On 1 August 1920, Asahyog Andolan or a Non-cooperation Movement, the first of the three major Satyagrah in the course of the country’s freedom movement, was launched by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. As part of this, the people would stop cooperating in the functioning of the government – give up their government jobs, titles and privileges, stop going to government schools and colleges, not serve in the security forces and even refuse to pay taxes. In all this, Gandhi’s stress was that the movement would be peaceful and non-violent.
In early February 1922, in Chauri Chaura, outside Gorakhpur (UP), where the people had gathered to protest several local issues, the police beat them up and detained their leaders. In the cycle of events that followed, when the people had gathered outside the Chauri Chaura police station demanding release of the detained leaders, the police opened fire, leading the incensed protesters to set the police station ablaze, charring to death all those inside – counting 23 policemen and officials.
Deeply anguished at this turn of events, in particular by the violence of the people, Gandhi went on a fast for what he considered was his “failure” in the movement and that the people were not yet ready for non-violent action. He officially called-off the Satyagrah on 12 February 1922, much to the chagrin of most of the then other leaders of the Congress, who felt that Gandhi’s decision was hasty and would act as a brake to the success that had been hitherto achieved by people beginning to unite and stand against the British.
The government, on its part, immediately imposed martial law in the area and arrested hundreds of people. Over 200 individuals were brought to trial on charges of “arson and rioting”, of which 172 were sentenced to death after a trial. In April 1923, after reviewing the verdict, the Allahabad High court confirmed death sentence to 19, life imprisonment to 110 and varying terms of imprisonment to the rest.
Today, a memorial in memory of those who died in the arson, put up by the British the same year, stands at the site. Across the road, a Shaheed Smarak commemorates the 19 persons executed. It was built, 50 years later, in 1973.
So, was the disorder and violence that happened in the “farmers’ tractor rally” on the Republic Day, a Chauri Chaura moment in the current farmers’ movement against the three laws enacted by the government?
Possibly yes, in the way the government has or will react. Possibly no, in the way the farmers’ leaders will respond. Yes, because for the last two months the state came up with almost every tactics in its bag. No, because among the farmers’ leaders, there is none with the moral authority of Gandhi.
Certainly, with the current media being majorly godi, the farmers’ leaders have been pushed on the back-foot and will increasingly and repeatedly be asked to explain the faux pas. As such, it does appear that, using sports’ parlance, the farmers movement has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory or certainly lost their position of advantage. Whether this loss is temporary or long-lasting will depend a lot on how the leaders move on from here and how their unity stands.
But it does need to be stated, and sociologists would readily agree that with over three dozen unions, hundreds of umbrella organizations and lakhs of people, not excluding the gravity of the problem nor the excitement of the movement’s, any untoward happening should certainly have been expected. Remember what the various leaders, in particular LK Advani, reportedly stated regarding the Babri Masjid demolition – not that one finds this a parallel example nor something to support – but he said to the effect that the act of demolition was an outcome of the heat of the moment and that it was carried out by the karsevaks voluntarily out of anger and emotions. The current government might do well to remember that!
More than this, it may not be appropriate, at this point, to deliberate or comment on the farmers’ side of the issue because right now there are a lot of ifs and buts, and many aspects are in realm of conjecture.
But the State yes, like all States, is not going to let this moment get away. In the last two months, the State had tried virtually all its tricks. So what happened could very well be the work of the cohorts of the government or of a mole planted. But even if this is not true, the State was likely waiting and hoping all this while for something like this to happen, for the farmers to make a wrong move, for some violence to happen. Some days ago, a person with a gun was nabbed at one the protest sites too.
Now on, the narrative from the government’s side (duly through the media) will be sought to be shifted as much as possible from the three laws to now hinge on what happened on the Republic Day, and on the political and legal actions that will follow.
The political and legal actions will be swift and summary. As these have always been, but more so lately. The culpability of the police will not be questioned.
For the farmers’ unions and the farmers themselves, what follows would be a period of doubts, uncertainties, internal dissatisfaction and problems emerging from the government’s political and legal actions. The current situation is something like when you are climbing in the mountains. You can see the pinnacle, your objective, from a distance, and you see there is only one smaller mountain to scale in between. But when you reach the top of that intermediate mountain, you suddenly see there are actually more valleys and mountains to traverse before the final pinnacle.
How events eventually play out or the farmers’ collective emerge from this and other setbacks will depend a lot on the farmers’ leaders’ sagacity, wisdom, even long-term vision, their continuing focus on the three farm laws and, of course, on their unity and resolve. And on their commitment to peace and non-violence.
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Biju Negi, Beej Bachao Andolan, Uttarakhand email@example.com