How anarchical of a section of India’s striking farmers to break political codes ordained by the government. How dare they push for the will of the gana or a collective of people on Gantantra Diwas (Republic Day), a day on which ‘we the people’ gave to ourselves this constitution.
It would have been so much more proper for farmers to keep to neatly defined, peripheral routes for their tractor parade. After all, these routes on the outskirts of Delhi symbolised their place in the governmental imaginary. At the heart of this imaginary remains the political executive, shored up by military might, an indulgent judiciary, a pliant bureaucracy, fawning corporatised media, and ever-ascendant big business. Representatives of these pliant groups were no doubt invited to the official parade, replete with displays of military might and tableaus of the peaceful and prosperous federal units of India.
The chosen few may even make it to the ‘At Home’ receptions that follow the pageantry of Republic Day. Interestingly, the ‘At Home’ tea party, a concept borrowed from Victorian England, is specifically for the cosy inner group one chooses to have across for refreshments and a natter. Farmers with their langars, tents and makeshift toilets set up outside Delhi, and with over 70 deaths from the cold, are very far from New Delhi’s inner circle.
Farmers’ representatives have no doubt been invited into the precincts of the state. They have held meetings with government ministers at Vigyan Bhavan. Some of their petitions have been heard by the highest courts of the land. Yet by now, these meetings appear somewhat ritualistic. The government will not “bend” to the core demand of the farmers; the court has asked a committee of pro-reform flagbearers to look into the matter.
What is politics all about?
In this moment of impasse, and of state-attempted order, today’s protests represent disorder. But disorder, in this case, must be seen as the questioning of things as they stand; it is a weapon of those on the outside of the current circle of power. Those who hold the reins of government tend to gloss over this, but the political is by definition adversarial. It is a tussle over resources, whether these are in the form of material goods, power or voice.
The theorist of democracy Chantal Mouffe tells us that those who practice adversarial or ‘agonistic’ politics may be at odds with prevalent legal, social and political orders. They still confront these orders to expose fundamental schisms in society. The sparking of conflict and confrontation is not necessarily seeking equality or common ground between opposing parties. That condition may be almost impossible to achieve in fundamentally unequal contexts like India. Yet, the probability that the adversaries of the established order are getting at is exposing, and possibly chipping away at standard ways of doing (of law, business, economics, politics and statecraft). In the process, they are attempting to prise open the route towards aspired ways of doing or being in a society.
Disorderly farmers are not the first citizens of this country to have disturbed a ruling order. They have drawn on the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose, who varyingly practiced a politics that fundamentally questioned and undermined the status quo.
Nor is adversarial disordering always a weapon of the weak. Powerful sections of society have regularly reached into the disruptive toolkit in recent history. When it was seeking a foothold to power, the BJP agitated against pro-reservation Mandal politics in the 1980s and 1990s.
In Gujarat, where the current top leadership of the party was trained, a sitting Congress government was brought down in 1985 by anti-reservation agitations that spilt onto the streets for months. Judicial enquiries clearly record upper castes opposed to reservations burning public property, such as state transport corporation buses and even the offices and printing press of a major Gujarati language newspaper. The police, who were seen as a symbol of the state, bore the brunt of the agitators.
Police constable Laxman Desai lost his life to an attack by the agitators in the Khadia-Astodia neighbourhood. In the case of Gujarat, a violent agitation that felled a pro-reservation government turned the fortunes of the opposition, which began its seemingly unstoppable ascent to state power in a highly adversarial, disorderly moment.
India once again stands at a disorderly moment, highlighted by the long-running farmers’ agitation. Unlike mid-1980s Gujarat, the country’s powers-that-be are unlikely to cede to adversarial groups. They may even crush those who have dared question an unequal and unfair order, as has been done with many protestors against CItizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
If they do, the cycles of adversariality we are in, with different disenfranchised groups hurling themselves into the public eye and public space, will continue.
Nikita Sud teaches at the University of Oxford. Her book The making of Land and the Making of India (Oxford University Press, 2021) explores the role of land in the ordering and dis-ordering of the state, market and politics.