Farmers' Movement

The BJP government's Goebbelsian campaign against the farmers’ agitation

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Barricades erected by the police on the highway in Ghazipur on February 3. Photo: ANINDITO MUKHERJEE/Bloomberg

Opposition leaders who were stopped by the police on their visit to the Ghazipur border on February 4. Photo: VIJAY VERMA/PTI

Narendra Singh Tomar, Union Agriculture Minister, speaking in the Rajya Sabha on February 5. His speech dripped with untruths. Photo: PTI

The BJP government has resorted to a Goebbelsian campaign against the farmers’ agitation. But the protesting farmers are firm that they will overcome its machinations.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.” There has been much debate on the authorship of these words attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for the Adolf Hitler-led Nazi government in Germany during the Second World War. Notwithstanding that, there is little doubt that the stratagems employed by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the face of the spirited, over two-month-old, farmers’ agitation against three controversial farm laws it has passed are drawn from this “Big Lie” concept. Every single aspect mentioned here, starting from propaganda based on repeated utterances of brazen lies to the vehement repression of dissent and the blatant efforts to subjugate truth, has become part of the government’s gambits to counter the farmers’ agitation and of its genuine reflections in the media and other public forums. The concerted attack on media practitioners and institutions through various governmental and other mediums are also clearly part of this “Big Lie” project.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar’s speech in the Rajya Sabha on February 5, 2021, exemplified the government’s approach. In a stupefying performance riddled with falsifications, Tomar claimed that the protests over the farm laws were limited to only one State and that the farmers there were being instigated. His reference, evidently, was to the Congress-ruled Punjab, whose farmers have been at the forefront of the agitation right from its beginning. Tomar deliberately chose to overlook the fact that the farmers of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, two significant agriculture-oriented north Indian States ruled by the BJP, are also a dominant component of the agitation.

In fact, even as Tomar was holding forth in the Upper House of Parliament, thousands of farmers had gathered for a “Kisan Mahapanchayat” at Bhainswal village of Shamli district in western Uttar Pradesh, which turned out to be a passionate and massive public demonstration against the farm laws. The Bhainswal gathering was the fifth mahapanchayat in the Jat Hindu-dominated regions of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Thousands of farmers participated in the earlier gatherings held in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh and Jind in Haryana.

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Significantly, the non-Jat rural population too, including large sections of agricultural labourers and those involved in vocations not directly related to agriculture, formed part of these meetings. Highlighting this qualitative element, Professor Sudhirkumar Panwar, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader, who belongs to Bhainswal village, told Frontline that the opposition to the farm laws was no longer about agriculture alone but about rural economy as a whole. President of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of farmers, social activists and academics engaged in evolving policy initiatives for the rural sector, Panwar said: “In the final analysis, all segments of the rural economy in north India is dependent on agriculture, and this realisation is spreading fast across the entire region. In such a context, not even the rank and file of the Union Agriculture Minister’s party or its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar believe the assertion that the farmers’ struggle is confined to one State.”

Shifting epicentre

Other farmer union leaders indicated that a series of similar mahapanchayats had been planned through February in Amroha, Aligarh, Bulandshahr, Mathura, Agra, Hathras and Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, and Jaisalmer, Barmer and Nagaur in Rajasthan. Vijoo Krishnan, a leader of the All India Kisan Sabha, told Frontline that the response from States such as Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka was unprecedented.

Elaborating on the growing resistance in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, a couple of village pradhans who attended the Jind and Bhainswal mahapanchayats went to the extent of claiming that the “epicentre of the agitation is shifting from Punjab to Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh”. Evidently, Tomar’s assertion that the farmers’ agitation is confined to one State is aimed at obfuscating this groundswell of support and promoting the politics of polarisation and sectarianism. Tomar’s narrative dripped with untruths: “Farmer unions, opposition parties have failed to point out a single flaw in the three new farm laws”; “We have been asking what is black in this law and no one is forthcoming”; and “The best programmes for farmers have been launched in the last six years of the Narendra Modi government.”

