Farmers' Protest Should Teach the Govt That Cleverness Doesn't Pay: Arun Shourie

If it were not for the government's ego, the former BJP leader argues, the laws would have been stayed much sooner.

New Delhi: A day before the farmers’ planned large-scale tractor rally in Delhi, to mark the occasion of Republic Day, former Union minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Shourie spoke to The Wire about why it took the government so long to stay the controversial farm laws, why people have lost faith in the government’s words, and what the Modi government if it wants to avoid such situations in the future.

What do you make of the government’s offer that they will hold the farm laws in abeyance for two years? Do you think the RSS has had a role in pushing the government to climb down? Is it just a coincidence that just a day before, Bhayiyaji Joshi said that both sides should reach out, that it is not good for an agitation to last indefinitely, and the next day the government came up with this offer?

It is a very fine step, one that could have been and should have been taken much earlier. As for the role of the RSS, no I don’t think they have any say in the government’s decisions. The government would not have wanted to be seen as yielding to the farmers sitting in dharna, and so by arrangement a senior person from the RSS must have been deputed to urge a compromise.

It reminds me of a story we heard as children. You see, a Punjabi is not to beg. But a fellow had not eaten for three days. He was starving. How to get some money to buy a chapati or a little dal? He sees a suited-booted gentleman passing by. He asks, ‘Do you have a rupee?’ The man says, ‘Yes.’ The hungry man says, ‘Sut de, asaan lut laangey’ – ‘Throw it, I will loot it.’ So, by having Joshi urge compromise and then agreeing to hold the laws in abeyance, you can make-believe that you have not bent to the farmers but to your grandfather!

You say this step could have been, should have been taken much earlier. What in your opinion held it up?

Ego, nothing else. The bully’s apprehension that agreeing to a compromise would have dented someone’s image of being the invincible, strong man.

That is always a bad way to decide – to confuse obstinacy with strength. Apart from the harm it does the country and society, such an attitude recoils on the ruler himself. Advaniji always says, ‘Aakhir mein dono khaaney padengey – sau pyaaz bhi aur sau jootey bhi.’

But this is just one step. Things can again take a bad turn unless the government realises that, while farm laws have been the occasion, the protest is against the way the government does things. Demonetisation, a half-baked GST, the sudden decision to construct a new parliament, to reshape the Rajpath, bringing these laws by ordinance, and then ramming them through parliament without discussion, without referring them to the Standing Committee, without allowing a proper vote – what do these and a dozen other steps have in common? That things will just be announced as fait accompli, and you just have to swallow them.

The farmers’ protest is the signal: ‘We have had enough of your dictatorial ways. We are fed up of them. You reverse course, or we will force you to do so.’

Unless the government sees this, some other issue will erupt, and we will be back to something similar.

Also read: Centre’s Offer to Defer Farm Acts Is a Victory for Democracy. Don’t Throw it Away.

But at least this issue is more or less over.

By no means. It all depends on what the government does in the interim. For instance, if it resumes its efforts to split the movement, if its pets keep abusing the farmers, if it continues to lie and misrepresent issues, the agitation will return, with a vengeance. For the farmers will feel twice betrayed.

When you say things can erupt again, what kind of ‘lies and misrepresentation’ do you have in mind?

Consider the argument that the government kept advancing for not agreeing to repeal the Acts. ‘Oh, that involves a complicated process. It will take a lot of time.’ Do you think the leaders of the farmers are fools? Do you think they do not see through such falsehood, such misrepresentation? Does it not break the faith of people in the word of the government? Who does not know that a law can be repealed by a one-line Bill being passed repealing it? In fact, that it can be repealed by an ordinance? Over the last 15 years, close to 2,000 laws have been repealed. Indeed, repealing many of these had been touted by this very government as one of its major achievements.

But those were 19th-century laws.

Not so. Among the Acts that it repealed, the Repeal and Amending Act of 2015 repealed  laws that had been passed in 2003, in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. Among other Acts, the Repeal Act of 2019 repealed Acts passed in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.

