This Republic Day, I was looking forward to watching two parades: the official one showcasing supposed military might and self-proclaimed government ‘achievements’, and the unofficial one, a people’s parade by farmers who have been protesting at the Delhi borders for two and a half long cold months because our government would not let them into the capital. Finally, I thought, I would see the real-life application of a slogan I grew up on – Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan.
Instead, I saw unruly scenes when a section of farmers, misled by infiltrators according to the farmers’ unions, broke away from the agreed route and drove through Delhi to the Red Fort, where they destroyed barricades, fought off the police and hoisted the sacred Nishan Sahib flag under the tricolour.
Bad as these scenes were, worse followed. Ruling party members claimed, jubilantly, that their accusations that protesting farmers were ‘anti-national’, Khalistani terrorists, Maoist vandals, had been proved true. Our media, almost to a channel, clamoured that the farmers’ movement had lost all moral authority; they asked beleaguered famers’ leaders, over and over, why they had not been able to prevent the breakaway section and expel infiltrators. As Mahatma Gandhi could have told them, that is easier said than done in a mass movement.
But then, the only people who seem to heed Gandhi are the farmers’ leaders, who called off their parade and the proposed follow-up march to parliament, much as Gandhi had done at Chauri Chaura. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall a single anchor – or ruling party member, policeman or administrator – praising this unarguably praiseworthy step.
Nor did I hear many people make the obvious but absolutely key point: in a democracy, the right to express dissent in the capital is and should be fundamental. Every democratic capital has a designated place for protests, generally within reasonable distance from ministerial offices and/or parliament, so that elected representatives can respond to protesters’ demands. Some of these designated areas have become iconic due to their history as protest sites, such as Hyde Park and Capitol Hill.
Up until a couple of decades ago, Delhi too had its iconic protest sites – the Boat Club at India Gate and Jantar Mantar, both only a kilometre or so from the seat of government and parliament. Students, farmers, labourers, women and minorities routinely protested there, with police permission and police escorts – and just as routinely, their protests were visited by MPs from both the ruling party and the opposition. Few complained that marches were inconvenient for traffic; most felt that a little inconvenience was a small price to pay for the right to dissent. Protests were also sometimes a meeting point for citizens and the police; I remember discussing the evils of dowry with the policemen escorting us for almost the entire duration of our march to Jantar Mantar, back in 1980.
The change was gradual. First Boat Club was declared as no longer a protest site; the barricades erected for Republic Day remained in situ month after month until the entire stretch of India Gate resembled a long low scaffold. Then, more recently, Jantar Mantar was declared to be in too congested an area to allow for protest. The new site, we were told, was the Ram Lila ground adjoining the Red Fort, where massive rallies were traditionally held. The shift put a large physical distance between citizens and their elected representatives; it both reflected and furthered a process of government disengaging from the people.
Disturbing as this shift was for what it revealed about the flaws in our democracy, it pales in comparison to what we have seen over the past the past two years. All peaceful protest has been disallowed in Delhi, altogether. All protesters are routinely abused. Many of them, from young to old, elected to common man, have been arrested and charged with sedition, unlawful activities, even terrorism. The last protest seen in Delhi, over a year ago, was against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and it too was first abused, then overtaken by violence that was clearly incited, including by ruling party members and/or supporters, and finally forced to end by the police and the pandemic – without the government having engaged even once with the protesters during their six-plus months of sit-ins.
As we debate the rights and wrongs of the farm laws on television screens – and even whether pop star Rihanna, whom I greatly admire, should tweet about the protests! – our police are building walls of barbed wire, concrete blocks and iron spikes embedded in the entry roads to Delhi. The metaphoric Fortress Delhi crept up on us over years, but the physical Fortress Delhi has been achieved in days.
And for what? To keep India’s farmers off the streets of India’s capital. Sixty percent of our people live off agriculture, and the new farm laws affect all of them as well as, by extension, the rest of us consumers. Yet our government has decided to treat farmers as enemies. Not only are there now walls to prevent them entering the city, internet has been snapped where they are camped. Even their access to toilets and clean drinking water has been obstructed. How are we to interpret these measures as anything other than a means of forcing farmers into submission?
If our government can do this to a community that has long been hailed as the backbone of the country – indeed it is farming communities that provide a sizeable section of our army – then what hope is there for others of us who see a flaw and seek to rectify it? If we cannot protest at the seat of government and the legislature, then where and how do citizens access the right to be heard, and more importantly still, to be consulted?
Ruling party members might answer: go to your elected representative. Well, that is actually what people are doing when they protest in the capital, especially when parliament is in session – they are going to their elected representatives. In effect, the government has barred them from even asking their representatives to present their views in parliament.
Our government can still restore some faith by removing the barricades, the concrete blocks and the iron spikes, allowing the farmers to rally in the capital and cooperating with their leaders to ensure a peaceful protest. It can send the farm laws to a select committee of parliament that balances supporters of the farm laws with supporters of the farmers. It is unlikely to do so just yet, but as the farmers’ movement grows – which it is doing, after the January 26 setback – it may have no choice but to find a workable solution.
Whether that will include the right to protest is moot. Fortress Delhi will be here to stay unless the bulk of us – from the judiciary to industry to the media to civil society – stand up against it.
Once I used to live in a democracy. The farmers have allowed me to hope that I will again.
Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.