Government’s action plan

Interactions with a cross section of Sangh Parivar activists belonging to the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh in different north Indian States revealed that the Modi government was pursuing the “Big Lie” narrative in the firm belief that it would ultimately succeed in keeping with the Goebbelsian prescription. Said a Luknow-based senior RSS leader: “The general public and even some of our own followers may think that the pronouncements of the leaders of the Modi government, including Tomar, are unrealistic and outlandish. But the Sangh Parivar leadership is convinced that this is the best manoeuvre in the given circumstances, especially in the context of some recent developments, including the violence on Republic Day in New Delhi. That has turned out to be the first breach in the farmers’ movement. Right from early October, the unions presented a resolute and united front, but that has been broken. The departure of a couple of unions from active agitation citing the January 26 violence around the Red Fort is indicative of this. Moreover, our efforts since mid-November to categorise the agitation as a struggle between nationalism and sedition has found more credence across different sections of society.”

Also read: Government running out of options in face of resolute farmers' agitation

Indications from these insiders are that even as early as the evening of January 26, sizeable sections of the government and the Sangh Parivar had come to the conclusion that the “nationalism versus sedition narrative” had stuck solidly against the agitation. The decision to go all out against those who supported the farmers’ agitation was taken apparently on the basis of this. That was how journalists such as Mandeep Punia and Dharmendra Singh were arrested and tortured by the police and sedition charges were slapped against senior media personalities Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath and Vinod K. Jose and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor. The decision to clear the Ghazipur agitation venue on the Delhi border on the night of January 28 was also made on the premise that the farmers’ unions were on the back foot on account of the sedition narrative around the Republic Day violence.

However, the manner in which the farmer leader Rakesh Tikait took on the Uttar Pradesh police who were deployed massively to vacate the Ghazipur venue caused a setback to this operation. Seeing a conspiracy behind the Republic Day violence, he accused the BJP’s political leadership, including Prime Minister Modi, of creating a volatile situation. His impassioned, tearful statement that the Ghazipur venue would be vacated only if the police trampled on him went viral in seconds. This in turn resulted in a huge public response, leading to a mammoth rally attended by thousands of farmers and youth on the next day.

The Modi government hit back by cutting off services such as water, electricity and the Internet at the agitation venues. New restrictive measures such as installing concrete barricades, embedding nails in the road and enhancing deployment of security forces around all the agitation venues followed. The social media responses of international celebrities such as the pop singer Rihanna and the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg commenting on the blocking of the Internet at the protest sites evoked widespread global support for the farmers’ agitation.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and the United States State Department too took notice of the situation and advised the Indian government to accept the right of farmers to protest. In a statement seeking to strike a balance between the government and the farmers, the U.S. State Department said: “We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue. In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment.” This statement was made in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal. The UNHRC and the U.S. State Department statements specifically recommended that Internet services around the agitation venue be restored. “Unhindered access to information, including the Internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” said the U.S. State Department.

Also read: Diversion vs determination: Government plan to overshadow farmers' protest with COVID-19 vaccine dry run fails

At the level of national politics, the farmers’ unions welcomed a delegation of opposition MPs to the Ghazipur venue but they were prevented from having close interactions with the agitating farmers. They were: A.M. Arif and S. Venkateshan (Communist Party of India (Marxist)); Supriya Sule (Nationalist Congress Party); Harsimrat Kaur Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal); N.K. Premachandran (Revolutionary Socialist Party); M. Selvaraj (Communist Party of India); Hasnain Masoodi (National Conference); Tiruchi Siva and K. Kanimozhi (Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam); Saugata Roy (Trinamool Congress); and Thol. Thirumavalavan (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi). The police stopped these MPs at the first concrete barricade.

Later, they wrote to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla saying that the site looked like the border “between India and Pakistan” and that the “condition of the farmers resembled that of prisoners in jail”. They conveyed to the Speaker their “strong protest” against the Delhi Police’s action in preventing them from meeting the farmers and urged him to “take such steps as you deem fit and proper to protect the rights of the elected Members of Parliament. They [police] didn’t allow us to cross even the first barrier. After that, we could see some 10-12 layers of barriers. We could not see anything other than police personnel there.”

