“Once again it is getting proved that when agrarian India gets agitated the citadels of power tremble. For over six years, the overwhelming opinion among political practitioners and observers has been that India practically does not have an effective political opposition that can mount a spirited challenge to the ruling dispensation. But when farmers realised that their valid, genuine rights and interests were being harmed through a series of laws and when they stood up against them as a united, resolute force, the farming community has, by itself, become a political entity. In the process, it has developed the contours of a potent and dynamic political opposition with the inherent capacity to overcome the vile machinations of the powers that be. In 1977, too, it was the sense of disquiet in agrarian India that emerged as the mainstay of the political opposition after the Emergency had emasculated organised political forces for nearly one and a half years. Then, as a student, I watched the growing resentment in rural north India and its political ramifications from the sidelines. Now, I think, I am getting a more proximate view of a similar movement.”
This is how Colonel (retired) Subhash Chandra Deswal, a progressive farmer based in Sikandrabad in western Uttar Pradesh, views the larger political import of the farmers’ agitation, especially its impact since the Delhi siege began.
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Deswal, a much-awarded farmer, keenly follows sociopolitical developments and state affairs, including matters relating to the defence forces. He has kept track of the farmers’ agitation ever since it began in mid September and has been visiting the agitation spots around the national capital right from the early stages of the Delhi siege in the last week of November.
Deswal spoke to Frontline approximately a week into the Delhi siege, but the concrete political challenge raised by the farmers agitation to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been flagged by different segments of the polity in diverse platforms before and after Deswal compared the agitation to the 1977 political upsurge that overturned the despotic Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime.
Sharad Pawar, former Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president, was prominent among those who signalled the emergence of the agitating farmers as a political entity. He pointed out at a press conference that the government had pushed through the controversial farm laws, completely overlooking the advice of opposition parties to proceed with care and caution.
He said: “I would like to caution the government not to test the patience of farmers. If the government continues to adopt the same arrogant style, the farmers’ agitation may spread from Delhi’s borders to other parts of the country and this is bound to emerge as a big social and political challenge.”
That the agitation poses a major political challenge to the Modi government is clear even to sizeable sections of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, including the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP.
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A Lucknow-based senior RSS activist told Frontline how projections he had made about the farmers’ agitation in the third week of September, immediately after the passage of the controversial farm Bills, turned out to be “absolutely true” two months later. At that time, the senior activist had said that “it seems as though the widespread irate response to the Bills in the agricultural communities is by far the biggest social and political challenge that the Modi regime has faced in the past six years of its existence” ( Frontline , October 23, 2020). He also added that dealing with the agitation, in political terms, was particularly difficult for the Sangh Parivar and its political arm, the BJP, essentially because the agitation was founded on core social and economic issues of the farming community and not on any overt political slogan.
Plan to fall back on time-tested agenda
The overall difficulty, as pointed out by the leader, has had many manifestations over the course of the Delhi siege, forcing the Modi government, the various agencies under different government departments and the different organisational components of the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar to adopt multiple and seemingly contradictory strategies and stratagems at different junctures, at times simultaneously.
The original plan, as the movement of farmers began from different parts of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, was to fall back on the time-tested “nationalism versus sedition” propaganda that has been deployed in suitable forms since 2015 to pursue diverse Hindutva-oriented plans of the Sangh Parivar or to persecute those perceived as political and social adversaries. This “nationalism versus sedition” plank, conceived at the the RSS’ Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarini Mandal Baitak (national executive committee meeting) in October-November 2015 at Ranchi, Jharkhand, following the BJP’s defeat in the Assembly elections in Bihar earlier that year, has been put to use on various occasions in the past five years.
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This plank was used prominently to put down voices and movements opposed to the government, such as the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) agitation of 2019, the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad Dalit assertive movement in 2017 (investigations into the movement were orchestrated in 2018), and the “Mission 2016” campaign in Chhattisgarh which witnessed brutal interference in the lives of common people, including Adivasis and social activists who fought for the marginalised sections of society. This “nationalism versus sedition” campaign was put to test in 2016 by targeting a clutch of student leaders and activists of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), including the then JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, alleging that they had made exhortations to divide and disintegrate the country.
In the case of the farmers’ agitation, the campaign was taken forward by describing it as a revival of the Khalistan movement of the 1980s when a call was made for a sovereign Sikh state. The farmer organisations retorted by highlighting the patriotic traditions of the people of Punjab and Haryana. They pointed out the legacy of Punjabis in the Indian armed forces and the contributions of the people of the State to agriculture and the defence services. The “nationalism versus sedition” suffered immediate reverses on account of this counter-campaign, and the leadership of the government and the BJP was compelled to go back on the Khalistan angle. Referring to this campaign and the counter campaign, Deswal said the opposition parties and social activists engaged in diverse fields, including in the anti-CAA agitations, had been bamboozled repeatedly and put down effectively by the “nationalism versus sedition” tactics of the Sangh Parivar for more than five years, but the manner in which the agitating farmers and their unions practically took the wind out of the sails of this narrative by building emotive counterarguments. Deswal and other political observers are the view that it was this forceful counter-narrative that impelled the BJP governments at the Centre and in Haryana to invite the farmers for a series of negotiations.
