Peaceful protest movements by various sections of people are an essential part of a democracy. A government in a democracy should respond to smaller movements at an initial stage at a decentralized level so that the issues are tackled at an early stage and there is no need for protests to become too big and overwhelming. Systems should be in place to give adequate attention to emerging protests so that there is high chance of their issues being resolved in a satisfactory way at a local level.
However if a protest is growing bigger despite such efforts then the national government should set in motion its own highly democratic protest response systems. The first step should be to prepare a comprehensive document on what is being demanded. The government should compare its own agenda of what the country needs in the particular areas and sectors with which the protest movement is concerned, with the demands raised by the protest movement. If there is any confusion then the government representatives should meet the movement representatives to understand their demands and aspirations in a better way. The government should involve independent experts and experienced citizens also in these efforts.
If in the process of these deliberations the government finds that the demands and aspirations of the protesting movement are in keeping with the thinking of the government for creating a better country, then the government simply accepts the demands and the movement ends on a note of celebration, both sides happy that they have contributed to the improvement of the country.
On the other hand if the government finds that the demands of the movement do not agree with its sincere understanding of improvements that are actually needed, then the government should enter (without any considerations of ego or other such factors) into a democratic dialogue with the movement certainly but in addition also with all the interested citizens, listening with a very open mind to all emerging views. If such a sincere interaction takes place then this becomes a great opportunity of education and discussion for all concerned, the wider national interest from all perspectives is better understood by all and it is very likely that sooner rather than later the differences will be resolved in such a way that it contributes to the betterment of the country.
Now let us look at the actual response of the government to the ongoing farmers’ movement. At an early stage of the passage of the three controversial farm laws there were important protests in several parts by several organizations, including by those who are otherwise close to the ruling regime, but the government instead of responding only speeded up the passage of the three controversial laws, ignoring even normal consultative processes which were needed much more in the context of these highly controversial farm laws.
Secondly, when finally a very big movement started the first response was of a repressive nature with batons, barricades, tear gas and heavy use of water cannons in cold weather against farmers gathering for peaceful protest. Secondly, when proper negotiations with government representatives started, it appears from the actual record of these negotiations that from the very beginning the government had obstinately decided not to concede the main demand of the repeal of the three farm laws, even though a very significant number of reputed experts had by then supported the stand of the farmers’ movement that the three controversial laws are not good for the country. How can negotiations succeed when the most important demand is not even being considered? Thirdly, side by side with negotiations all the time efforts to tarnish the image of the movement were being made by the ruling regime or persons close to it, and these efforts peaked recently, leading to more repressive attitude. This writer has pleaded for decades for movements to remain peaceful but what is one to say when a movement is basically peaceful and its leaders are the all the time telling participants to remain peaceful but still the government is determined to simply prove somehow that the movement is not peaceful.
Before things worsen, all persons who have some basic commitment to democracy, justice and peace, within the government and the sangh parivar, including senior advisors whose voice carries weight within the government, should also assert themselves and urge the government for more democratic and rational response to the movement. In addition now in more difficult times there is even greater need for all citizens of India who are committed to justice, peace and democracy to extend their support to the farmers’ movement, not blind support but reason-based efforts , which help farmers to achieve well-reasoned goals like repeal of the three bad laws but also coaxes and nudges them to move in other desirable directions like ecologically protective agriculture and better care of the poorest and landless sections of our rural society.
Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist and author who has been closely involved with several Gandhian movements. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( on Gandhian ideas for our times ) and Protecting Earth for Children.