Opposition MPs from ten parties wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah asking him to direct the authorities to restore electricity, water and other amenities at the protest sites. The signatories to this letter included Elamaram Kareem (CPI-M); Binoy Viswam (CPI); Digvijay Singh (Congress); Sanjay Singh (Aam Aadmi Party); Manoj Jha (Rashtriya Janata Dal); Ram Gopal Yadav (S.P.); Tiruchi Siva, N.R. Elango, T.K.S. Elangovan and P. Wilson (DMK); M.V. Shreyams Kumar (Loktantrik Janata Dal); P.V. Abdul Wahab (Indian Union Muslim League); and K. Raveendra Kumar (Telugu Desam Party).

Orchestrated violence

The letter pointed out how the violence during the January 26 tractor parade was perpetrated by some agents provocateurs and how the entire farmers’ movement had denounced it. The letter states: “But now in the guise of the violence on 26th, [the] government is trying to distort the protest and disperse farmers using force. In many protest places, police manhandled protesters and cut electricity and water supply. Every day, pro-government groups are reaching the borders and attacking farmers. These are very unfortunate and we request you to urgently intervene and do the needful for withdrawing police action against farmers, restore electricity, water and other amenities in protest spots and take strict action against those groups trying to perpetrate violence.”

Also read: Skirmishes with police at some places mar an otherwise peaceful kisan parade in Delhi

Signs of desperation

By any yardstick, these developments, especially the international responses to the Internet ban and other restrictions, were a setback for the Modi government, denting its image. Tomar’s statement that the agitation was confined to “one State agitation” in the Rajya Sabha was made after all these international responses. Even more importantly, the fortifications around the agitation venues are growing.

At the political level, say Sangh Parivar insiders, these aggressive manoeuvres and postures signal a high level of confidence and that there are reasons for this. Said the Lucknow-based RSS activist: “Foremost among them is the shift of the agitation’s leadership from the unions active in Punjab to the ones in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, especially the Tikait family. All major parties in the national and regional political establishment have, from time to time in the past few decades, faced farmer agitations led by the Tikait family, including Mahendra Singh Tikait, Rakesh Tikait’s father. And every time, the members of the family have shown that they are amenable to negotiations and persuasions. We believe history will repeat this time too and that we can pull through without changing the government’s original stand.”

Farmers’ resolve

Indeed, an objective assessment of the track record of the Tikait family and many other farmer leaders of Uttar Pradesh underscores the RSS leader’s observation. However, farmer union leaders hailing from almost all parts of the country assert in unison that the past actions of one or the other leader cannot be held against them. A senior farmer leader told Frontline: “The farmers of India and their union leaders know that they are facing an unprecedented situation as far as their livelihoods are concerned. We have devised new ways to deal with this situation. And in doing this we have new approaches and new resolutions. You will not find us buckling. In our view the aggressive assertions of the representatives of the Modi government, including Tomar, are all triggered by desperation and we shall face it calmly and unitedly.”

Also read: Protesting farmers stay firm

On their part, the farmer leaders, from Tikait to Darshan Pal and Sukdev Singh Korikalan, have reiterated their resolve to continue the agitation peacefully. In a telling gesture, Tikait and others have started planting flowerbeds around the concrete barricades and embedded nails that the security forces have put in place. In the mahapanchayats he addressed in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Tikait referred to these fortifications and said that “when a king is afraid, he does fortification”.

Making a reference to the nails embedded on roads, he made a more dramatic comment: “The people of the khap panchayat will take out these iron nails, and take them to the office of the khap panchayat. These will be shown for 400 years that this was done in Delhi. They [the authorities] want to stop [farmers] by embedding iron nails, but we will lie on these iron nails, and the masses will cross over to the other side.” Clearly, it is this fighting spirit that has kept the agitation alive through the past two months. The farmers on the ground at the Delhi siege and those supporting them from the villages assert that this will see their struggle through all the machinations of the propagators of the “Big Lie”.

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