It is with deep anguish that I condemn the violence and vandalism perpetrated by a section of the protesting farmers at the historic Red Fort and in other parts of Delhi on the 72nd Republic Day. The turn of events, if not the specifics, were predictable to a fault. This has been the trend with respect to all mass movements for over a century, beginning with the Chauri Chaura incident that brought the ahimsa-driven Non-cooperation Movement, the first mass satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, between 1920 and 1922, to a halt.
The aftermath of the 26 January violence was even more disturbing. The perpetrators were predominantly Sikhs, or certainly the more visible ones because of their unique Sikh identity. This led to perceived ‘substantiation’ of the politically inspired campaign that was started by neo-nationalists with active cooperation of pliant media since end November — to dub the farmers’ mass protest as revival of the Khalistan movement. The visuals of violence were aggressively exploited to discredit the farmers’ movement. The short-term aim of politicians and their supporters is to derail the movement, but its resonance is being felt in Punjab. It spells ominous portents for communal harmony in the state and if not checked may become the first stride towards replanting the seed of radicalism in the psyche of the Sikh community.
A protest gone wrong
Mass protests make people with diverse ideologies/causes to unite for a common cause. In this case, the three farm laws, which the farmers perceive will lead to destruction of their way of life. The latent causes/ideologies of dissipate groups can come to fore either by design or default as the mass protest gets prolonged without any tangible gains. The collective leadership — Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) — is informal and can exercise only minimal control. In any case, outside the military, in a democracy, it is unrealistic to expect rigid control by the leadership.
Then there is the traditional approach of the State to discredit a mass movement contesting its will by shaping public opinion through a perverse narrative assisted by its supporters and a large section of media. The agitation may be infiltrated with provocateurs or one of the dissipated groups may be sponsored/encouraged with tacit support to engineer violence and sabotage the movement itself. Finally (what we are seeing now) is crackdown by the State with full support of the shaped public opinion. The will of the State is reimposed and it is business as usual. All of the above was at play since 26 November.
The strength of the movement was its secular, peaceful, disciplined and self-sustaining nature achieved through community service traditions particularly of the Sikhs.
The movement had pan-India support of the farmers. However, the ‘dharna’ at Delhi’s borders was predominantly sustained by the Jat farmers of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Terai region (Uttarakhand/UP) with a sprinkling from other states, primarily due to proximity with Delhi.
With respect to Punjab farmers, there were two factors that impinged on the spirit of the movement. First, Sikhs living abroad are close to their roots and actively participate in Punjab politics through donations. Every family has at least one member settled abroad. Some of these Sikhs are radicalised proponents of Khalistan, they attempt to hijack every movement of Sikhs through their proxies. Second, most of the leaders of farm unions (not necessarily their members) have a Leftist background. Some of them still hold a romantic vision of bringing about a revolution. The collective leadership of the SKM did steer clear of such elements but failed to evict them from the protest sites.
The Gandhian carnival at Delhi’s doorsteps won pan-India sympathy/support despite serious reservations with respect to the farmers’ rigid demand for repeal of the three farm laws. The ‘counter-attack’ began with the politicians of the ruling party, its Hindutva ideology and nationalism-driven supporters, and a large section of the media branding the movement as opposition sponsored, ‘tukde – tukde gang’, ‘anti-national and secessionist (Khalistani)’. But these efforts failed to dent the image of the movement and it continued to remain peaceful, and steadfast.
The government, seeing the scale of the protests and fearing adverse political fallout of alienating a dominant electoral entity, engaged in talks and gradually conceded most of the demands except the promise of a law ensuring legal guarantee for MSP. The farmers argued that if the laws merited so many amendments, then these must be repealed and enacted afresh with guaranteed MSP after due consultations with them. Simultaneously, the government continued its efforts to discredit the movement, which further eroded its credibility in the minds of the farmers.
What happened on 26 January had its reasons.
The farmers made three cardinal mistakes. First, angered by the perverse propaganda, right through the negotiations, they adopted a maximalist position — nothing short of repeal of the controversial laws. It is possible the farmers’ leadership may have been willing but it did not have the status to convince the masses. Second, in early January, they declared their intent to showcase their power and embarrass the government by holding a parallel Republic Day parade with 15-20 thousand tractors in the capital. This was a tailor-made opportunity for the radicals or State-sponsored provocateurs to foment trouble. The third mistake was their failure to declare victory by accepting the government’s offer on 20 January to hold the laws in abeyance for 18 months.
Who is responsible for the violence and vandalism?
The criminality of the action is easy to fix. There are enough videos and photographs available to identify the perpetrators and initiate proceedings. The moral responsibility of the SKM and the administration is also easy to fix. The farmers and their leaders are certainly responsible for planning a massive tractor parade on Republic Day knowing fully well that in such cases, events overtake the intent and control.
The administration is morally responsible for granting permission to hold the tractor parade, despite a century’s experience in handling mass protests. The administration is also responsible for not taking preemptive action against the radicalised elements who had captured the SKM stage late evening 25 January in full view of the police to declare their intent to not follow the routes agreed. The SKM claims that it had informed the administration about the intent of the radicals at 11pm on 25 January and requested for necessary action to be taken.
