The loud drone of farmers’ protest

This clash symbolises a deeper conflict between a regime tethered to corporate interests and a populace demanding fundamental rights.

Published : Feb 18, 2024 23:43 IST - 6 MINS READ

Farmers administering eye drops to mitigate the reaction to the tear gas that the police used on them during their “Dillio Chalo” march at Shambhu on February 14.

Farmers administering eye drops to mitigate the reaction to the tear gas that the police used on them during their “Dillio Chalo” march at Shambhu on February 14. | Photo Credit: ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/REUTERS

The sight of drones dropping tear gas shells on farmers trying to cross barricades in Haryana will now be etched in the collective memory of the section of citizenry who managed one of the most successful protests in recent memory. A year-long farmers’ protest was called off in November 2021 when the Narendra Modi government took back three contentious farm laws. The sustained people’s movement had won the round, although 700 farmers died in the course of the protest as they endured winter, rain, and high summer under the skies at the border points to Delhi.

That was the rare instance when the current regime, positioned as being led by an Absolute Leader, flinched and blinked first. It is not yet clear whether in 2024 the government will succeed in dividing and/or diffusing the protests that began in mid-February or agree to some demands. From its stated maximalist positions, that appears unlikely. Yet, when an election is round the corner, it does not make for good optics for any regime to see tear gas shells being lobbed or visuals of farmers injured by rubber bullets.

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The Congress, meanwhile, hit by more desertions from party ranks, has promised a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for crops and will be hoping that the farmers’ agitation takes the narrative back to issues of employment and sustenance. The BJP has pointed out that the Congress when it was in power did not agree to guaranteeing the MSP.

Aerial warfare against citizens

How this story will play out remains uncertain. But when the protest started the Indian state came down hard, even using aerial warfare against its own citizens. As the protesting farmers headed to New Delhi, the roads were blocked, side-lanes were dug up, iron spikes laid, and barbed wire placed as paramilitary personnel and the police faced them in BJP-ruled Haryana. As if all this was not enough, rubber bullets were also fired.

And then the drones appeared, showering tear gas shells. There are some visuals of the innovative sons of the soil trying to take down drones by flying kites and seeking to entangle them. Those scenes could be funny were it not a shade tragic in the context of what has been unfolding in the farm sector.

The protests were started by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (non-political) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha but not the entire umbrella of farm bodies that gave the mass numbers and strategic thinking to the 2020 movement. Yet the sight of the state and police action brought the other farm unions in support of those who had raced off in a “Dilli Chalo” agitation without building a wider consensus. No doubt, New Delhi would seek to find cracks in the unity of farm groups, but that did not work in 2020-21.

BJP’s hypocrisy

The BJP is also trapped in its hypocrisy. It has just given the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, to agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan and former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. The Swaminathan Committee reports, submitted between 2004 and 2006, had recommended a formula for giving MSP to farmers (that the Congress now says it will implement if voted to power). Likewise, Charan Singh had risen as a leader of the peasantry and if alive would certainly have been on the side of the farmers.

In an election year, the regime would be concerned about political narratives. However, we have seen that narratives these days frequently do not culminate in electoral outcomes. This is because electoral “management” now extends to managing booths and voter lists and splitting opposition parties and using the carrot and the stick to engineer defections to to the NDA. Once that is done, the inductees can prosper and be safe from investigations by state agencies. In the long term, however, they could become politically redundant, living at the mercy of the BJP that is now a party with an increasingly centralised command structure.

Such a fate seems possible for Charan Singh’s grandson, Jayant Chaudhary, whose Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) has now crossed over to the NDA (the Bharat Ratna was announced just before the deal was finalised). As farmers protest this time round, Jayant Chaudhary could be circumscribed and should the agitation be prolonged, he would presumably be expected to work towards seeing that his caste brethren, the Jat peasantry of western Uttar Pradesh, do not join. At the time of writing, the western Uttar Pradesh farmers’ unions led by Naresh and Rakesh Tikait had called a mahapanchayat to decide on actively joining the protests or just giving outside support in principle. They have close kinship and caste ties in the RLD.

We are again witnessing what in the popular perception looks like farmers vs New Delhi, and New Delhi has (until now) ruled out bringing a law to guarantee a minimum support price. Beyond the economic costs involved, there is a clash of culture at a fundamental level. The farmers are making demands to a regime that propagates a dharma of obedience, devotion, and service. Anything else is deemed to be disruptive if not anti-national.

There is another fundamental clash due to the very nature of a party that has, since 2014, according to data, become the richest in India’s history because of large donations from the corporate sector. The farm unions, notably, have very clear rhetoric about “corporate loot” and “anti-people policies”. The February 15 Supreme Court verdict striking down the Electoral Bonds scheme also puts focus on the sheer wealth of the BJP and raises questions about the quid pro quos involved.

Inherent clash

There is an inherent clash between a corporate-friendly regime and masses of people demanding rights and entitlements. That is what right-wing commentators call disturbing the order. The Modi-era BJP inaugurates temples and sites for public worship and sees strategic gains in doling out free rations on a large scale to an obedient population. But the party would find it deeply disconcerting to reboot its economic orientation.

If the past is an indicator of the future, then the eco-system that propagates the BJP version of events would first seek to discredit the protests, even as back-door channels would be opened to try and make transactional deals with some players. Should that fail and the story goes out of control then we cannot rule out the Modi establishment agreeing to some demands as it did in 2021. At that time the Uttar Pradesh State election—which the party swept—was round the corner. Now the general election is months away.

Also Read | India braces for a potent brew of majoritarianism and authoritarianism in 2024

On the day the farm protests began, the Indian Prime Minister was given non-stop coverage by TV channels as he landed in the UAE to inaugurate a Hindu temple. That was pitched as an act of statesmanlike secularism even as sections of the media and social media described the farmers as anarchists acting at the behest of opposition parties and subversive elements outside India (they had been called terrorists and Khalistanis in 2020-2021).

By these arguments, farmers were making this hard journey as part of a conspiracy and not because they had genuine problems in an age when agricultural incomes have declined. If we go by the tone of such comments, then the people do not know what is good for them and are standing in the way of their own progress.

In 2021 the farmers showed more character and staying power than some politicians have done in recent times. In 2024 this is still a developing story.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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