Unfortunately, the government thinks nothing of peddling lies of this kind. And that is what destroys people’s faith in the word of the government. That is why the farmers were insistent, ‘Repeal, or nothing.’ They cannot take some assurance given by some ministers: who knows what the government may do tomorrow? In any case, who were these ministers? Is it that everyone knows and only the farmers don’t – that they have no authority to decide even the least thing? And what credibility do they have? My friend, Piyush Goyal, is this government’s expert on farming?

That is why I fear that unless the government mends its ways – lies, misrepresentation, tear gas, water canons, road blocks – something else will erupt.

You list many things that you say are the ways of the government which have created the present situation. In your view, what is the one thing that has worsened matters the most?

Abuse. Nothing enflames an upright man as much as being called anti-national, someone in the pay of Pakistan and China, someone out to break the country into tukde-tukde. Here are people whose sons, whose brothers, here are ladies whose husbands and sons are guarding the country’s borders in the snows of Ladakh, in Siachen; and here are some damned fools calling them traitors and terrorists. Show me a minister whose brother, son is guarding our frontiers against China in Ladakh, Siachen, even in the plains facing Pakistan. And yet these people hurl abuse at those whose sons and brothers are doing so.

Do these calumners even realise what they are saying? If the farmers surrounding Delhi are in the pay of Pakistan and China, that means that, say China is not just sitting on your territory in Ladakh and Arunachal, it is able to surround Delhi itself!

If Khalistanis are surrounding Delhi, and camping here with AK-47s, as a BJP MP has said, then what have the intelligence agencies at the command of the prime minister been doing?

This is why I remain worried. Because the abuse that has been hurled at the farmers is not a one-off. It is the standing operating procedure of this government. Everything – lynching, Shaheen Bagh, CAA, every single election, even the local bodies’ election in Hyderabad– is seen as, everything is reduced to, everything is enflamed as ‘Hindu vs non-Hindu’. And this SOP is not going to change.

And there is a reason for that: this is a one-trick horse; it doesn’t know anything else.

This time round also, the government views this as an agitation not by farmers, but by Sikh farmers. When the prime minister thinks that it is time for a photo opportunity, where does he go? To a temple or a church? No, to a gurudwara – incidentally, the same Bangla Sahib Gurdwara that Indira Gandhi visited before Blue Star. When he thinks he must be seen to be reaching out to farmers, whom does he meet? He flies all the way to Kutch, and there he meets five/six persons: when it is time to release a photograph, who does it show? Farmers? Only Sikh farmers. When the government concludes that calling a religious leader to appeal for a compromise would be good PR, whom does it call? Ramdev? Some Hindu priest? No, they excavate the head of some gurudwara.

So, once again they are seeing the situation through a ‘Hindu’ vs ‘non-Hindu’ lens.

Protesting farmers on the Singhu border on January 21. Photo: PTI

But the government says that it has evidence that secessionist elements are behind the agitation. Agencies have issued notices to specific individuals.

Evidence? Do you believe the so-called evidence that this government produces? Do you not see what it does to evidence that is on record? Who does not know what it did in regard to the accused in the Malegaon blasts case? Who has forgotten how the public prosecutor resigned as a result? Who has forgotten how they completely overturned the evidence on the blasts that led to so many deaths in the Samjhauta Express? What about the evidence on the blasts at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad? At the dargah in Ajmer? What about that mountain of evidence they put together to show that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering was a super-spreader? That it was a conspiracy to spread the virus?

Evidence, did you say?

But the Attorney General has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court.

Let us examine the evidence he has supplied when it is made public. And judge the evidence per se, do not believe it automatically just because the AG has submitted it.

Would you say that the government misjudged the effect that such abuse will have?

It did not misjudge the effect that just the calumny will have. It misjudged the entire situation. And there are reasons for that.

You see, these fellows are used to Nirav Modis, Choksis, and the like. They are used to persons who are ever-ready to make a deal, whose only aim is to make some money. The stock-in-trade of Modi-Shah is buying and selling. But the Punjabi, certainly the Sikh, is not like that at all. He is not open to deals. He will throw away everything for what he thinks is right, for his honour and self-respect, for his religion and community, for his word. Such a community is incomprehensible to Modi-Shah: for them words, for instance, are just jumlas; what is the problem of saying one thing today and doing the opposite tomorrow?

