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Modi govt attempt to 'discredit' farmers' agitation a Khalistani plot cuts no ice

By Anand K Sahay*

The farmers’ movement rocking the national capital, with its ripple effects spreading, appears unique on account of its patterns of participation and mobilization, which lend it spectacular social energy articulated in wholly peaceful fashion. Whether it has the potential for wider political impact will depend on its staying power.
The efforts of the Modi government to discredit it as a Khalistani plot -- since Sikh farmers are its most visible element -- or the devious result of Congress party machinations have cut no ice, but the government continues to play a perception game through the media.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reputation is for not going back. Therefore, mind games are being played to tire out the protest. But if these tactics do not succeed quickly, an unlikely prospect since Prime Minister Narendra Modi is stuck in a rigid pro-big industry position which farmers read as being anti-farmer, the government could be headed for a very chilly winter.
Large-scale protest movements and mobilizations, by their very nature, have about them a degree of latent militancy. This does not necessarily mean violence, although it can degenerate into that, causing irreversible injury to the cause itself, as was the case with the Assam, Punjab and Kashmir agitations in the 1983-93 decade.
The protests that rocked the country in the course of the JP agitation in the 1970s, culminating in the proclamation of Emergency, did not involve people’s violence but the active willingness to give battle to the state appeared ever present and the air was seldom free of tension although the movement had the participation of Gandhians.
The Anna Hazare movement, which contributed to the undoing of the Manmohan Singh government, appeared to have been brought together for that very purpose by its BJP-RSS core. It wore the clothing of an anti-corruption campaign since Dr. Singh was perceived as a man of unshakeable integrity. It attracted idealists, had extensive urban middle class and media backing, and proved a greatly successful affair, even giving birth to a political party which bends to sectarian Hindu sentiments when in trouble rather than to any known principle.
In sharp contrast, while the entirely peaceful anti-CAA movement of a year ago, mostly involving Muslim women -- traditionally viewed as homebound -- in urban settings across the country, did gain international attention, it failed to receive wide national endorsement, although it campaigned with rare courage on a very important national issue- the communal changes made by the Modi government in citizenship laws.
The present government, with its religion-based orientation, and near monopolistic influence on media and social media, demonized this movement and harassed and punished many of those involved, with the judicial system remaining quiescent and lackadaisical.
Based on a broad appreciation of these historical events, in which the present writer was a keen professional observer, it is not difficult to see that the truly massive mobilization of farmers at Delhi’s Singhu border with Haryana at the northern end of the nation’s capital, from where the road leads to Punjab, has characteristics that separate it from anything that has gone by in recent decades.
Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is its participation and mobilization quotient. The movement eschews political links and is about farmers’ demands alone. It challenges laws that were first brought through the ordinance route and then passed with unseemly haste in Parliament without adequate discussion, and rushed through the Upper House bypassing established voting procedures.
But it is not just the farmers of Punjab who are at the Singhu border. Every section of Punjab society and many sections of Haryana society are out there laying siege to the national capital.
While every state in the country is primarily an agricultural state in terms of population, in Punjab and Haryana non-farmers appear to be closely linked to the farm sector. There appears something emotional and organic about this, unlike in other states. It is this link that gives the agitation its all-of-community character instead of a single occupation colour.  
This is one movement that can’t be reviled as anti-national or anti-Hindu. Its protagonists can’t be asked to go to Pakistan or Rome
Farm holdings are small and this part of the country was among India’s poorest in 1947 for want of irrigation. But irrigation and power availability through Bhakra-Nangal, and vastly improved yield through green revolution technologies, have made Punjab and Haryana relatively prosperous. On this edifice has rested education, sports, physical and health infrastructure, industry and the arts. This is why writers, poets, artists, sports persons are returning their national awards in solidarity with their farmers, who are also likely to be relatives.
But it is useful to note that good yields turn to a reasonable income only on account of the assured minimum price or minimum support price (MSP), which is a subsidy in economic terms which distorts the market. Is it necessary for the government to fight that subsidy if it has made whole regions economically viable and socially stable?
A day’s visit to the Sanghu border is a fascinating experience. There are miles of tractor trolleys. During the day protesters mill about and listen to speeches or run the countless “langars” or community kitchens, where free food is respectfully served to all -- including the hordes of Delhi poor who show up- according to the precepts of “sewa” or service in Sikhism.
At night they sleep in their tractors or under them. There are no shops of any kind. Camaraderie flows. There is much talk about “Modi conspiring with big industry to finish the farmer”.
It is said that the rider in Chenghiz Khan’s amazingly mobile 13th century army slept on horse-back, covering distance even when asleep. The diesel-run steel tractor is the Punjabi farmer’s steed racing to take on the Modi regime. Social solidarity is his weapon. Women and the elderly are also zealous participants.
Delhi’s Muslims too run free food stalls. Protesters say they are stocked for a few months and can replenish. Backing them are Punjab and Haryana traders, teachers, journalists, social workers, industrial workers -- well, nearly everyone except the BJP and RSS outfits.
The farmers are on the Haryana side in Sonepat district. On the Delhi side, facing them, are thousands of Delhi Police, CRPF and Rapid Action Force, all under Amit Shah. There is unspoken political tension. The tens of thousands of protesters radiate energy. The BJP government in Haryana is a likely first casualty if its MLAs come under public pressure. This is one movement that can’t be reviled as “anti-national”, or “anti-Hindu”. Its protagonists can’t be asked to go to Pakistan or Rome.
Also, new labels need to be found. Is it a farmers’ “sit-in” when the protest stretches over many invisible miles, or is it the whole society marching on the command headquarters?
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*A version of this article first appeared in the “Asian Age”

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