Farm protests: The costs of a prolonged standoff
We did what we could, now the ball is in your court.” With these words, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar brought to an end the 11th round of talks between the farmers’ leaders and the government on Friday. Unlike in the previous 10 rounds, there is no date set for the next round of dialogue — both sides now have to pull back from the precipice, if things have to move forward.
The government showed flexibility by postponing the implementation of the controversial laws for a year-and-a-half, and offered to reach an agreement through negotiations during this period. But the farmers are firm in their resolve, demanding a repeal of the laws, and have announced plans to intensify their movement. They are also determined to take out a tractor rally on January 26.
On Saturday evening, while tensions mounted, there was positive news. During a marathon conversation between the farmers and the Delhi Police, it was agreed that the proposed tractor rally would be allowed to enter Delhi on Republic Day. The police had opposed this earlier. Though the details of the route have not been disclosed yet, farmers have apparently agreed not to make any stops or deviate from the agreed upon path. The onus for the whole event passing off peacefully is now squarely on the Delhi Police and the farm leaders. The movement has been peaceful so far, and so great care must be taken that agent provocateurs do not try to disrupt the rally when it enters Delhi.
But, it must be asked — why is it that, despite the government displaying its willingness to take a step back, the matter was not resolved? An old anecdote may offer a clue. Some time in the 1990s, a friend of mine, a senior Indian Administrative Services officer, was suddenly offered the post of collector in an important district by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government. This district was known for farm agitations and demonstrations. My friend later spoke about dealing with the farmers effectively. When asked how he did that, he replied that if farm discontent is not controlled in time, different kinds of problems could potentially arise. This could take the form of a sit-in at the agitation site, and with an increase in crowd size, the escalation of their demands. I recalled his words — and the need to address issues in time or face escalation — when witnessing the collapse of talks in the 11th round now.
The matter should have been dealt with when the agitation was confined to Punjab. Now it has taken hold in Haryana. Many felt the farmers found support in Punjab as it is ruled by the Congress. But what explains the support they have got in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Haryana? Instead of talking to the farmers, the state government used water cannons and tear-gas shells, even the roads were dug up to stop the farmers moving towards Delhi. But, nothing has worked.
This has to be seen through the prism of the Jat-Sikh psyche. This is a community whose ancestors fought against the Mughals, and this is why their traditional proverbs and songs are about a glorious narrative of fighting the takht (seat) of Delhi. While the agitating farmers have no intention of occupying any seat in Delhi, they are not likely to back off easily. Initially, many hasty conclusions were arrived at when assessing the agitation. One theory was that it was just a ragtag movement by some disparate farmers. But this was clearly flawed.
Sikh gurdwaras have a tradition of providing assistance to agitators. The concept of seva (service) is a recurring theme among the farmers. This is the service, which was initiated by the Sikh gurus to strengthen the morale and fibre of society. Today, community kitchens, pharmacies, toilets and laundry services are being run as a part of the tradition of gurdwaras at the agitation site. All this seems commendable, but it does give rise to several questions, some of which relate to national security.
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana have received support from the border areas of western UP and Rajasthan. While many of these areas are Jat-dominated, it would be a mistake to assume that this is just a Jat farmers’ movement. It is also true that the movement has not yet expanded geographically beyond a certain area.
No one doubts the patriotic credentials of the agitating farmers. But in the 1980s, a terrible catastrophe opened the doors to militancy in Punjab and interference from across borders. When emotions are running high, a small spark can snowball into a firestorm. Past experience suggests that it is best to resolve disputes well in time before they spiral out of control. The government has extended an olive branch. The farmers must respect this and reciprocate. The tone set on Saturday should pave the way for a permanent solution.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal
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