It is perhaps in the nature of the media that the breakdown of normality attracts more attention that regular events.
Natural disasters, social breakdowns, political coups, mass violence and pandemic deaths are ‘newsier’ events than slow-moving social changes or scientific advances – even if they are of enormous long-term significance. This is how the different faces of the farmers’ protest march in Delhi on January 26 were captured on TV screens the world over.
Even the generally reliable BBC – which had barely taken notice of the two-months long protest – showed only some certain visuals hinting at violence, even though the commentary by its India based correspondent, despite being very brief, was balanced.
A sense of fairness demands that we recognise that, despite stray incidents of violence, and especially given that it was a huge gathering of over lakhs of people, the farmers’ protest was an overwhelmingly and impressively peaceful march. All mass movements have different groups in them – some aggressive and others less so – and the strength and maturity of a great mass movement is demonstrated by its ability to recognise and respect the contribution of each group.
If we look at modern Indian history, be it the national movement for India’s independence, or the Akali movement for the liberation of gurdwaras from corrupt mahants in the 1920s, or the communist or socialist movement for socio-economic justice from the 1950s onwards, or the anti-Emergency movement of the 1970s for democratic restoration, or the Dalit movement for social egalitarianism – each of these movements had certain extreme and less extreme tendencies or elements which contributed to their overall success. The different groups in these movements, even if they seemed at times to compete, complemented each other and provided strength to the overall movement.
The current movement against the farming laws has so far been a model of pluralism and diversity. The farming organisations participating in the struggle have different histories, sources of inspiration and ideological orientations but they have shown a remarkable capacity for mutual respect while reaching consensus on their course of action. That shining arc of pluralism needs to be expanded and not shrunk because of differences which surfaced during the march on January 26.
It appears there was an outpouring of justifiable anger towards some dissident factions which are believed to have disobeyed the directions of the leadership and strayed from the agreed route. This eventually led to a degree of violent confrontation. However, even these scenes of violence need to be viewed in perspective.
Apart from the attempts to remove the barricades the police had erected despite their earlier agreement not to do so, no other act of violence directed against police personnel or other state functionaries has been reported. No public or private property was damaged.
The sensationalised reporting of this isolated act of defiance by most media outlets reveals either an inherent problem in media coverage or an attempt to construct a narrative surrounding the farmers’ movement. Instead of falling into the trap of such media narratives, the farmers’ leadership should try to reach out to the dissident factions to broaden participation in the protest. The impressive protest marches by farmers which took place on January 26 far from Delhi’s limelight in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand should be recognised as strengthening the reach of the mass peasant movement against the farming laws.
The central government also needs to take a balanced view of the expanding farmers’ movement and not hasten to discredit the entire movement for the actions of a few dissident factions who failed to follow the leadership’s directives in one instance. The command of the farmers’ movement remains in the hands of its sensible and experienced leadership, whose directives have so far been followed by all – including the younger, more impatient and rebellious factions. It would be a folly for the government to succumb to the temptation of weaponising the actions of the dissidents to weaken the influence of the leadership.
A mature response from the government would be to candidly admit that the agriculture laws were passed in a haste, and that, partly due to that hurry, the shortcomings were not articulated in the Lok Sabha and brushed under the carpet in the Rajya Sabha. Those flaws have now emerged all too obviously in several aspects: the definition of MSP, the contract farming framework loaded in favour of agribusiness entities, the dispute resolution mechanism doing away with civil courts, the scale of crippling penalties that can be imposed on a farmer in a case of non-compliance with the dispute resolution decision, the conflict between state laws operating in the APMC mandis and the central laws operating in the marketing yards outside the APMC mandis.
Also playing a part is the scope for speculative hoarding emerging from the operation of Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and its possible consequences for the Public Distribution System that now provides subsidised food for those low-income groups who constitute nearly 67% of Indian households. The fact that the government is now offering to suspend these laws for two years or even longer demonstrates that there was no reason to use an ordinance to push them through on June 6 in the first place.
Former chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Ramdas has made the reasonable suggestion that the government should offer to withdraw these laws and that farmers should reciprocate by agreeing to participate, along with the state governments, in a consultative panel for agrarian reforms. A central goal of those reforms should be to make the livelihoods of marginal and small farmers (who constitute 86.21% of India’s farming households) economically and ecologically sustainable. Globally, the policy paradigm is shifting towards the protection of small farming and not its destruction, as was the case in both the western capitalist and the Stalinist collectivisation models.
Pritam Singh is professor emeritus Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford UK and the author of Federalism, Nationalism and Development.