Lakhimpur Kheri is becoming the tipping point for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. From now onwards and certainly until the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in the winter, if not beyond, the violent event will mark a watershed moment. For until now, Modi’s capture of power, control over the political narrative and his canny ability to either ignore or dismiss his critics and opponents had held total sway. Lakhimpur Kheri has changed that.
Picture of protest and power
First and foremost, the one-year-long farmers’ protest has finally acquired powerful political significance. The callous mowing down of protesting farmers by an SUV owned by a Union cabinet minister’s son has captured the violent heart of power and authority in India today. The much-bandied reformist nature of the farm bills or other arguments by the Modi government that the protesting farmers were merely sectional, representing only a small elite, or worse, that the protesters were airing concerns exclusive to the Sikh peasantry, have all been overwhelmed by this potent imagery of killing and death.
Second, Lakhimpur represents a violent confrontation between political protest and State power. Despite the pandemic, farmers have been engaged in a year-long civil disobedience, with the Singhu border in Delhi forming its epicentre. Protests have been a recurring theme of Modi’s second term. The peaceful capturing of city squares and notably of the political capital of Delhi in the wake of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA had preceded the farmers’ protests. Until now, the government had either managed or dismissed such protests as expressions of the disgruntled if voluble few. While such an attitude made the government appear arrogant and authoritarian, it ultimately exuded control that could even incite fear.
This carefully cultivated projection of the government’s power now seems upturned. The widely circulating videos and imagery of farmers being mowed down by a moving automobile owned by a Union minister’s son will be hard to dismiss and ignore. Mainly because this visual imagery distils and sharply conveys the callous nature of authority. The imagery of killing in Lakhimpur is unlike the imagery of floating dead bodies in the same state that captured global headlines during the deadly second wave of Covid-19 last summer. Even as that dented some of the government’s lustre, the virus remained an agent of death. By contrast, the protesting farmer will now stand in as a political victim marked by abject vulnerability. Any positive aspect of the farm bills or the charge that the farmers’ protests are sectional, is now overwhelmed by a visual vocabulary of vulnerability.
Violence, vulnerability, and the national narrative
For all its immediacy, the Lakhimpur confrontation is redolent of India’s foundational political grammar. No, I don’t mean caste or the Brahmin who has now been resurrected in Uttar Pradesh’s politics. Current political commentary is super-charged on this matrix as data-crunchers now tirelessly remind us of minute and polarised caste calculations at the district level and their impact on the imminent elections in the country’s most politically consequential state, If you can resist these reductive and self-fulfilling caste calculations, then another picture emerges.
India’s foundational political grammar of mass protest has historically belonged to the peasantry. Just shy of a century to date today, Mahatma Gandhi called off a large-scale peasant protest in the United Provinces (as UP was then termed) in the winter of 1922. The killing of policemen by the protesting peasantry in Chauri Chaura has made it a key event in India’s nationalist memory and script. Often recalled for Gandhi’s steadfast commitment to nonviolence, the moment was potent precisely because it visibly anointed the farmer as the prime political agent of India’s struggle against empire.
Gandhi had broken the prevailing political consensus by rejecting the urban elite and by focusing on India’s farmers or peasants as the true representatives of India. This focus transformed the Indian National Congress from a relatively small party dominated by argumentative lawyers to a mass movement that included the conversion of successful and well-heeled lawyers such as Motilal Nehru and Sardar Patel (to name the most famous) into satyagrahis. Oppressive agrarian taxation had then instigated mass rural protests. Like today, farmers were highly organised and unionised while being represented by an array of local leaders. Above all and much like today, arguably it was the upwardly mobile peasant that was agitating, and thus these protests could be rendered sectional. Gandhi’s vow against violence then ensured that vulnerability was a moral power that hollowed out the imperial state’s legitimacy despite its rule of command. It was a historic tipping point. It created a coalition against the most powerful modern empire in world history.
The point is not that today there is no Gandhi. Or that the Congress today is a shell in comparison to its former self. Or that this is not the age of the British empire. Instead, the main danger with the current tipping point is to make Lakhimpur a contest of violence. The leader of the farmers, Rakesh Tikait, is hubristic and fundamentally wrong in dismissing the violence conducted by protesting farmers as a mere “reaction” to the callous action of deathly power.
The victim can become a potent agent, as Gandhi instructed, if it dies but does not kill. In doing so, it represented more than one issue and all forms of vulnerability that transformed India’s political future. Tikait, his followers and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, for their own sake, must discard violence and embrace vulnerability. It is vulnerability alone, as the image from Lakhimpur powerfully shows, that can potentially sway India’s national narrative from its current obsession with control and authority.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Her forthcoming book “Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in The Global Age” out this autumn elaborates on partition violence as civil war. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)