Moreover, the government is totally insensitive, it is remorseless. Every show of sympathy is just show, a pretence. Sixty passengers are killed in an air crash in Indonesia. Tweet. Fifteen labourers are crushed in a horrible tragedy by a truck in Gujarat. Tweet. Millions of migrant workers are put to savage hardship. Not a squeak. Seventy farmers die at your doorstep. Not a croak. Do you think, farmers would not notice this?

But this is not forgetfulness of the rulers. It is their nature. The poet Neeraj put it so well:

Sukhan ahle sukhan samjhey, zubaan ahle zubaan samjhey
Yeh ashkon kee ibaarat, kaun iskaa tarjumaan samjhey
Usey to apney guldastey kee raunak se maksad hai
Kahaan fursat hai gulcheen ko ki dard-e-gulistaan samjhey…

How could the government, with all its agencies and informers, not have anticipated the opposition from lakhs and lakhs of farmers?

Firstly, they are so busy – selecting shawls and jackets to wear, selecting the angle from which the next photo will come out best. Second, they just don’t understand the Punjabis, they certainly don’t understand the Sikhs. Third, they rely on a narrow circle of ‘advisors’ who tell them what they want to hear.

They would have been surprised not just by the depth of opposition to the laws. They would have been even more surprised by the fact that suddenly langars sprang up; suddenly wheat, rice, vegetables became available; suddenly someone set up toilets; suddenly singers came up with new songs…

Also read: How Parliament Overstepped Itself in Bringing the Three Farm Laws

What is it that the rulers do not know about the Punjabis and Sikhs in particular that led them to be surprised?

First, the sense of self respect. Second, the sense of community. Third, the great value that is placed in Sikhism on service – for one’s community, for one’s fellowman, for one’s comrade-in-arms.

The Sikh is always ready for a fight. And for him, every fight is a fight to the finish. He imbibes these values with his mother’s milk. Of course, from his history: the great sacrifices of Guru Tegh Bahadur, of Guru Gobind Singh. And for him this not ancient history. He relearns it, he recites it in his prayers every single day.

Nor is it just a question of things that happened hundreds of years ago. Things that happened just decades ago are a constant reminder and reinforcer of these values. Today we see the Akalis as just a political party. But in the 1920s and 1930s, they were one of the most significant reform movements in 20th-century India. Their sacrifices to purge the gurdwaras of corrupt mahants were legend. They were an inspiration to thousands and thousands during the freedom struggle.

But what do our rulers know about these events? I would be surprised if they even know what the chaabiyaan daa maslaa was. I would be surprised if they know, forget the details of the struggle to wrest the Nankana Sahib Gurdwara from that mahant; I would be surprised if they even know how many Sikhs were killed in the struggle to take back that sacred place.

These rulers know their calculating Nirav Modis. They don’t know the simple farmer. They know the crooked looter of banks. They can’t fathom the straightforward Sikh.

If the misjudgment has been so fundamental, why has the situation not got worse? Why has it not exploded?

Because of the innate patriotism of the Haryanvi, of the Punjabi, of the Sikh. And because of the sterling maturity the leaders of this agitation have shown thus far.

The government has taken a major step forward. What more would you want it to do?

The things the government has to learn are more basic than what to do about these three Acts.

First, remember: cleverness never pays. It boomerangs. If you now try to use the two years to split the farmers, to further smear the agitation, you will be reigniting the fire.

Second, get back to truth. The reason the farmers were so insistent on ‘Repeal, or nothing’ is that no one trusts your word.

Third, change your ways. Tear gas, water canons, calumny are no way to deal with peaceful citizens.

Fourth, consult, persuade before you introduce a reform. Springing it on the country in the dead of night, decreeing it by ordinance, and then ordering your workers, ‘Hold 100 press conferences, hold 700 rallies,’ is to give reforms a bad name.

Finally, stop suborning institutions – as you have done the Supreme Court in this round again. When they are seen to be doing your work, they lose even the little legitimacy they have left. They can no longer come in your way, true. But, simultaneously, they cannot help you any longer.