There are several indicators of a hardening attitude of the government towards the farmers’ movement. Therefore it needs to be emphasized at this juncture that a policy of repression will be very harmful for the nation and those who are committed to peace, democracy and justice within and outside government should do all they can to prevent this. There is widespread sympathy for all persons injured in Delhi violence on January 26, for policemen as well as farmers, and the time now is for avoiding hard feelings and tensions, not for aggravating them.
During the last few weeks a very significant farmers’ movement has emerged at the national level raising important demands. This has received widespread support from several other important sections in India, including organizations of workers, women and youth. Several leading experts on agricultural and rural issues, including those who have served prestigious government institutions in leading capacities, have not only supported the demands of farmers but also written to the Agriculture Minister pleading for the acceptance of these demands.
Some former judges and leading lawyers of the country have not only extended support to farmers but also questioned the legality of the processes and provisions of the three controversial laws the government is trying to defend. Several important allies and partners of the ruling regime have either broken with the ruling regime citing its unsympathetic attitude towards farmers as the main reason, or else have expressed their support for farmers’ movement to some extent. At the world level, organizations dedicated to farmers’ interests are watching the unsympathetic attitude of the government towards the farmers’ movement in India with increasing concern.
The Government of India has rightly engaged the farmers in negotiations. Several rounds of negotiations have been held. Even though both sides were increasingly frustrated in negotiations, at least negotiations were continued over so many rounds, keeping open the possibilities of a negotiated settlement, as should happen in a democracy. At the end of several rounds of talks, the chief negotiator on the government side, the Agriculture Minister, often said in a gentle, reassuring voice that he commends the farmer unions and their leaders for the disciplined, peaceful nature of their protests. So far so good ,more or less as it should be in a good democracy.
However there was another, not so democratic aspect of the response of the government and the ruling regime which was not so reassuring or pleasant at all. From time to time important leaders of the ruling regime made unfair allegations without any proof against the farmers’ movement. These were picked up and repeated ad nauseam by those who are known to be loyal, and generally loud, followers of the ruling regime for various reasons.
The most prominent among these allegations was that Khalistani elements, and by implication their Pakistani backers, were prominent in these protests. The Khalistani movement was a violent sectarian and secessionist movement of a small section of extremist Sikhs, actively helped in its violent activities by Pakistan from across the border. While the government is completely right in describing this as a most terrible movement, it is completely wrong in linking it to the farmers’ movement, as I have explained in a recent article ( kindly see article titled False Propaganda Against Farmers’ Movement, published in Countercurrents.org dated January 21, 2021 ). In fact the farmers’ movement has prominent presence of those left elements of Punjab who resisted the Khalistani movement with the greatest courage, sacrificing some of their most noble members in the process.
This is the background in the context of which the events of January 26 and its aftermath should be seen. On this day a controversial young man unfurled a religious flag at the Red Fort. This man had been earlier present at farmer protest site. This was immediately used as a pretext by those with a wide reach to disseminate misinformation to say repeatedly, clearly or by implication, that persons in the farmers’ movement have unfurled the khalistani flag at the Delhi Red Fort, a monument with important historical symbolism in India. Saner elements soon pointed out that this was not a khalistani flag but only a religious flag. Farmer leaders negotiating with the government condemned this incident in very strong terms and said that their movement has nothing to do with this. What is more, it was soon pointed out by several observers that the controversial man who unfurled the religious flag at the Red Fort was earlier a close associate of a prominent BJP politician cum actor and in this capacity had also met some of the senior leaders of the ruling regime.
Linking this with the very strong and false campaign of powerful forces against the farmers’ movement, several experienced observers have been highlighting the need for not making any false accusations of khalistani link, at the same time expressing concern how quickly, in what appeared to be a planned way, the earlier insinuations and allegations of such a link returned with a bang following the controversial flag incident.
Anyway, while these and several related questions will no doubt remain in the air for a long time, what is really important for us here is that the government does not appear to have given up its earlier approach of somehow tarnishing the noble movement of farmers with the khalistani tag and to divide the farmers on this basis. This is a very narrow approach and it is regrettable that the government has yet come out of the narrow colonial thinking of divide and rule.
If this is the approach, then it will be difficult for it to acquire the caliber of facing the real big challenges of the 21st century. The real big challenge is to prepare and implement an agenda of farm and food sector which can ensure sustained availability of safe and healthy food, protect sustainable and satisfactory livelihoods, ensure farm development based on equality and environment protection in difficult times of climate change, while also contributing much to reducing climate change.
It is really important that the government should move towards the real challenges. Towards this ends it should change its basic attitude towards the farmers’ movement. Instead of trying to frustrate the movement somehow, divide and weaken it, the government should approach it in a highly positive way, trying to find a meeting point which is best suited to creating a genuinely better food and farming system in India.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement of India).