Stepping back to November 2020, farmers marched peacefully on Delhi on Constitution Day with the aim of reaching Ramlila Maidan to hold a rally objecting to the three new farm laws. Government flexed its muscle military-style to stop them, by digging up the national highway and installing heavy obstacles and razor-wire concertinas. When farmers breached the obstacles, police used tear-gas and water-cannon against them. The farmers were finally stopped at Delhi’s Singhu border, Tikri border, etc., where the farmers firmed in. They have been camped there ever since, braving the winter, in spite of over 70 farmers dying.
PM Modi sent his condolences on the deaths of international passengers in an Indonesian aircrash (“India stands with Indonesia in this hour of grief”), and for 11 persons killed in a road accident near Dharwad (Karnataka) on 15 January. However, the deaths of over 70 protesting farmers on the outskirts of Delhi drew no comment. Clearly, government views the farmers as going against the law, and hence not deserving words of compassion from on high.
Farmers have consistently pressed for repeal of the three new farm laws, and just as inflexibly, government has refused repeal as an option. However, attempting to persuade the farmers to withdraw the protest, government has arranged talks multiple times with the farmers unions and repeatedly offered to entertain farmers’ suggestions for amendments to the farm laws. But the talks have not changed anything.
Most recently, after Supreme Court expressed extreme disappointment at government’s handling of the protest, union minister Narendra Tomar has asked the farmers to be more flexible.
The SC-appointed committee to resolve the stand-off appears to be a non-starter, since the members were all supporters of government’s laws, besides farmers unions declining to depose before it. One among the nominated members, Bhupinder Singh Mann, has recused himself, prompting a humorous comment that Mann-ki-baat will not be available.
Some days into the democratic and peaceful protest, farmers expressed their intention to celebrate Republic Day by peacefully taking a Kisan-parade on Rajpath from Vijay Chowk to India Gate after the annual official military parade is over. Since almost every family from Punjab and Haryana has had at least one member in the Armed Forces, farmers also wish to pay their respects to soldiers at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. Reportedly, farmers held a rehearsal of the Kisan tractor parade even while encamped outside Delhi.
Farmers expressing this intention has further embarrassed government, as the stand-off has crossed 50-days, especially since the farmers have firmly and successfully kept political parties outside their protest. Following SC’s trenchant criticism of government, the entire affair has attracted international attention almost on par with the presidential succession in USA, and threatens to tarnish PM Modi’s carefully burnished persona of strength and determination.
The farmers remain resolute on crossing the barricades and entering Delhi to peacefully conduct their Republic Day Kisan parade, without prejudice to their insistence on “repeal”. For its part, Government appears equally resolute to not permit the Kisan parade on January 26. However, with government being on the backfoot, farmers appear to have the initiative with the demand for a peaceful Kisan parade, together with a rally at Ramlila Maidan.
Counting down to Republic Day, Government perhaps has two options. One, to refuse to permit a RD Kisan parade and physically stop farmers crossing the barricades, and the other, to accede to the RD Kisan parade, but insist on keeping it delinked from the farm laws.
The first option would certainly involve government using force, with equal certainty of casualties especially among the farmers. This would attract close international attention, especially since USA’s presidential changeover would be six days old. However, it would continue to show government as being strong and resolute, and not cowed down by a “rabble of misinformed farmers” making unreasonable demands.
The flip side is that it may spark off problems among serving Armed Forces and CAPF personnel. This would certainly, as it should, call for strict disciplinary measures within these forces, but will have their own repercussions, both immediate and longer-term at least on national security.
The second option would show government in softer light as being graceful, conditionally and only partially accepting the farmers’ demand, without resiling from its refusal to repeal the laws. Government, with its huge influence on national media, can easily compensate for any perceived ‘loss-of-face’, by showing its magnanimity for a step towards resolution, if not solution of the farm laws matter. It can also show farmers in unfavourable light as inflexible and stubborn. Importantly, it will obviate any embarrassing conflagration.
The flip side of this option is that while it will not change the farmers repeal-and-nothing-less position, it would buy time for government to exercise other options.
Government has approached Supreme Court to rule on the possibility of farmers disrupting the official RD ceremonies. The outcome of the hearing scheduled for January 18 may provide some leverage to government exercising one of the two options, and legitimizing state violence against the farmers.
As dark clouds gather on the horizon, January 26, 2021, looks like it will be a momentous day for India, much as January 20, 2021, may be for another democracy on the other side of our troubled planet.
S.G.Vombatkere is focussed on development and strategic issues.