India has experienced two successive winters of discontent, winters which on the one hand have given a glimmer of hope to the larger society and, on the other, exposed the strong-arm tactics of the government.
In December 2019, India woke up to news of the gutsy women of Shaheen Bagh rising in a peaceful protest against the allegedly discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The protest started with merely half a dozen women on December 15 but soon drew greater numbers and then spread across the country. Throughout the winter, with the temperature dropping to 2 degree Celsius in some places, women chanted slogans against the new Act, sang songs of resistance, and stood up for the national anthem on December 31 to usher in the new year in a novel way.
Also read: At Shaheen Bagh, a vigil for rights
Almost a year later, on November 26, 2020, India took notice as farmers from Punjab and Haryana rode on tractors and bikes and drove cars and trucks towards Delhi to start an indefinite sit-in in the Capital against three new agricultural laws. Prevented from reaching Delhi, they camped themselves at the Singhu and Tikri borders before farmers from Uttar Pradesh joined their peaceful protest at Ghazipur on the outskirts of Delhi. The nation woke up to the farmers’ resistance only when the Haryana government sought to prevent their entry into Delhi by digging up a portion of the road and putting up bloackades in their way. But, actually, farmers had been staging sporadic, initially isolated but increasingly organised protests across Punjab since September 2020. They laid siege to malls, cordoned off godowns said to belong to the Adanis, and even occupied railway tracks before the Ministry of Railways cut off train services from the State in October. On Dussehra, farmers burnt hundreds of effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and corporate bigwigs Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani on Dussehra and threw heaps of Reliance SIM cards into garbage.
Yet, it was only when they all but set foot in Delhi that not just the media but even the Central government took notice. While earlier the farmers had held parleys with State-level leaders in Punjab, now the Union government, in a desperate damage-control bid, invited the farmers to talks. Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Tomar was the first to be pressed into service. Soon he was joined by Piyush Goyal, Minister for Railways, Commerce and Industry, even as Rajnath Singh, with his formidable following among Uttar Pradesh farmers, operated the back channels. “I was born to a farmer mother,” he reminded the country. Notwithstanding the repeated attempts at negotiation, no thaw was reported even after 11 rounds of confabulations leading up to February. The farmers would settle for nothing but a repeal of the “black laws” that they believe would leave them at the mercy of business interests. “Roll back the black laws” (kala kanoon wapas lo) was what they often told visiting mediapersons. The government blinked, and after the ninth round of dialogue, offered to keep the new farm laws in abeyance for 18 months. This was said to be the masterstroke that would compel the farmers to give up their planned tractor march on Republic Day. But the farmers proved unrelenting. They decided to go ahead with the march and obtained permission from the Delhi Police for a specified route with a fixed number of vehicles and participants.
(Earlier, they had been lukewarm about appearing before a Supreme Court-appointed committee for a dialogue between them and the government. Apparently, they had reservations about some of the names on the committee. It forced Bhupinder Mann, one of the members, to quit the committee a day after it was set up.)
As repeated parleys failed to break the ice, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman declared shortly after presenting the Union Budget: “On farm laws, the government is, and has always been, open to dialogue with the farmers. The Agriculture Minister has been ready to have clause-by-clause discussions with farmers on farm laws.” She was merely reiterating what had been the government line for over a month, beginning early January. At the beginning of the eighth round of negotiations, the government had acceded to the farmers’ demand for excluding penalties in the ordinance on stubble-burning and in the Electricity Amendment Bill and expressed a willingness for a clause-by-clause dialogue with the farmers.
Urging the farmers to shed their “stubborn attitude”, Tomar had said: “Except for the demand of repealing the laws, the government is ready to consider seriously and with an open heart other alternatives.” However, the impasse between the Central government and 41 farmers’ unions was not broken despite nine rounds of talks leading up to Republic Day. Newspapers published photographs of the farmers bringing their own food and water to Vigyan Bhawan and refusing to avail themselves of “sarkari anna” (government’s food).
Everybody welcomed the continued talks even as many decried the government’s intransigence. A little under two months of protests resulted in nine rounds of talks until January 19, and yet a breakthrough remained elusive.
Contrast with Shaheen Bagh
The government’s efforts to engage with the farmers was in stark contrast to its studied refusal to talk to the Shaheen Bagh protesters a year earlier. The women sat on an indefinite protest from December 15, 2019, until the Central government imposed a “janta curfew” on March 22, 2020. Not a single dialogue between the protesters and the government took place during this time. The protesters, many of them aged over 80 years, waited in vain for a dialogue with the Home Minister or any other representative of the government. On February 14, they sat silent with the placards asking “Modi, tum kab aoge?” (Modi, when will you come?). No one came, nor were the women invited for talks.
