Farmers' struggle

Cloud of suspicion over the Narendra Modi government's decision to repeal contentious farm laws

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the media on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament in New Delhi on November 29. Photo: T. NARAYAN/Bloomberg

Despite the victory of the farmers’ prolonged struggle against the controversial farm laws, they are wary of the Modi government’s real intentions and machinations.

“‘Amar Jawan, Jay Kisan.’ It was with these slogans that our brothers and sisters marched back to the village from the protest site at Tikri border last night,” said Nirmal Singh, a young farmer from Badhni Kalan in Punjab’s Moga district even as the Samyukt Kisan Morcha’s (SKM) victory marches were flagged off from different parts of the camps that farmers had set up on the borders of Delhi. These slogans, he said, rent the village air again later that night as a group of 50 farmers left to join the victory march at the borders of the national capital.

Speaking to Frontline over the phone on December 11, Nirmal Singh said: “As a farmers’ village that has an Army personnel in almost every household, respecting the martyrs of the defence forces is nothing short of devotional reverence for us. Even as we celebrate our historic victory against the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]-led government’s egregious farm laws, we pay our respects to the 12 Army personnel, including Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, and his wife Madhulika Rawat, who were killed in an Indian Air Force helicopter crash near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu on the same day [December 8] the government formalised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s November 19 announcement regarding withdrawal of the laws.”

Throughout the 378 days of the farmers’ agitation, Badhni Kalan, like thousands of villages in Punjab and Haryana, had seen a constant back-and-forth movement of farmers between the village and the camps at Delhi’s borders. Looking back at the past year, Nirmal and his associates Jagjit Singh, Gurjeet Brar, Iqbal Singh and Navjot Sandhu termed it as an excruciating period but also as one in which common people’s determination and fighting spirit brought the big powers to their knees.

‘Camaraderie as in freedom struggle’

Colonel (retired) Baljeet Singh Dhariwal, also a native of Badhni Kalan, summed up the struggle as one that was resolutely against the hubris of the government and its political masters such as Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. He recalled a conversation he had with Frontline last year in which he stated that the bonding and camaraderie fostered by the farmers’ agitation in villages was similar to the spirit prevalent during the freedom struggle. He said: “This spirit was virulently anti-establishment and decisively seeking justice for farmers. But as communities that have historically contributed to the ranks of our security forces, we have never seen farmers and their struggles as being directed against the human resources in the instruments of the state, as we know deep in our veins that these resources are drawn from our brothers and sisters. And that is exactly why our jubilations are laced with grief at the tragic death of the senior Army personnel.”

Also read: Punjab, Haryana farmers seek to build on new sense of solidarity

Another group of ex-service personnel who are farmers and who did not want to be named stated that the Modi government’s misplaced policy and operational priorities had resulted in a combination of foibles and oppressive manoeuvres that harmed all communities in general, but farmers and defence and security personnel had been subjected to unprecedented tests and tribulations. Said one of them: “Throughout its nearly eight-year-rule, the Modi government has consistently targeted farming communities in all sectors, aggressively advancing corporate interests, particularly those of crony capitalists. At the same time, security and defence personnel have been indiscriminately used against the people, bringing a bad name to the core values of the forces.”

Misuse of security forces

This group of ex-service personnel and farmers specifically drew attention to the recent killing of 14 civilians and a soldier in three incidents in Nagaland. Said a former colonel in the group: “As in scores of other instances since Modi’s second term began in 2019, including the state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir over the past two years, the conduct of the security personnel, especially the paramilitary forces, has been marked by a trigger-happy mentality. This has certainly developed from the active prodding of the political masters, the signs of which were visible in the Nagaland incidents too.”

Similar observations were made in Parliament during heated exchanges on the Nagaland killings. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, stated that the two survivors of the ambush had made it clear that they were shot without any provocation. He categorically accused Home Minister Amit Shah of making a misleading statement in Parliament by saying that the vehicle carrying the civilians was “signalled to stop” and was fired upon after it “tried to flee”. Chowdhury pointed out that the survivors had said that it was “direct marise”, meaning they were short directly. The Congress leader went on to say that “it was clear they were ambushed”. Arjun Ram Meghwal, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, evaded Chowdhury’s charge by arguing that the issue raised by the Congress leader pertained to the State government and not the Lok Sabha.

Also read: Between the law and the lawless

Several opposition leaders, including Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party, pointed out that the sequence of events from the massacre in the Mon region of Nagaland to the manner in which it was presented in Parliament had once again exposed the Modi government’s authoritarian streak. Said Akhilesh Yadav: “The BJP governments at the Centre and in the States have so many heinous manoeuvres to cover up. That is why they are not allowing the opposition to visit the places and the people affected by the atrocities of their governments and their supporters, whether it is Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh [where farmers were killed after SUVs rammed the protest marchers] or Nagaland.”

‘Archaic, horrendous Act’

Yechury said the killing of Nagaland villagers in an Army ambush gone horrifically wrong had once again brought into focus the horrors of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. “This archaic, horrendous Act should be removed forthwith from the statute book. It should not be operational not just in north-eastern India, but in the entire country, including Jammu and Kashmir.”

Chief Ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya, both BJP allies, echoed Yechury’s opinion. Said Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio: “The AFSPA gives powers to the Army to arrest civilians without any warrant, raid houses and also kill people. But there is no action against the security forces. They have created a law and order situation.”

Also read: ‘AFSPA should be revoked’

Commenting on the evasive tactics employed in Parliament by the Parliamentary Affairs Minister on the Nagaland killings, the group of ex-service personnel and farmers stated that the happenings in Parliament in general made it clear that the leaders of the current regime had become “cover-up kings”. “Every single action of the government is shrouded in mystery and there is a sense that the government is up to some skullduggery. That is exactly why the 32 farm unions that are part of the SKM wanted every assurance of Modi and his team to be given in writing. Ultimately, the government was forced to accept in writing almost all demands, including the unconditional withdrawal of all police cases lodged against protesters during the agitation.”

Protesters at the grassroots level, including Nirmal Singh and Colonel Baljeet Singh Dhariwal, from villages such as Badhni Kalan say that while they are happy with the success of the year-long agitation, they remain wary of the Modi government’s larger intentions and the machinations and oppressive manouvres that such intentions may entail. Indeed, the climate of suspicion and apprehension created by the Narendra Modi regime persists despite the hurried withdrawal of the farm laws and the grief and sympathy generated by the accidental death of the Army personnel.

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