Champaran to Singhu: A tale of two satyagrahas
Satyagraha has won. And the Supreme Court (SC) has acquired a trust dividend. Never before in the history of India has a protest involving so many lasted so long without flinching, without slackening, without diluting the three crucial ingredients of that mode of struggle. First, it must be about a principle or a programme, not against any individual. Second, it must include self-suffering. And third, it must be non-violent.
In staying the three farm laws, the apex court has acknowledged the satygaraha’s moral voltage without saying as much. And it has given to the protesters a moment of satyagrahic epiphany. But, as we all know by now, the protesters have thanked SC; they have not declared their battle over.
For it is not over.
Satyagraha has won its battle on Delhi’s outskirts; it has not yet triumphed. It would have, if SC had struck the three laws down. It would have, if the government, responding to the stay, had said it was repealing the laws. It would have if the government had said it was going to discuss the demands in a specially convened meeting of the Inter-State Council with all chief ministers, and then, of Parliament — to enact a new legislation that fulfils the aspirations of farmers and acts on the neglected recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee.
The court forming committees to go into the matter has not reassured the protesters. As they are constituted, it could not have. Besides, other committees set up by earlier SC orders have tended to uphold the government’s position on the issues in question.
A great example of a successful committee needs to be recalled. After the brave and principled satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi in Champaran, Bihar, in 1917, against the tinkathiya system, operating on indigo plantations in that district, the British government set up a Champaran agrarian committee. It worked diligently, finding the satyagraha’s objectives justified. And it recommended the scrapping of the system. With all the demands of the peasant protesters met, the satyagraha ended in success. And it gave ground-level experience of struggle and success to a future President of India — Rajendra Prasad.
How does that committee differ from the ones just constituted? Gandhi was a member of the committee. There are farm union representatives on the three committees, sure. But are they representative of the aspirations of the protesters? We know they are not.
So, what now?
The protesters have said they will not move an inch. This is dangerous. The massing of thousands of un-budging protesters around the national capital at the time of a pandemic poses a dire health hazard. The protesters have so far been impervious to the clear threat of the virus. Unmindful of the risk, they have converged and stayed put in the thousands, in close proximity, right where the virus has been virulent. They seem now to be no less unmindful of the risk. Can the government be equally unmindful of the risk to the protesters and to others in contact with them?
And beyond the virus risk, can the government afford to alienate the farming community ad infinitum, without unimaginably serious consequences to the nation’s economy and its social integrity? And without the stalemate resulting in a flare-up?
Responding to the court’s orders and its chastisement, the government needs to do what it may otherwise not have done. It can do the following: One, announce a revocation or at the very least, an indefinite suspension of the Acts. Two, remit them and all the demands of the farmers to the Inter-State Council for a discussion. And three, call an exclusive session of Parliament to discuss a new law with farmers — not “experts” but farmers who have been hurt — being given an opportunity to be heard by parliamentarians on the margins of the session.
And with these three steps being announced, the leaders of the protesters must rise to the occasion too and announce their dispersal from the sites of protest and adopt a constructive response to the promised discussions.
The SC has shown its independence and a sensitivity to the public weal by doing as it has. Let there be no mistake here. It could well have said that this is a matter for the executive to handle. It has not. It has been bold. The protesting farmers have, without invoking Gandhi, followed the basics of his satyagrahic procedures, though differing from these in some details. They will be showing another kind of courage in accepting the offer of such a discussion, if made thus by the government. But the toughest gesture has to come from the government. It has to match the court’s wisdom and announce the steps detailed here.
The British Raj responded as it did in Champaran 104 years ago. Swaraj must do likewise and enter its 75th year with the glow of the health and happiness of farmers on its forehead. This is its “indigo moment”.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal