Over the past weeks, the nation has witnessed a farmers’ agitation unprecedented in its intensity and scale, against what are widely perceived as unjust farm laws enacted by the Central government. The sight of farmers peacefully voicing their conscientious opposition to these laws being subjected to tear gas shells and water cannons on a cold November night must shame the nation.
The use of the state’s brute power against citizens exercising their fundamental right of peaceful protest represents the ugly face of a dysfunctional democracy. It is a painful reminder of the “Pagri sambhaal jatta” and the Champaran satyagraha moments led by Sardar Ajit Singh, the uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi respectively, against the unjust agrarian laws imposed on a subject nation by the British colonialists. In reminding us that might without justice is tyrannical, these movements a century ago also provided the foundational basis of free India’s republican charter.
Undemocratic farm laws
The indecent haste with which the divisive farm bills have been legislated into law raises several disquieting questions about the future of our parliamentary democracy. The voice of the opposition was suppressed and dissent against the Bills bludgeoned to ram through with their passage in both Houses of Parliament, without a meaningful debate. This has robbed the farm bills of their democratic and moral legitimacy. Clearly, any law in a functioning democracy that does not enjoy the un-coerced allegiance of the community and is imposed by a government indifferent to wounded societal sensitivities can have no claim to acceptance and obedience by the people. Mahatma’s leadership of the freedom movement was anchored in this unquestionable premise.
That opposition to the Bills is widespread and spans the political spectrum is evident from the decisions of 15 political parties to support the farmers’ cause and speaks for itself. The alienation of the dominant community in the country including in the border state of Punjab, which has for long borne the brunt of terrorism and insurgency sponsored by Pakistan, could destabilise peace in the state and could adversely impact national security.
At the heart of the farmers’ opposition to the laws variously critiqued is the perceived dilution of the guaranteed minimum support price (MSP), linked with the survival, subsistence, economic security, and the dignity of the farming community. This is especially so in states like Punjab and Haryana where the Mandi system and MSP regime, now seen as threatened, have served their purpose.
The farmers’ organisations view the Bills as a preliminary step towards corporatisation of agriculture and the eventual withdrawal of the MSP regime as the logical next step. The rising input costs, it is felt, militate against the logic of better returns to the farmers in a non-regulated open market. Farmers are also apprehensive about the price discovery mechanism being left to the free play of markets. Restricted avenues for settlement of disputes and experiences with the dismantling of wholesale markets leading to the eventual depressing of farm incomes are other reasons for disquiet.
A government at war with farmers
Instead of a free and candid conversation with the farmers, a self-righteous government is persisting in fallacy and resisting the repeal of laws. The logic of the farmers’ demand for the repeal of the laws, premised on the basis that their enactment as Central laws is an impermissible encroachment on the states’ exclusive legislative domain delineated in List II of the constitution, is clearly persuasive. The demand for repeal also flows from a legitimate apprehension that incorporation of the changes sought by the farmers within the existing legislative framework would lead to inconsistency and unavoidable ambiguities in the laws.
Indeed, “law is the perfection of reason” and as the French philosopher Montesquieu reminded us, “it matters not whether individuals reason well or ill; it is sufficient that they do reason. Truth arises from the collision, and from hence springs liberty, which is a security from the effect of reasoning…” Clearly, therefore, laws untested in a free exchange of ideas on the touchstone of reason and resting only on the coercive apparatuses of the state cannot pass national scrutiny.
A government at war with the farmers of the nation has forfeited its moral right to govern. In this “disfigured and disfiguring” moment, the government will do well to remember that ‘violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right of it in question’ to borrow the words of Thomas Paine.
The agitation reaffirms the view that peoples’ power and its assertion through mass mobilisation can alone secure the promise of egalitarian democracy and that elected governments cannot show a brazen disdain of popular sensitivities.
The imminent success of the agitation shows that freedom and justice survive in the consciousness of the people and that a democratic nation’s political narrative is located in the assertion of people’s power against injustice. It tells us that every Indian matters, and matters equally; that human conscience cannot be suppressed forever.
Politics of national renewal
The lasting lesson of the farmers’ movement is that a humiliated people fighting for their dignity carry a far greater emotional weight than the temptations offered by those hung on power. It tells us that the un-coerced allegiance of proud people can be ensured only through just laws. The nationwide support for farmers confirms that the first step at healing is in the sharing of pain. As to the government’s claim that the contested laws are in the interest of farmers, we know that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others” (Pascal). Surely, the Prime Minister knows that ‘Sushasan’ with ‘Sabka Vikas’ and an alienated farming community are a contradiction in terms.
Hopefully, the debilitating politics of farm bills will result in a heightened national consciousness for a politics of national renewal. This would require looking beyond the binaries, recognising shades of grey as a necessary condition for forging the broadest national consensus on vital policies including those related to transformative changes in the agricultural economy.
As trustees of a common heritage for the benefit of succeeding generations, we can ill afford divisive politics that limits our capacity as a nation. Neither can we condone a fading sense of empathy and compassion that define our humanity. A nation yearning to discharge its rightful role in the shaping of human destiny must locate its future in an elevating politics committed to inclusion, justice and dignity for all.
Ashwani Kumar is former Union minister for law and justice.