Vile tactics to discredit the movement
Amid these negotiations, the BJP and its governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana unraveled yet another set of vile tactics aimed at discrediting and disintegrating the farmers’ movement. The first of these was sought to be advanced using a second-generation farmers’ union leader from western Uttar Pradesh. The idea was to invite this leader and a clutch of associate farm organisations under his control for separate discussions and announce some kind of compromise formula. The announcement of this formula was to be followed up by a proclamation stating that the agitation had ended. In order to facilitate the negotiations, a plot was hatched to build up the image of the western Uttar Pradesh leader. The plan was to lend activists of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations to this leader and help him project big numbers equalling that of the Punjab and Haryana farmers on the agitation front. The premise, apparently, was that this “show of strength” would enhance the credentials of the second-generation leader and make him and the associate outfits fit enough to sit independently at the negotiating table. This ploy was also nipped in the bud by the timely and collective intervention of farmers unions, especially the leadership of the unified Kisan unions’ body, the Samyukth Kisan Morcha (SKM).
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Following the failure of the moves on the western Uttar Pradesh front, the BJP leadership tried a similar stratagem on a few Haryana-based farmer unions, but it did not take off, once again on account of the timely unified intervention of the SKM leadership. It was after this that Union Home Minister Amit Shah stepped in with a new campaign tactic. He invited the kisan union leaders for talks and adopted the posture that the government was conceding some of the major demands of the farmers, even giving written assurances on crucial issues such as minimum support price. In reality, all these assurances fell woefully short of the demands of the kisan unions. As asserted by the SKM leadership, the demand made on October 13, when the first round of negotiations started with the Centre, and the number one item in the farmers’ memorandum was the repeal of the three farm laws passed on September 20. SKM leaders told Frontline : “Even in the second week of December, after six rounds of talks, including some with the Home Minister, involving over 20 hours of deliberations, our demand is: repeal the draconian farm laws. If the government does not concede this, then there is no point in saying that it has agreed to the farmers’ demands or that it has addressed the demands sympathetically.” However, despite such clear assertions, the meeting convened by Amit Shah was immediately followed up by an orchestrated media narrative that sought to present the picture that the government had conceded ground in a big way and that the farmer unions were being unrealistically obstinate.
One of the purposes of this media-orchestrated narrative was apparently to give political crutches to Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) led by him to continue in the BJP-led State government. The passage of the controversial farm laws had become problematic for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from day one as its long-standing ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has a strong support base among Punjab farmers, parted ways even as the Bills were being passed in the Lok Sabha. The sustained farmer agitations, which began in various States culminating in the Delhi siege, had put pressure on the BJP’s other allies, too, especially those with a considerable farmer base. The JJP’s political backbone is the farming community of Jats. There was considerable pressure from the Jat support base on the JJP to end its association with the BJP and quit the NDA. The pressure became so intense that at one point of time several legislators of the JJP and other smaller associates, and also independents, talked publicly about leaving the NDA and joining hands with the Congress to form an alternative government in Haryana.
In this situation, the media-orchestrated narrative about the adamancy of the farmer unions was seen as a desperate measure to help the JJP to continue in the Haryana government. This narrative was sought to be bolstered by a nuanced revival of the “nationalism versus sedition” agenda, this time in the form of an ultra-Left infiltration of the farmers’ movement”. Think tanks associated with the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits as well as the Union government and the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana actively sought to plant these stories, quoting unnamed intelligence sources. A number of media outfits apparently accepted these “offerings”.
However, the SKM reacted to this by ensuring greater representation of Haryana farmers on the agitation front. In the days following the Amit Shah meeting, the participation of Haryana farmers in the “Delhi siege” increased by thousands.
Pressure on the JJP
A social media campaign with the hashtag “#Dushyant_Kisan Ya_Kursi”, asking whether the chair was more important for Dushyant Chautala than the farmers, started trending on Twitter even as the surge of Haryana farmers to Delhi continued. This evidently put greater pressure on the JJP. As things stand at the time of writing this report on December 12, the pressure on the JJP leadership is such that Dushyant Chauthala has been forced to reach out to Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who keeps claiming that he is the “son of a farmer”, to somehow work out a deal to pacify the farmers. Clearing the collateral damage of the farmers’ agitation is becoming gratingly familiar.
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Amidst all this, Prime Minister Modi continues to espouse the idea that “farm sector reforms are for the larger good of the kisans”. A couple of hours before Dushyant Chauthala desperately sought Rajnath Singh’s help, the Prime Minister told a virtual convention of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) that the new farm laws would help bring down the barriers between agricultural and associated sectors, creating new markets for farmers who would gain from technological advances and investments. He said: “When one sector grows, its effect is seen on several other sectors. Imagine what would happen when unnecessary walls are erected between industries. No industry will grow as fast as it should.” Continuing with this line of argument, Modi also advanced other projects of his government, including the laying of the foundation stone for a new Parliament building. Commenting on Modi’s sustained advocacy of the farm laws and the move to construct a new Parliament building, SKM leader Harvinder Singh Lakhowal told Frontline that the Prime Minister appeared to be bent on pursuing a governance path marked by diversionary tactics and schemes. “Perhaps this is how leaderships such as these are built, with the belief that ‘too much democracy hampers development’, but the really productive kisans of the country are determined to show them that democracy nurtures real development.”