctity of the protests and provide the administration with an alibi to suppress them. As recent events showed, they almost succeeded in the design. But now a campaign that had been on the verge of petering out appears to have attained renewed vigour, though what the final outcome would be remains anybody’s guess.