How Modi’s attempt to crush the farmers’ protest seems to have backfired

BJP finds itself struggling to deal with a large, resilient protest movement that it has been unable to placate, vilify or crush.
Published February 3, 2021

Imagine, for a second, what the Indian government’s focus would be on right now if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had just accepted the opposition demand to send the three controversial farm bills to a parliamentary panel for further consultation and scrutiny in September.

Perhaps the attention may have been on the Covid-19 numbers steadily falling since a peak in September 2020, even as the pandemic continues to rage in Western Europe and the United States. Or it may have been on India’s vaccination drive, with the country becoming – according to the government – the fastest to hit one million, 2m and 3m people receiving inoculations despite a surprising level of hesitancy among health workers.

Or more attention might have been paid to India’s vaccine diplomacy effort, giving away doses to neighbouring nations and allowing firms to sell them to other countries in Africa, South America and beyond. This even as the European Union squabbles with drugmaker AstraZeneca over a contract and vaccine export controls.

Then there’s the most important budget since 1991, with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman having delivered it in parliament on February 1. In addition, elections are around the corner in five states, including West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20 and certainly the government has been able to put resources and effort into each of those issues. But, because of its decision to push through the farm bills without even counting the votes in parliament, the BJP has found itself struggling to deal with a large, resilient protest movement that it has been unable to placate, vilify or crush.

After a small section of the lakhs of protesters who participated in a tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day broke into the Red Fort prompted entirely misguided comparisons to the storm of the US Capitol, it has been clear, as I wrote this week, that the calculations made by the government have come undone every step of the way.

This was on display in the aftermath of January 26, when the chaos at the Red Fort as well as misinformation spread by the mainstream media gave the protesters the feeling for the first time that the government had gained the upper hand on the narrative. See Vijayta Lalwani’s report for more on that.

Indeed, the BJP’s online army went on an overdrive in an attempt to portray the entire farmers’ movement as being filled with violent extremists, sparking anti-Sikh sentiment in a city that has a history of dreadful violence against the community. Authorities also filed multiple First Information Reports against the farm union leaders, even though they had broadly appealed for peace and disowned the protesters who entered the Red Fort.

Yet, a subsequent effort by Uttar Pradesh Police to strike quickly backfired. Authorities had moved security forces and made efforts to clear out the protest site at Ghazipur.

Even as police amassed outside and the water and electricity were cut off, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait) leader Rakesh Tikait made an impassioned speech that appeared to re-energise the movement. In particular, it mobilised members of the Jat community in BJP-controlled western Uttar Pradesh to support what had until then been a Punjab-led protest.

From another report by Vijayta Lalwani:

“’Haryana and UP have a roti-beti ka rishta,’ he said. Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have a very strong bond. ‘But Punjab is like our elder brother. And this time, our elder brother has been disrespected. We will not tolerate it,’ said Kumar, referring to the portrayal of Sikh farmers as ‘Khalistanis’ and ‘terrorists’ by mainstream media over the last few months, and particularly after the events of January 26.

Another farmer concurred. ‘Sardar birhadhri pe bahut bada akraman tha.’ The Sikh community has been attacked, said Amit, a 45-year-old farmer from Bulandshahr. He reached Ghazipur at 6am.

‘But we have understood that this will not work,’ he said. ‘You cannot divide and rule in the name of Sikhs, sardars, Jats … till when will they (government) do this tandav?’”

And so the government finds itself in conflict with its own people. Taken aback by Tikait’s successful mobilisation of the Jat community, it suspended the internet at all the protest sites on the borders of Delhi, and even went so far as to halt SMS services in 17 out of Haryana’s 22 districts.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to try and crush any narrative that challenges its own, filing police cases – with charges including sedition and inciting riots – against a number of journalists for simply tweeting about developments. It also put young freelancer Mandeep Punia in jail for allegedly manhandling police personnel.

Other journalists have said that Punia was attempting to report on the assembly of a large crowd of men describing themselves as locals near the Singhu protest site, who – despite security keeping many others out – managed to simply walk in and commit violence against the protesters. This allowed the pro-government media to once again depict the movement as being extremist.

On the eve of the Indian Parliament’s budget session, with a number of opposition parties boycotting the customary president’s address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to signal some willingness to compromise. At the all-party meeting prior to the parliament session, Modi said that the government’s offer to put the farm laws on hold for 18 months still stood. This had been rejected by the farmers calling for a full repeal.

Yet, a day later on his regular radio show, Modi repeated the talking points relying on misinformation used by his party in the aftermath of the January 26 events, saying “the country was saddened to see the national flag insulted.”

The wider BJP ecosystem has continued to spread the message that the farmer movement is violent and full of vested interests, even as the mobilisation includes nearly the entire political class of Punjab, a significant section in Haryana and is now growing in support in western Uttar Pradesh.

While the BJP may have been prepared to ignore Punjab politically, and has somehow managed to not lose power in Haryana, the mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh where elections are due in 2022 will undoubtedly be a source of worry for it.

Yet, by pushing the line that the protesters are corrupt and violent, the BJP has made it harder to arrive at a compromise without its own supporters feeling like the government gave in to what the party’s propaganda has been depicting as an extremist, unruly mob. Indeed, doing so may empower other interest groups to repeat the same protest tactics.

Who in this Narendra Modi and Amit Shah-led government can find a way for the government to defuse this situation without leaving vast swathes of farmers in north India feeling defeated by the state? Who in the party can create the political space for the BJP’s own followers to accept a compromise deal and not see anything less than the crushing of dissent as a capitulation?

This article was originally published in Scroll.In and has been reproduced with permission.

Header image: Women watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi address the nation amid the spread of the coronavirus on TV screens inside a showroom in Ahmedabad, India, June 30, 2020. — Reuters/File