Indian Farmers’ Protest: A Strong Democratic Test?

History is taking a new turn in India with farmers’ protests showing no sign of yielding to the government’s rigid stand. More than six months have passed since the protest began against several agricultural laws. So far, several rounds of talks between the two sides have only come to a dead end with neither willing to backtrack from their respective stands. Indian democracy and leadership are certainly showing signs which were last markedly visible in people’s freedom struggle against colonial powers. The symbolic change is that this protest is against the government democratically elected to power by Indians and not imposed upon them by force. Nevertheless, the rigid stand adopted by the government against farmers’ protest is hardly suggestive of leaders giving adequate importance to democratic principles laid out in the Indian Constitution.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as Father of the Nation, gave great importance to identifying himself with the then common Indian while leading the freedom struggle against British Empire. He chose to dress like them, eat and live as they did, and succeeded in ensuring their support. This page from Indian history is being referred to as it clearly signals that when people’s support is won over for any struggle, prospects of the same succeeding increase strongly. Leadership at any level cannot succeed without people extending support to the same.

In this context, what can be said about the scenario reflected by the ongoing farmers’ protest in India and the attitude of the central government towards the same? Interestingly, the farmers’ protest is marked by various farmers’ unions’ support from most parts of the country. The attempt made by certain elements to create a rift within the same has interestingly not succeeded. In fact, farmers appear to be displaying no communal division along religious, regional and/or any social barrier. This point is marked by their paying special attention to act as security guards when Muslims among them offer prayers.

The farmers have refused to backtrack from their stand even though they have been attacked by water cannons, tear-gas shells, sticks, and other means. There have also been reports of their water supply, Internet and so forth being cut. Undeterred, farmers’ sit-in agitation along the capital city (Delhi)’s borders shows no sign of coming to a halt till the government withdraws controversial agricultural laws.

Interestingly, though farmers have earned support from political rivals to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, it is not appropriate to bracket them as one political group. Secondly, their agitation is not being led by any one leader or group. In fact, frequent meetings at different places marked by the coming together of farmers from various villages of regional zones add a highly democratic touch to this protest. These gatherings are described as Mahapanchayats, that is Great Assemblies of Village Councils. Though various politicians address these Mahapanchayats, these clearly are suggestive of farmers’ protest drawing support from the grass-roots. Besides, large gatherings at these Mahapanchayats in addition to that at sites of farmers’ protest suggest are too significant to be ignored.

The preceding point indicates that each and every farmer participating in the protest and/or supporting it apparently identifies him/herself strongly with its agenda. The farmer has not been forced, pushed or drawn into the protest by any external factor and/or appeal of any great leader. Indian farmers, whether rich or poor, are known to be strongly attached to their farms which in most cases has been part of their family’s property for generations. More than 60% of the Indian population is engaged in the agricultural sector. Targeting this sector through laws or any other manner is clearly equivalent to attacking what farmers link their bread ‘n’ butter as well as family passionately with.

Where does this place the hype linked with Prime Minister Modi’s wave? Nowhere. Unfortunately, the Indian premier doesn’t seem to be taking serious note of this hard reality. The so-called “wave” linked with his image that is said to have spelled his return to power for the second term in 2019 parliamentary elections matters little for protesting farmers. Rather, the nature of farmers’ protest and its continuity has simply burst it. Certainly, attempts have been made to divert people’s attention to other issues but neither has had any impact in reducing support and sympathy for farmers.

Mahatma Gandhi moved with the people, whose support led to his emergence as their leader. He made the extra-effort to first understand the Indian situation through affected people’s eyes. In contrast, at present, no government representative appears willing to understand farmers’ protests from the latter’s angle. The manner and number in which farmers have surged forward display the determination of each to exercise his/her democratic right to protest as one group; which is only growing stronger and not weakening/faltering despite attempts made to target it. This certainly symbolizes the strength of Indian democracy. Sadly, the government appears to have shut its eyes to recognize and accept this political reality.

Given that the present party heading the government has risen to power by playing on communal cards using extremist designs, it isn’t surprising that it appears to be oblivious of people’s democratic vision and strength. Rigid and hardstand of the government against farmers’ protest certainly exposes this harsh truth. Perhaps, in the coming days, concern for his political image may prompt Modi to take a U-turn on this front. At present, his reputation as a master-strategist and the so-called Modi-wave bear little weight against support and sympathy being voiced for farmers from within and outside India. That farmers have been out protesting for more than six months is too serious an issue to be taken lightly. Political rhetoric can please people’s ears for a while but not when it is reiterated frequently with little concern for their grievances, not even along humanitarian lines!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. Her latest book is Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019). Others include:– Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).