By Parth M.N.
Farmers are furious, and the way the State and society react to their push for fair prices, representation and respect will determine the intensity of their next steps.
One of the most compelling scenes in Richard Attenborough’s biopic on Mahatma Gandhi is the protest march at the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Thousands of Indians, unarmed, walk peacefully towards the site. One by one, they are taken down with severe blows on the head by ruthless British officers. American journalist William Shirer, disturbed and helpless, narrates the developments over phone to the newspaper he works for. “Whatever the moral ascendency the West had was lost today,” he concludes.
Almost 80 years after that incident, farmers paid a huge tribute to Mahatma Gandhi by organising a non-violent protest march in Delhi on his 150th birth anniversary on October 2. But the Narendra Modi government, almost acting like the British rulers, welcomed them with tear gas and water cannons. How would have Shirer described this crackdown?
The farmers, brought together by the Bharatiya Kisan Union, wanted to march to the Rajghat with a set of demands — better crop prices, farm loan waivers and clearance of UP sugarcane growers’ dues. Most of the protesters were from UP. After they were allowed to proceed to Delhi post-midnight, the rally fizzled out the next day following a meeting with authorities.
There is a clear pattern in the manner that the police and governments treat farmers’ protests. It reeks of biases and privileges that prevail in our society. For example, do you think a morcha of bank employees would be subjected to the force of water cannons and tear gas on the first day? The white-collar workforce is treated with dignity; farmers and tribals, who do not enjoy social capital, are treated with only disdain and extreme measures. In June 2017, six farmers lost their life after cops opened fired during a demonstration in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district. The agitating farmers were only demanding better rates for onion.
In the past four years, farmers have been increasingly disregarding class biases of the State and society to make sure that their voices are heard. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, incidents of agrarian clashes shot up by 327 per cent from 2014 to 2015 — just a year into Modi’s leadership. Nearly 630 cases were recorded in 2014, and the number rose to 2,683 in 2015. The number of people arrested over the incidents also went up from 3,540 to 10,353, and farm protests have shown little sign of abating.
To be fair, previous governments were nearly as insensitive as the current administration in dealing with farmers. Over 3 lakh farmers have killed themselves in India in the past 20 years. Between the censuses of 1991and 2011, almost 15 million people have quit farming at a rate of 2,000 per day. Though Modi only inherited the crisis, he has done little to ease the pain. My sense is that supporting Modi was the last throw of the dice for farmers. He had campaigned vigorously in farm regions, but after the prime minister failed to keep his promises, they said enough is enough. Their anger and resentment reached the tipping point.
We, as a society, must not belittle their movement by saying why now and why not earlier. One gesture of defiance empowers another and sets the ball rolling. I look at it as a positive move, which attempts to break the impasse through active resistance. Suppressed demoralisation, on the other hand, is a stage that leads to the extreme step.
Farm protests are aimed at seeking policy changes as well as better visibility, agency and representation. For years, we have romanticised farmers and labourers by calling the community ‘Invisible India’, even though they constitute majority of our population. By thronging city streets and launching protests, they have forced us to look outside our bubbles. It’s an effort to take the farm crisis out of rural India and make it a part of the conversations in our dining rooms. It is a fight for self-esteem, for equal citizenship. As Australian comedian and writer Hannah Gadsby says in another context, “When the world you live in shares the burden of your pain, you feel safe.”
We must engage with the protests along those lines. A movement becomes powerful when it is inclusive, when people who don’t hope to gain from it offer support. We saw that when the Kisan Long March reached Mumbai earlier this year. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was in no mood to engage with farm leaders when the march began in Nashik. BJP MP Poonam Mahajan had even dismissed them as urban Maoists. But when farmers reached Mumbai, the city, to a large extent, opened its arms and welcomed them with food, water and footwear. The next day, Fadnavis sat across the table with farm leaders and heard their demands for four hours. Several factors led to the change of heart in the state government, but the response of Mumbaikars was a key driver.
Lakhs of farmers plan to converge in Delhi and gherao the Parliament in November. The way civil society and the State respond to the stir will determine the direction of the movement. Indifference or violent suppression will only lead to more intense protests. Farmers are angry; ignore the hands that feed us at our own peril.
This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror.