After the events of January 26, crucial distinctions are at risk of being lost sight of as the law is sought to be weaponised — by criminalising the protesting farmer and targeting the journalist. Certainly, the law was broken by a section of participants in the tractor march who deviated from designated routes to wreak violence at various sites in the national capital and forcibly entering Red Fort. They must be brought to book. There is a detailed FIR which calls for meticulous investigation. But equally unambiguous is the fact that the miscreants are not the movement. And that an agitation which maintained the calm for months, and caused hurt to no one else — several farmers lost their lives in the course of the sit-in at Delhi’s borders — cannot and should not be discredited by the actions of a few for some hours on one day. By indiscriminately naming in the FIRs farm leaders who have been negotiating with the Centre over 12 rounds of talks — of the over 40 leaders, more than 30 have been named — the Delhi Police, under the Home Ministry, is tarring the agitation opportunistically and unfairly. It is also tying the government’s hands.
For, the farmers’ agitation has articulated real anxieties that have gathered around the Centre’s three farm laws. These laws bring in long-overdue reform, they will help pare down inefficiencies and hold the promise of making farming more remunerative. But these past few months have shown that there is much work to be done to persuade the farmers themselves of their benefits. Now, the Supreme Court’s decision to pause the laws (even as it raises questions about the court overstepping the line), before the Centre’s own offer to put the laws on hold for 18 months, provides space for negotiations to continue. But who will join the panel the Centre has proposed if among those targeted and defamed for the January 26 violence are all those who sat at the other side of the table? And if they are taken out of the equation, what happens to the real grievances in a state where the spectre of hardliners looms over a political vacuum?
Another critical distinction is being fudged by the police cases filed in Uttar Pradesh against journalists for “misreporting” and “spreading disharmony”. Their alleged crime, relating to inaccurate accounts of the death of a protester, was an error that calls for soul-searching within. When large sections of the media are seen as untrustworthy, unquestioning and partisan, and when their legitimacy is sought to be undermined by populism and majoritarianism on one side and the no-rules world of social media on the other, the onus is on the media. To protect their space and their professional standards with the only tools at their disposal: Fair and accurate news-gathering. That said, for the police — especially UP police, with a record scarred by encounters and which has yet to live down that shameful night when it cremated a rape victim without her family’s consent — to slap charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against journalists is bizarre. This is a troubling moment. Much depends on the Centre finding the way out and forward — one that acknowledges the restraints on its own power, one that protects freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and one that includes listening to the farmers. Filing FIRs, throwing the IPC book at critics, can never be policy in a democracy.