PM Modi must desist from making the repeal of farm laws a prestige issue

The only time I met the Pakistani father of the Khalistan movement he said something that I have remembered often in recent days. General Hamid Gul was in retirement in Rawalpindi when we met. It was just after Benazir Bhutto was killed and we had a long chat in his small, cozy living room. When the interview was over, he asked if I were a Sikh. I said I was, and he said with a note of regret in his voice, “The Sikhs should never have gone to India. They should have stayed here.” My response was to say nothing, but Pakistan’s first jihadist General’s words have remained imprinted in my memory. As have those years of terrible violence when going to Punjab was so dangerous that most Delhi journalists never went till after Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was dead.

Often in the past few weeks as I have watched senior ministers call Sikh farmers ‘Khalistanis’, and famous TV anchors paint the farmers protest as nothing more than an attempt by the Sikhs to revive Khalistan, the words of General Gul have come back to me. They came back to me most terrifyingly last week when I saw the Khalsa flag raised on that sacred flagpole on the ramparts of the Red Fort, where only the Indian flag has ever been raised since August 15, 1947. There was much vandalism that day, but this was more than vandalism, it was a profanity.

It was also a reminder that Pakistan would like nothing more than to see a revival of the Khalistan movement. This was so essential a part of Pakistan’s endless, cowardly, undeclared war against India that one of the founders of the R&AW revealed in an interview that when Benazir became prime minister and asked Hamid Gul, then head of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), to stop what he was doing in Punjab, he refused. He reportedly said, ‘Madam, keeping Punjab destabilized is equivalent to the Pakistan army having an extra division at no cost to the taxpayers.’

After what happened on Republic Day it should be clear to even the stupidest of advisors in the Prime Minister’s echo chamber that the farmers protest has become something bigger and more dangerous. On the farm laws, all that is left to say is that there is a total breakdown of trust. Farmers believe the new laws will destroy existing farm markets and throw them into the hands of private traders. They believe this is happening because the government is too broke to pay that Minimum Support Price (MSP) that guarantees them their meagre profit.

This may or may not be true but what is true is that there are very few rich farmers in India. On government friendly ‘private’ TV channels I have been astonished to hear commentators vent their rage against ‘rich, greedy farmers’. If there were rich farmers there would be no need for a minimum support price. This is something that the ‘agricultural experts’ who devised the new farm laws appear not to have noticed. There is no question that reforms are needed in agriculture and a good first step might even be opening access to private markets but if farmers believe that this will leave them at the mercy of rich and ruthless traders, they will never see the new laws as an attempt at reform. It is true that they have been obdurate and unrelenting about their demand that the three laws be repealed but should the government not be trying to find out why?

It is possible that by the time you read this there would have been an attempt to crush the protests with police action. Signs of this became evident last week. What also became evident if you watched TV news is that a crackdown has the fullest support of the media. Anchors have made their loyalty to the government more than clear by raving on about how wrong it is to allow ‘anarchists’ to challenge the might of the Indian state.

My fervent hope is that if there is a crackdown it will not include the casual brutality that we usually see in such situations. My fervent hope is that somehow a way is found to persuade the farmers that they have won their battle and can now go home in victory. I am not given to fervently hoping for anything in this column but this time I do sincerely, for the reason that the thought of Punjab sliding back into another period of violence and chaos is too awful to think about. It could happen because this is exactly what the jihadist military men next door are trying to achieve. They have worked hard and long to stir up secession through shady Sikh organisations in north America who could not win an election in Punjab if they tried. What they can do, though, is destabilise India at a time when there is already enough trouble in another (former) state on our northern borders.

There is no question that it is Pakistan that has encouraged violence in Kashmir and Punjab. But, there is also no question that the door has been opened for this to happen by bad policies made in Delhi. The Prime Minister must desist from making the repeal of his farm laws a prestige issue because since last week there are signs that the problem India faces is much bigger and infinitely more dangerous than angry farmers.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2021 under the title ‘Settle with the farmers, please’.

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