The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s first response to any dissent is predictable. Union ministers go on the offensive, calling the dissenters anti-nationals, Maoists, jihadis etc. Sadly, by now, what is equally predictable is how the media amplifies this propaganda.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) decided to mark December 10, International Human Rights Day, by remembering several prominent activists arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), especially those arrested in the name of Bhima Koregaon, and the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The release of these activists has been a long-standing demand of the Ugrahan group, though it is not part of the minimum common programme of the farmers’ unions, which is focused on the repeal of the Narendra Modi government’s three farm laws.
The BJP has predictably, used this occasion to issue dire warnings about the infiltration of the farmers’ movements by “leftists”, “anti-nationals”, “Maoists”, the “tukde tukde gang” and so on. As of now, they have not had the guts to call the thousands of Army veterans returning their medals in solidarity with the farmers, the “award-wapsi gang”, but that may be only because the media has not highlighted this out of consideration for the pro-army image the government is trying to cultivate.
Through the primetime space afforded to Union ministers like Nitin Gadkari, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, the media has promoted the idea that the arrested activists whose release the BKU (Ugrahan) has demanded have no connection with farmers or their issues. Worse, the media has sought to accentuate divisions between the unions. Whatever the outcome of the protests, the BJP has achieved its objective of isolating different sections. Protestors at the Singhu border were unwilling to let Jamia students join their protest, reflecting the former’s relegation to the margins.
In an interview on NDTV on Monday, Gadkari objected to the BKU (Ugrahan) showing the photo of “someone from Gadchiroli” who has “nothing to do with farmers” and been “arrested and denied bail.” Leaving aside the disingenuity of using the denial of bail as a further insinuation, since that is the primary intention behind arresting activists under UAPA, let us look at what this “someone from Gadchiroli” has been doing.
Mahesh Raut, one of the youngest of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, is a graduate of TISS and was a PM Rural Development Fellow in Gadchiroli. He was also helping the farmers of Surjagadh fight against corporate mining which is taking over their sacred spaces. How often is it that 300 gram sabhas pass a resolution in favour of someone who has no connection to villages or farmers? In December 2017, I attended a meeting that Mahesh – as part of the Bharat Jan Andolan founded by former bureaucrat B.D. Sharma – had organised to mark a decade of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and 20 years of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), both landmark victories for Adivasi farmers and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD).
The whole point of the FRA was to remind the government that Adivasis cultivating inside reserve forests were not ‘encroachers’ but peasants whose lands had been unfairly garnered into forest boundaries under successive colonial and post-colonial Acts. The meeting was entirely lawful – in fact, it was full of law. Farmers from across Maharashtra and other states shared their experiences with the laws and how to implement them better. By denying that Adivasis are also farmers, the BJP government is perpetuating the racist stereotype of Adivasis as fit only to be hunter-gatherers on the one hand, or agricultural and urban labour on the other.
Stan Swamy, the oldest person arrested at 83, has spent a lifetime helping farmers. His first experience with farmers’ issues was as far back as the 1970s when, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he and his fellow Jesuits at the Indian Social Institute Training Centre in Bangalore, took up the task of helping small tenants realise the ‘land to the tiller’ programme announced by the government. Predictably, both Church and State disapproved of this attempt to side with the poorest, even though both claimed that as their official policy.
Drawn to Jharkhand because of his desire to serve the poorest, Stan spent two years in a Ho village, learning the language and agricultural rhythms of the people. In a state like Jharkhand, apart from the other problems facing farmers like lack of irrigation, land alienation to outsiders and land acquisition by the state is a major problem. Inevitably, being true to his faith meant Stan got involved in land struggles and became a founder member of the anti-displacement platform, the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan. Most recently, he was involved in meticulously compiling figures of land appropriated from village commons for the government’s land bank to be given over to industrialists; as well as documenting and litigating against the arrests of innocent Adivasi youth falsely accused of being Maoists.
One could take each of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and show their connection with land and farmers’ issues – Sudha Bhardwaj is known for fighting legal battles to defend the lands and lives of the poorest of Chhattisgarh’s people, Gautam Navlakha is an old visitor to Punjab and defender of the human rights of its people. As for the young students of Delhi incarcerated for their protest against the CAA for its dubious constitutionality, or arrested Kashmiris, they too are part of the larger struggle of citizens asserting what citizenship and belonging actually mean in terms of the right to life and livelihood – as people of different regions and religions, as farmers, workers, students, women. As a leaflet distributed at the December 10 event argued, one of the biggest achievements of this current regime is that it has drawn youth away from vulgar shows, drugs and so on, towards thinking of the nation.
The BJP wants to bring in one nation, one market, but at the same time splinter the people’s movements into a dozen different silos. In its typically inconsistent mode, the government claims that this is a fight confined to the farmers of Punjab, and that farmers in the rest of the country are happy with the farm laws; on the other hand, when farmers make solidarity across regions and specific issues, they are accused of promoting divisiveness and have to evade the police to enter Delhi. Even as corporates like Ambani, Adani and Tata expand their operations across spheres – from mining to agribusiness to airports – people are being told that the fight against displacement by these corporates in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand is somehow different from the fight in Punjab and Haryana.
As a number of academic studies, as well as global peasant alliances like Via Campesina, have pointed out, contemporary land grabs take the form not of outright sale of land to agribusiness but long term leasing or contract farming where farmers are turned into mere nodes in a global supply chain. Various “crises narratives” in agriculture are used to peddle the idea that large agribusinesses with their contract farming will be more efficient than millions of small to medium farmers.
This could have been a golden moment for the media to discuss climate change and its impact on agriculture, the need to switch to more sustainable models of farming, the problems of global food chain supplies which COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief and so on. Instead, we are faced with the spectacle of urban BJP spokespersons who know nothing about farming casting doubts on the farmers’ movements and questioning the credentials of activists with real connections to farmers and the problems of the Indian peasantry.
Nandini Sundar is a sociologist.