When interlocutors appointed by the Supreme Court arrived at the protest site, the women welcomed them with open arms, taking it as a signal of an imminent thaw. Their engagement with the interlocutors notwithstanding, the government continued to ignore and, worse, malign the protesters. In the early stages of the protest, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) IT cell questioned the integrity of the agitators and alleged that the women sat there for Rs.500 and a plate of biryani. (It resulted in a law suit filed by the protesters.) Then, on February 1, 2020, an armed young man chanting “Jai Shri Ram” entered the protest site flashing a pistol and shooting in the air and had to be removed by the police. Later, he joined the BJP, though the association proved short-lived.
Also read: Other Shaheen Baghs
Attempts to remove the Shaheen Bagh protesters continued apace. As the sit-in completed 100 days, a parallel rally in favour of the CAA was organised barely a stone’s throw away where provocative slogans were hurled at minorities. The government remained silent, whether it was the attack by Kapil Bainsla or the allegations of pecuniary benefits for the protesters. The women were asking for a rollback of the CAA and the scrapping of the National Population Register (NPR)-National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise. The Home Minister only reiterated his oft-repeated assertions of how the implementation of the CAA would be preceded by the NPR-NRC exercise. In an interview to a private satellite channel, however, Amit Shah expressed a willingness to talk to the women. But when the Shaheen Bagh women sought to meet him the following day, they were detained by the police.
The government has shown more readiness to talk to the farmers. Yet, the end result has been the same. If the government has preferred to be seen engaging with the farmers, it has not shed its obduracy and the talks have failed. The farmers have also stood their ground and refused to accept anything other than a repeal of the new laws. Says Professor Mohammed Sajjad of Aligarh Muslim University, which witnessed violence following the students’ opposition to the CAA: “In the Hindutva narrative, Sikhs come under the Hindu religion as a sect. Under the circumstances, if you vilify Sikhs, the Hindutva project of assimilation of Sikhs into the Hindu fold gets affected. As against it, the vilification of Muslims is easier, and a constant even in non-political circles. On the Muslim demonisation runs the Hindutva project. In society there has been greater receptivity to demonisation of Muslims in comparison with that of Sikhs, though that is arguable if you consider what happened in 1984. We had a Congress government then, but the people who were responsible for the massacre then are supporters of the current regime now. It suited the government fine to ignore the Shaheen Bagh protesters, even malign them, and at the same time be seen talking to the farmers, largely seen to be Sikhs.”
Professor Gurdarshan Dhillon, a Chandigarh-based historian, held a similar view: “If you see in history, wherever there has been oppression of the peasantry, the government has fallen. Whether with farmers, or earlier with Shaheen Bagh, they have done much cruelty. We talk of concertina wires [being put up at the protest site] now, but the Shaheen Bagh protesters suffered much worse—many of them are still in jail.”
The government seems determined to muzzle all dissent. About a year ago, electricity was disconnected at anti-CAA protest sites and carpets and tents were taken away from protesters in the freezing cold. Much of the same thing is happening in Ghazipur, Singhu and other places where farmers are protesting now. Shortly after Republic Day, farmers were deprived of electricity, water, and even the elementary cover of tents in the National Capital Region. Concertina wires were installed on the blockades, trenches were dug up, nails were fixed on the entry and exit points of the protest, making movement of vehicles impossible. In Singhu, iron lances and maces were fixed with cement, leaving the farmers in danger of injury if they came close. Many farmers were indeed wounded. In a tragic case, a nail pierced the foot of a farmer in Ghazipur. Purported local residents protested against the farmers in Singhu and Tikri after the violence witnessed on Republic Day. The media that had ignored an impressive gathering of over 40,000 women in Shaheen Bagh on last year’s Republic Day went to town this year on the violence following the tractor rally on January 26. Last year, even the sight of a 90-year-old woman hoisting the national flag failed to capture much media attention.
Also read: Making it count at Shaheen Bagh
Prof. Dhillon said: “I have never seen these barbed wires, concertina circles, nails at any place, not just in India but across the world. It is for the first time in the history of India that we are witnessing such a large-scale danger to peaceful citizens. If Modi wants to leave his name in history as a strong ruler with such actions, with these pictures he will be projected as the worst ruler, worse than Aurangzeb, Chengiz Khan or any cruel ruler of history. The government seems to be at war with its own citizens. It has cut off water, the Internet. The government is uncomfortable with all dissent, whether from Muslims or Sikhs, or others. What we are witnessing is not a protest but a revolution. Shaheen Bagh was a movement, the farmers’ movement is a revolution.”
Prof. Sajjad said: “Even if a Hindu is against the government, he is called anti-national. The government is against all dissent, anybody who questions its actions is dubbed anti-naitonal.” The allegations levelled against the farmers bear out this view. There has been loose talk of infiltration of the protest by Khalistanis, just as there were filthy allegations of Shaheen Bagh women drawing sustenance from Pakistan and Dubai.