Farmers up in arms

Print edition : October 23, 2020

During a protest against the farmers’ Bills passed by Parliament, in Shambhu v illage in Punjab on September 25. Photo: REUTERS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating six mega projects under the ‘Namami Gange Mission’ through a videoconference, in New Delhi on September 29. Photo: PTI

Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a file picture. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The widespread resentment and agitation of farmers against the agricultural marketing Bills, which were passed in the Rajya Sabha in brazen violation of parliamentary rules, and the opposition’s concerted moves on this issue may prove to be the toughest political challenge that the Modi government has faced in its six years in office.

IN PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI’S usual scheme of things, issues and questions raised by mass agitations supported by opposition parties or social organisations merit no priority. The experience of the last six years he has been in power is that he treats such mass movements with utmost indifference and, at times, palpable derision.

His infamous silences that lasted more than a week after widespread public outrage against the mob lynchings of Muslim men (Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015; and Tabrez Ansari in a village near Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, in 2019) have been categorised as some of the lowest points of political insouciance ever recorded in the history of independent India.

However, Modi’s public engagements in September after the presentation and passage of three farmer-related pieces of legislation—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill—in the first week of the monsoon session of Parliament in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have been distinctively different.

Between September 16 and October 1, the Prime Minister made at least six public references to the farmers’ agitation raging across the country, and accused the opposition parties of misleading the aggrieved farming community. Even the online inauguration of six sewage treatment plants of the Namami Gange project in Uttarakhand was proactively used by him to raise the issue of farmers’ agitation and harangue the opposition.

This uncharacteristic shift in the attitude of the “Big Leader” to agitations is being viewed and discussed with interest in political circles, particularly within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Other outfits in the ideological conductor of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, are also discussing this.

The dominant opinion in these discussions is that Modi’s enhanced engagement with the farmers’ agitation and the factors prodding it are primarily on account of the scale it has acquired across large parts of the country and the emotional response it has evoked in all segments of agrarian India. The impact of this agitation on the other sections of society, including the rural and urban middle classes, is also a matter of debate within the BJP, the NDA and the Sangh Parivar.

On its part, the government claimed that the Bills would transform Indian agriculture and attract private investment through means such as contract farming, under which farmers will produce crops as per their contracts with private investors at mutually agreed prices. It further argued that the pieces of legislation would liberate farmers from the control of the agricultural produce market committees (APMCs) and middlemen, giving them the freedom to sell their produce anywhere in the country.

Farmers’ fears

However, the farming community, including both lay farmers as well as several unions working amidst them, perceives the inter-connected pieces of legislation as a ruse to allow corporate entry to trade in agricultural commodities and give private companies the right to enter into agreements with farmers without any government control, supervision or intervention. The farmers and the unions also share the view that the third Act bestows on corporates the right to stock as much agricultural commodities as they want to through procurement and contracts. They pointed out that farmers can sell outside the APMC even now after paying the required fees or cess. So, there is nothing new in this provision.

Overall, the farming community sees the pieces of legislation as an open licence for corporate entry that gives no assurance on minimum support price (MSP) to the farmers’ produce. This lacuna, more than anything else, will lead to rampant looting of farmers and consumers, according to the farmers’ unions.

The debate within the BJP, the NDA and Sangh Parivar outfits touch on all these concerns raised by the farming community. Summing up these debates, a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline: “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 last six years of its existence.”

Providing a perspective from the opposition, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav observed that the farmers’ agitation marked that “point in political time when more and more common people, especially the marginalised sections of society, have started seeing through the political and governance hoodwinking of the BJP”. (Interview on page 8.)

Hathras horror

Along with the farmers’ agitation, the ghastly gang-rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman at Hathras village in western Uttar Pradesh and the blatant efforts at covering up the failings of the government and the police in the investigation of the incident has added to the discomfiture of the BJP leadership, especially Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The Yogi Adityanath government has created a curfew-like situation in the victim’s village, preventing mediapersons, political leaders and even common people from entering the village. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, were among those who were prevented from going to the village.

