Written by Javed Iqbal Wani
The ongoing farmers protest in India has shown the immense power that popular mobilisations hold. It has shown that popular resistance outside the virtual echo chambers is starkly different from what one might imagine. The disjunction between politics on the ground and the war rooms of TV studios has also been exposed.
Following the confrontation between the protestors and the Delhi Police on 26 January 2021, the central government and its well-wishers left no stone unturned to paint the protestors and their leaders as anti-national. The most ridiculous yet dangerous assertion of the government was its attempt to discredit the protests by associating it to the “Khalistan” movement. The planting of Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort, for example, was proposed as antithetical to patriotism. The fact remains that the protestors neither hoisted Nishan Sahib by lowering the Indian flag nor did they disrespect the tricolour in any other way. If one accesses the visuals of the tractor rally, the tricolour was installed on each one of them. The argument that hoisting of Nishan Sahib along the tricolour amounts to disrespect to tricolour needs some introspection. The assumption that the two are essentially mutually exclusive is incorrect. The slogan “unity in diversity”, one can argue, takes into account multiple social, religious, linguistic and ethnic identities. The government’s narrative, it appears, is that the tricolour stands for uniformity and not unity.
The theatrics of threat and intimidation exhibited by the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh police cannot be ignored. The manner in which Rakesh Tikait and his followers were to be uprooted from the Ghazipur border on the fateful night of 28 January 2021 is worth noting. Tikait’s tearful appeal reinvigorated the dormant sense of fraternity that the progressive sections of politics in India had yearned for a while. These protesting sites became the meeting place of giving and receiving; a site that dismantled walls and built bridges. Diverse groups of men and women on tractors, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and even foot began to pour in at the Ghazipur border protest site within a couple of hours of Tikait’s emotional appeal.
The tactless act of disconnecting water and electricity supply to the protestors along with the assault by right-wing goons under the guidance of UP police brought the political contradiction to the surface. The capricious and cruel action of the police forces laid bare the spectacular and subtle ways in which the government thrives by dividing the society into friends and foes — a fundamental component of the state’s governmental imagination. The institution of police in India, given its colonial origins and orientation, has a long history of reshaping democratic dissent and popular protests by force and depletion, and by exhausting physical and psychic energies that sustain them.
The manifestation of police atrocities was, in fact, a natural manifestation of what has always been subterraneous in a postcolonial democracy like India. There is a poetic and insurrectionary aspect of these protests. These protests have in some ways called the bluff of tyranny that India has seen over the last many years. These protests are an effort towards recovering the essence of democracy in India and have unsettled the habituated political docility in some sections of the society.
Social media fundamentally helped to scuttle the one-sided state-propaganda about the protests. The figure of the citizen-journalist kept the well-wishers of the protests up to date with the ground reality. There is an element of witnessing that such reporting has achieved. We would not have known about the multiple narratives of the protests and events in the absence of video recordings made available on social media. Access to this powerful medium made the expropriation of narrative difficult for the government. As a result, the state blocked the internet at the protest sites, banned the entry of journalists and well-wishers into the protest sites. The denial of internet access speaks volumes of the state’s fear of truth reaching the masses. War-like fortifications near the protest sites only highlighted the vulnerability of the government and its leaders.
The transnational dimension of the protest was already evident with the Indian diaspora in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States, declaring support for the ongoing protests. International celebrities like American pop star Rihanna, environment activist Greta Thunberg and many others have made the issue international now.
The rise of Tikait from a forgotten leader of western Uttar Pradesh to a national figure shows that the momentum of the protests is not going to die down anytime soon. Adding to the narrative of sewa, anna-daata and bhoomi, Tikait’s symbolic gesture of planting flowers near the barbed wires and barricades augurs well for the depleting fraternity in India over the past few years. During the Mahapanchayat at Khandela, the farmers put forward a five-point resolution and sought the government’s attention to these demands including the central demand for an assured MSP.
The institution of Khap Panchayat, otherwise notorious for regressive control of social life in rural India, has become an institution of mobilisation and defiance to the state. It has emerged as a people’s parliament where men and women in thousands have taken to public spaces to express their disagreement with the three farm bills, highlight their demands, and claim their rights. Such panchayats across Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have demystified the perception that the protests are limited to Punjab. Despite the government’s repeated efforts to inconvenience protestors, the protesting farmers have exhibited atmanirbharta (self-sufficient) by organising and sustaining the movement against all odds.
The central government must understand that the negotiations cannot take place in an atmosphere of distrust, intimidation, and violence towards the protestors; only with an open heart will the matter be resolved. In the spirit of responsibility and accountability to its people, the government needs to shed its stubborn and arrogant attitude and take a lead in rebuilding trust with the farmers in order to have a constructive dialogue.
The writer is as Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi.