HAPPY tidings can be worrisome as the poet said. “Wo gharib dil ko sabaq miley ke khushi ke naam se dar gaya!/ Kabhi tum ne ha’ns ke jo baat ki to hamaara chehra utar gaya!” (“Used to a drought of pleasant news the heart gets scared of happiness/ If you smile at me perchance, I feel a creeping wariness”). That the farmers have scored a resounding victory against pro-corporate farm laws is unbelievably great news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s retreat, however, is not a straightforward narrative, and it needs to be better understood.
It was not easy for the farmers, and it must be a record of sorts for them to run an as yet unending campaign for 13 months without losing the hunger to defeat adversity. It is a tribute to the sagacious leadership of the farmers, predominantly Sikh, who pitched their tents on the borders of Delhi over a year ago. They endured Delhi’s bitter cold, blistering heat and weltering rain to thwart the laws they saw as an assault on their livelihood.
Sadly, close to 700 lost their lives in the struggle, but the valiant protesters remained scrupulously peaceful and unwaveringly focused on their objective despite provocations from the state and its media. The police were let loose on them. They were beaten and tortured. They were abused and called terrorists. But the farmers — hundreds of thousands of them, often with their families — stuck to their guns to extract the promise of repeal from the prime minister.
Mr Modi could have cancelled the impugned laws by a presidential ordinance, of course. However, a parliamentary debate just before the UP elections could help keep the focus from another calamity, the tragic mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The farmers — hundreds of thousands of them, often with their families — stuck to their guns to extract the promise of repeal from the prime minister.
It would be useful to understand what Mr Modi did say, and what he didn’t, in announcing the proposed repeal. From what one could read, without the need to go between the lines, the TV address was framed as an apology to the nation for yielding to those who could not see the profound wisdom of his laws designed to make them prosperous. His colleagues interpreted the mealy-mouthed apology less abstrusely.
Sakshi Maharaj, the saffron-robed BJP MP from Unnao in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh was sanguine that the laws can be brought back again. “Bills are made and repealed. They can come back, and can be made again. It hardly takes any time.” Similar reactions came from other BJP stalwarts. The RSS, speaking through its farmers’ forum, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, disapproved of the retreat to “appease the so-called farmers”.
How would the climbdown be projected in the coming state elections, chiefly in UP? Remember that it was on the eve of the UP election five years ago that Mr Modi announced the shocking demonetisation of currency notes. The move devastated the economy but left the opposition bereft of funds. Sakshi Maharaj hinted at the likely role of nationalism (or communalism) to explain the retreat to UP voters. “I would thank Modiji that he displayed a big heart, and he chose the nation over the laws. And those whose intentions were wrong, those who had raised slogans of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and ‘Khalistan zindabad’, they have got a befitting reply.”
What did Mr Modi say apart from playing the wronged man? The government offered to change the provisions of the laws, but the farmers didn’t accept it. He also proposed suspending all three laws for two years. Was Mr Modi making virtue of a necessity, the fact that the supreme court had stayed implementation of the laws, leaving his corporate friends stranded anyway? Did Mr Modi offer an apology to the farmers, as some interpreters of his speech have suggested, or was he pitting them against the larger entity, the countrymen?
“While apologising to the countrymen, today I want to say sincerely that perhaps there must have been some deficiency in our penance that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers.” Mr Modi is too seasoned a politician to miss an emotive occasion. He reminded his audience that he was speaking on Guru Nanak’s birthday, one of the most important days for Sikhs.
“This is not the time to blame anyone. Today, I want to tell you, the entire country, that we have decided to repeal all three agricultural laws. We will complete the constitutional process to repeal these three agricultural laws in the parliament session that begins later this month … I urge all my agitating farmer companions that today is the holy day of Guru Purab and therefore you should return to your homes, fields and to your families. Let’s make a fresh start. Let’s move forward with a fresh beginning.”
The farmers have decided to stay put, persisting with a key demand not discussed by Mr Modi, to give a legal cover to the minimum support price the government offers for agricultural produce. Farmers are pitching for a price that includes capital investment plus 50 per cent returns. A pro-big business government would think twice before yielding to the demand.
There is more than economic bargaining at stake, however. The largely Sikh-led movement has rattled India’s deep state for its political implications. Any right-wing state would be worried by the unity of its masses. It was Sikh volunteers that escorted distressed Kashmiri women to their homes after the assault on Jammu and Kashmir had shut down communication. Sikh gurdwaras bonded with ordinary citizens by pooling their enormous resources, offering relief to victims of Covid-19 mismanagement. And Sikhs together with other minorities played a significant role in the largely Muslim women-led campaign opposing the communal citizenship laws. The Indian state has the resources to deal coercively with isolated communities, but the unity of ordinary Indians the farmers have helped marshal does point to happier tidings, but bearing in mind the poet’s caveat.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2021