The verdict in the Ayodhya Babri Masjid demolition case by a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Lucknow also came in this context, adding to the overall political debate. The verdict, pronounced nearly three decades after the demolition, acquitted all the 32 accused, including former BJP presidents Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharti, Bajrang Dal founder Vinay Katiyar and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Champat Rai.

The verdict was indeed received with great jubilation by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar leadership with assertions that “truth has prevailed” through the judgment. However, objective and evidence-based analysis of the verdict by different sections of the media, jurisprudence, sociologists and contemporary historians have been squarely critical of it.

These observations highlighted the blatant travesty of justice that the CBI court carried out, overlooking facts and factual depictions of the incidents of December 6, 1992. It was also pointed out that the Justice Liberhan Commission that inquired into the demolition earlier had clearly stated that mosque was demolished by a motivated group of Sangh Parivar kar sevaks and that the act was “meticulously planned”. The commission had even named Uma Bharti as having accepted “onus” for the demolition. While the verdict did bring relief for the BJP, the Lucknow-based RSS leader was of the view that it was not good enough to offset the reverberations caused by the continuing farmers’ agitation. He said that the party and the Union government could have been more cautious before moving the Bills and getting them passed in a hurry. “In any case, we had not budgeted for a response of this scale and vehemence from the farmers’ community,” he added.

Akali Dal’s shocker

Indeed, there was an element of casualness when the floor managers of the BJP in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha made preparations to move the Bills in the first week of the monsoon session. According to BJP insiders privy to the operations of the the party’s floor managers, the only thing anticipated was that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the BJP’s long-standing ally in the NDA with a core support base in the numerically large farming communities of Punjab, would express some pointed reservations about the legislation in both the Houses of Parliament. The floor managers were certain that the SAD’s objections would essentially be mere “tokenism” and that it would not actively oppose or vote against the Bills. In any case, the BJP had a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and the passage of the Bills was not an issue. Other plans had been designed and taken forward for the 245-member Rajya Sabha, where the BJP and even the NDA is well short of a majority.

As things stood at the beginning of the monsoon session, the NDA had a strength of 116 in the Rajya Sabha, along with the support of four independent MPs. The effective strength of the Upper House at that time was 243, which meant that there were 127 members who were not part of the ruling side.

Even so, BJP insiders told Frontline, the floor managers had no cause for worry because the party had approached some opposition parties, including its erstwhile ally the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Shiv Sena’s ruling coalition partner in Maharashtra. Apparently, these parties, with three and four Rajya Sabha members respectively, had assured support to the Bills. With these promises, the floor managers were assured of 123 votes in a House of 243.

However, all these calculations and the smugness of the BJP floor managers on the basis of these calculations tumbled like a pack of cards on September 17, the day the Bills were presented in the Lok Sabha. Contrary to the BJP’s expectations, the SAD not only opposed the Bills strongly, but went one step with its lone representative in the Modi Cabinet, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, resigning as Food Processing Industries Minister.

Sources close to the SAD leadership told Frontline that the Minister was compelled to take this decision in view of the mounting farmers’ agitation against the Bills in Punjab. Representative of scores of farmers’ unions had made it clear to the SAD leadership that “token” opposition to the Bills in Parliament was not acceptable to them. They wanted concrete and firm action as well as the SAD’s total disassociation with the BJP.

Interestingly, even after Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation the BJP floor managers and leadership hoped that the SAD would not leave the ruling alliance. Several senior BJP leaders, including Bhupendra Yadav, had openly expressed this hope, describing the resignation as “a storm in a teacup”. By all indications, the SAD leadership would have liked to stop the protest with the resignation of the Minister. But the Punjab farmers’ unions demanded greater commitment from the party and resolute actions in favour of the farming community. News about this churning within SAD reached the BJP leadership too. And along with it, the certainty about smooth passage of the Bills in the Rajya Sabha too began to diminish. The leadership of the Shiv Sena and the NCP were also apparently facing a similar kind of pressure from the ground. These parties also reportedly indicated to the BJP floor managers not to take their support to the Bills for granted. Amidst this churning, the floor managers were forced to recalculate the Rajya Sabha numbers.

