A party that came to power on the basis of a famed rath yatra led by its supremo L.K. Advani can hardly blame a tractor parade of farmers for creating chaos in Delhi for a few hours. Yes, some lumpen elements from among the protesting farmers clashed with the police and entered the iconic Red Fort, from where every prime minister has hoisted the flag on Independence Day since 1947. It is now clear that the national flag was not pulled down, but another flag was hoisted a few meters away.
The mobs that followed the Rath Yatra to build the Ram mandir went and destroyed the Babri Masjid instead. So, who did the greater damage to the nation? The question is better answered if we examine the human costs of both these yatras.
The rath yatra is directly responsible for at least 2,000 deaths in the ensuing communal conflagration that swept the country after December 6, 1992, the day Babri Masjid was destroyed. In the three-day long pitched battles between the security forces and the ‘kar sevaks’ of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, about 20 people were reportedly killed. There were roughly about 150,000 people in Ayodhya on the day of the incident. Some of the top leaders of the BJP, such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were witnessing the “history-in-the-making” moment. Bharti is famously said to have urged the kar sevaks on with the chant, “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri masjid tod do” (one more push, tear down the mosque). Advani went on to become the deputy prime minister of the country, while the other two became ministers in the BJP government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee that came to power in 1998-1999.
And in the tractor parade of January 26, 2021, only one, yes one person, died. The 27-year-old farmer died after sharply turning his tractor, hitting a barricade and turning turtle. Though the farmers claimed initially that the man died after being shot, it is now evident that it was the accident which killed him. About 300 policemen are reportedly injured in stone-pelting and lathi attacks by the farmers. So, the collateral damage of this parade is absolutely minimal. The number of farmers that marched into Delhi ranged from 1.5-2 lakh, and there were around 5,000 tractors. Accurate figures are yet to come out.
Now let us consider the major differences between the tractor parade and the rath yatra. The tractor parade was to be the high-point of a 65-day long sit-in protest by several lakh farmers on Delhi’s borders with Haryana and UP. They have been protesting against the three farm laws passed by the government in September 2020, which they say will put an end to the minimum support price (MSP) regime and are meant to hand over agri-business to the corporate sector. They see this as a matter of survival. In the sit-in protest itself, about 70 farmers have died – either by suicide or due to the excessive cold and lack of timely medical aid. The government is clearly apathetic to their mode and location of protest.
The rath yatra led by Advani had no economic agenda; it was not a protest against inflation, or unemployment or loss of livelihood. The BJP leaders who planned the rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP were trying to consolidate the Hindu vote bank that was fragmented by the V.P. Singh government’s acceptance of the Mandal Commission Report, granting 27% reservation in all government jobs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC).
Since the upper castes that were denied this reservation could not be seen as the enemies of the OBCs, the BJP sought to unify the Hindus against the Muslims. The yatra was aimed at deliberately stoking communal tension and disharmony among Hindus and Muslims all along the route. And the end object of the yatra was the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a symbol of Mughal power, built by a Commander of Babur’s Army on what some Hindu groups believe is the site of Ram’s janmabhoomi. The entire project was a religious one with open incitement to hurt and attack the minority Muslim community.
A secular protest
Though some fringe elements in the farmers protest ended up hoisting a flag of Nishan Sahib, a symbol of Sikh religion on the ramparts of Red Fort, the movement itself has remained a “farmers’ protest” all along and not that of “Sikh community protest”. The secular nature of the protest could not be wiped out by this act of hoisting a religious flag, whether it was done by design or default.
The BJP, accustomed as it is to playing identity politics, would like to convert any protest as an act against the Hindu community and then label it ‘anti-national’. The RSS supremo Mohan Bhagawat recently explained this mindset by his claim that “Hindus can never be anti-national”, meaning that being anti-national is ingrained only in the psyche of the minorities.
The farmers’ protest is not merely against the three farm laws. It is against the ‘coercive’ nature of law-making by an authoritarian government. The explication of the term ‘coercive’ as a sociological reality is best understood in the words of one of our pre-eminent sociologists, professor Satish Saberwal:
“Coerciveness is the context in which people labour and of the mechanisms whereby the product of their labour is appropriated. We have to keep in mind not merely the work situation, agrarian or industrial, but the broader question of access to a mode of making a living, and of defence of one’s hold on that living and for these one uses certain relationships which may thereby separate one’s social universe into allies and adversaries and neutrals”. (Saberwal in ‘Elements of Communalism’)
What is at stake is the farmer’s universe and his autonomy and agency in maintaining and controlling that universe. And this simple fact is beyond the ken of our present government.
The farmers’ protest and the tractor parade raises a moral issue, unlike the rath yatra that raised a religious issue. While religious issues by their nature divide people, moral issues unify them. And this government, founded on the Hindutva cause and the identity politics of Hindus versus the rest, has no moral compass and is acutely lacking in ethical empathy. This became obvious during the migrant worker exodus in March 2020, when many had to walk thousands of kilometres during the coronavirus lockdown.
The farmers have no doubt, a tough fight ahead but at every step, they are exposing the hollowness of our democracy and the falsehood of the proclaimed manifesto of the rulers and the reality of the interests they serve.
Ravi Joshi was formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat.