As the farmers’ agitation continues along with the government’s effort to convert it into an opportunity for repression, we might be witnessing something bigger than meets the eye. There are conflicting messages emanating from the developments and even as one may be awed by the grit of the agitating farmers, signs of cunning of the state are on display. More than two months after the agitation began, it is increasingly clear that the government is bent on both maligning the agitation and, more generally, delegitimising the idea of protest and popular agency.
It is quite unprecedented to see the government literally barricading itself and its seat of power — Delhi. This single action of Delhi Police sends a dual message. One is a message of distrust and disregard, the other is the message that power and the people are clearly separated. Assigning the idea of “we the people” strictly to constitutional folklore, the government is sending out a chilling message to all citizens that their status as citizens is entirely devoid of citizenship rights. Whatever the fallout of the agitation, it has exposed the sudden inability of India to walk the democratic path with its head held high.
The barricading of Delhi is symbolic, though the symbolism has yet to sink in. We are inundated with planted stories of Khalistani design and blinded by exaggerated concerns over our sovereignty. The swift shift in the narrative achieved by the government on January 26 was only a prelude to what the government is now doing. There would not be many agitations in the past when the government was alleged to have dug roads or strewn the roads with nails, besides erecting walls. If one takes stock of the tactics the government has used so far, they would constitute a brutal guidebook for any regime to cynically suppress not just the agitating sections but the very idea of citizens.
The speed with which cases naming leaders of the agitation have been filed for the events of January 26, the trick of filing FIRs against journalists, use of the pandemic to disallow demonstrations in Delhi, making a routine suspension of internet wherever trouble erupts and, somewhat comically, getting the entertainment industry to talk of India’s sovereignty, all constitute this regime’s determination to ensure that the crisis would continue but, at the same time, the idea of popular participation in protests loses its validity.
Since simply delegitimising protests might not be enough, rulers are coming up with innovative measures to discourage public participation in them. Thus, some state governments have moved ahead with the idea that protests are against law and order and therefore participation would be a disqualification for government jobs and contracts. Clearly, physical walls are only for temporary protection, the broader aim being barricading the idea of democracy. In this sense, what Delhi is witnessing is neither confined to Delhi nor to the actual walls that the police are erecting. Besides walls of brick and mortar, they are walls that represent closed minds and resolute determination to crush those who dare to differ and assert that difference.
At a theoretical level, the government seeks to equate protests with violation of law and order while difference of opinion is equated with conspiracy to misguide the public in order to destabilise the government and derail the march toward a new millennium. This government has enough capability to ensure that this theoretical position is echoed by scholars, experts and industry elites. We shall soon be witnessing more sophisticated justifications (than either the police or celebrities signing on dotted lines can provide) of “state responsibility to avoid anarchy”. But a government that isolates itself from the protesting public is a sight that will remain as a signature tune of the sub-democratic hymn which this government has turned into its political anthem.
In any normal and functioning democracy, the developments of the past weeks or months would have resulted into a serious crisis for the regime — both in terms of handling the public upsurge and legitimising its actions. Curiously, not so in India. Even after sustained and resolute agitation for more than two months and adoption of doubtful practices by the government, not many are prepared to read the authoritarian script that is unfolding in front of us.
The agitation, on its part, has failed to bring forward the larger question of agriculture. This has meant that it is still branded as an agitation by farmers in a particular “belt”, and that too because of their location in the economy and society. This failure in becoming a national issue of agriculture in general has made the current protests valiant but sectional. Secondly, because of its federative character, the agitation has so far not thrown up any leadership that could be a symbol around which masses may gather. Third, the stubbornness of the leadership about withdrawal of farm laws has already landed it into a blind alley. Having brought huge numbers on Delhi borders, the agitation has literally nowhere to go. Fourthly, the government is blessed in having a hesitant and lazy Opposition that refuses to even selfishly see an opportunity in this moment and behaves as a very loyal Opposition. In fact, one is not sure if all the non-NDA parties realise that this is beyond the issue of farm laws and the real issue is about the authoritarian proclivities of the government. Most economists also miss this dimension. No wonder, this key point has not become the central focus even after January 26 and public opinion continues to be swayed by the government’s spin. Authoritarian regimes get away when issues are fragmented and the larger picture is ignored.
But let us not make a mistake about what we are currently witnessing. Just as one does not very often witness the barricading of the capital city for fear of citizens, it is also not very common for Indians to witness the systematic and sustained barricading of democracy. The Indira Gandhi regime attempted that somewhat amateurishly. More than four decades later, India is now witnessing a much more serious moment when democracy seamlessly slips into authoritarianism.
The government’s response to the farmers’ agitation today is not very different from its response earlier to other protests. What distinguishes the present moment from earlier moments of protests is the inability to vilify the protests in the name of nation or religion and the multipronged sophistication that articulates the government’s determination to take the authoritarian path.
The present dispensation always had the trappings of removing the democratic garb, but in the past two years this shift has occurred with much more speed, suddenness and determination. Barricading cities and blocking internet symbolically represent a barricaded and truncated democracy that the regime expects to shape.
The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.