With the SAD, the NCP and the Shiv Sena expected to not back the Bills, the support for them reduced from the earlier assessment of 123 to 113. (The SAD has three members in the Rajya Sabha.)

At the end of this recalculation, the BJP realised that a division in the Rajya Sabha, when it would take up the Bills on September 20, could lead to disastrous consequences.

Violation of parliamentary rules

Opposition parties, ranging from the Congress to Left to regional outfits such as the S.P, asserted that the manner in which events played out in the Rajya Sabha on September 20 clearly pointed to the effect of this recalculation and the apprehensions generated by it. As it happened, the entire opposition stood together against the Bills in Parliament.

A number of opposition MPs had also submitted a statutory resolution motion to refer the Bills to the select committee and proposed 12 amendments to the Bills. The clause for ensuring a minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural commodities was the most important of these amendments. But Harivansh Narayan Singh, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, announced a voice vote on the statutory resolution motion and declared it negated. He refused to consider repeated demands by members for a division vote on the statutory resolution.

Union Law Minister Ravishankar Prasad and Harivansh Singh later went on to justify the voice vote passage of the Bills by asserting that the demand of the opposition members for a division vote could not be entertained because they were not in their seats while demanding physical voting.

However, a closer perusal of the Rajya Sabha footage accessed by the media exposed these claims as false. The footage clearly showed that at least two of the three members who had called for the controversial Bills to be sent to a select committee and sought amendments—K.K. Ragesh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) and Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—were in their seats when they demanded a division vote.

Pointing to the larger violations in Harivansh Singh’s conduct, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress’ Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, stated that the Deputy Chairma had violated at least three parliamentary rules through his conduct on September 20. “The most important among these is Rule 252, which says that if a decision of a Rajya Sabha question is challenged, the Chair.... shall order a ‘Division’ to be held under which the votes can be recorded and matter decided,” he said.

Azad also said that rules were broken while extending that day’s proceedings on the request of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi. “The day’s business can be extended only if both the government and the opposition agree. I had made it clear in the House that opposition parties are saying that time should not be extended today and tomorrow the Minister can reply,” Azad told Frontline.

According to K.K. Ragesh, the footage showed that Harivansh Singh was looking only at the government benches and not in the direction of the opposition.

Clearly, this ignominious bulldozing of the Bills in the Rajya Sabha has aggravated the political discomfiture caused by the farmers’ Bills to the Modi government. Even 10 days after the Bills were passed in the Rajya Sabha and President Ramnath Kovind swiftly gave his assent to the same, the farmers’ agitation had not subsided and was still raging, especially in northern States such as Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These agitations seem to be developing with better organisational networking and on-the-ground coordination as compared to similar agitations in the past.

Complaints on inadequate MSP had to led to widespread agitations in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in 2017 too. But these fizzled out soon on account of violence and inappropriate political meddling. This time around, the politicians are, by and large, in the background and the farmers as well as independent farmers’ unions are taking the agitation forward on their own.

In places like Punjab, the farmers’ unions themselves have compelled the SAD leadership to take to the streets to show their solidarity and commitment. Responding to this call, SAD chief Sukhbir Badal and Harsimrat Kaur have been taking out processions regularly and have also been detained by the police. Other opposition leaders, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav, were also expected to launch separate agitations by their parties in the first week of October.

The Congress is also set to prepare a model draft law for its State governments to bypass the Bills passed by the Modi government. Apparently, the thrust of the proposed draft law is to declare that anything “inconsistent” in any of the three Central laws with the existing State Acts as null, void and inoperative. It would also stipulate that no farmer shall be paid any price below the MSP.

The State governments of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Punjab have already stated that they are considering ways and means to not implement the new laws of the Modi government, while Kerala and Punjab have declared that they will challenge them in the Supreme Court.

Evidently, these counter moves by the State governments will focus on the legal aspects, especially constitutionality and commitment to federalism. Politicians with legal expertise such as Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress have pointed out that it is clear from the powers envisioned by the Constitution on the Union List, the State List, and the Concurrent List that matters relating to agriculture are outside Parliament’s jurisdiction and give State legislatures exclusive power. The legal and constitutional aspects of the pieces of new legislation are also bound to come into greater focus in the days to come.

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