Who was behind the radical elements perpetrating the violence? I would rule out the farmers’ leadership because such an action would sound the death knell for the movement. Sikhs for Justice had announced a hefty reward for hoisting the Khalistan flag at the Red Fort, which could also have been the inspiration for the radicalised perpetrators apart from their ideology. However, the ease with which a few hundred miscreants breached the barricades at the borders before the designated time, changed their route and entered the high-security zone to reach the Red Fort, raises serious questions about the sheer incompetence or complicity, as alleged by SKM leaders, of the government. The farm leaders allege the association of Deep Sidhu, the prima donna of the sordid spectacle on the ramparts of Red Fort, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the police’s failure to arrest him despite him having announced his intent on 25 January and having been forewarned by them.
Unfortunately, it is this perception that prevailed with the farmers in general and among the Sikhs of Punjab in particular — of the complicity between violent protesters and the government.
Misery of being a farmer
There are no rich farmers in Punjab. My observations are based on my village where I live. The average land holding per family with two teenage children is 3-5 acres. Most farmers follow the two-crop (wheat–paddy) cycle due to the assured MSP. The average yield of wheat is 20 quintals per acre. At the MSP of Rs 1,925 per quintal, the per acre earning would come to about Rs 38,500. Input costs are Rs 11,000 per acre. Net earning stands at Rs 27,500 per acre.
The average yield of paddy is 25 quintals per acre. Input costs is Rs 14,000 per acre. Net earning per acre at an MSP of Rs 1,870 would come to about Rs 32,750. Thus the average farming family in Punjab earns between Rs 1,80,750 – Rs 3,01,250 per year or Rs 15,062 – 25,104 per month. This is equivalent to unskilled and skilled labour wages. These calculations do not take into account personal labour cost of the entire family and are based on my own experience and on data collected by me from other farmers.
The affluent lifestyle of four decades — beginning 1970, when land holdings were two to four times bigger — is maintained by bank loans, assistance from children and kith settled abroad or by a family member engaged in non-farming job. That’s how the state’s rural economy is being supported to a large extent.
On an average, the loan amount is Rs 100,000 per acre. It costs Rs 15-20 lakhs to send one family member, by fair or foul means, abroad. For this also, a loan is raised. It takes nearly five years before the money starts coming from abroad. Due to their own fault, children of farmers aren’t competitively educated and lose out jobs to the urban youth. It is no longer cost-effective to keep one or two milch animals. Today, dairy farming requires heavy investment. Punjab has seen limited industrialisation. Jat Sikh farmers are wary of blue collar jobs. Even the limited industry that is there, prefers migrant workers.
In a nutshell, the image of an affluent Punjab farmer is a mirage. Of course, the Punjab farmers are themselves to be blamed for their sorry situation — they failed to diversify and empower themselves for the changed environment and market practices. MSP is the mainstay of their survival and the artificial lifestyle they maintain. In a decade’s time, farming will become completely unsustainable in Punjab. Situation in other states is similar. In many states, even worse.
Agriculture requires urgent reforms
My observations make a very strong case for urgent reforms, and to that end the government is right. Even the farmer recognises this. The problem lies elsewhere. It is socio-economic in nature and it is empirical wisdom that farming is not an economic activity and requires government support.
The farmers see the new laws as loaded in favour of the businessmen/corporates. A case in point is the ‘unconstitutional’ dispute resolution mechanism that prevents the farmer from filing legal cases. They understand that without government support and existing market infrastructure, sooner than later, the laws of economics will take over, their way of life will be destroyed and they will be reduced to penury.
Without a legal backing, the government’s promise of continuing MSP lacks credibility. More so, when these reforms were introduced through an ordinance and bulldozed through Parliament without debate and scrutiny. The constitutional tradition of agriculture being a state subject under our federal structure has been contemptuously undermined.
To sum up, logically, reforms are required but both social and economic factors must be taken into account. The stakeholders — farmers — must be engaged and the reforms should be consensual and not made only by theoretical experts and parliamentarians without farming background. Adequate safeguards of law must be made to prevent exploitation. The current laws have no obligation for businessmen/corporates to ensure welfare of farmers beyond engaging in commerce. There is a strong case to hold the laws in abeyance or repeal them and make a fresh start.
The farmers’ movement is not going away. In fact, based on the prevailing perception among the farmers of the government being complicit in the actions of the fringe that symbolised the events of 26 January, the movement has got greater impetus. The happenings at Ghazipur on the night of 28-29 January are a case in point. The farmers have recovered the moral high ground and will remain steadfast. The ball is in the government’s court.
Dangerous portents for Punjab
The Khalistan movement in Punjab has been fighting an existential battle for the last three decades. There are no takers. Even the cult status of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is more like what Che Guevara was for the young in the 1970s.
Yet, all ingredients of radicalisation are omnipresent — a border state, a religious community that revels in past glory and sacrifice, diminishing land holdings, shrinking incomes, loss of relative affluence, lack of industrialisation and unemployed youth lacking quality education with high rate of alcohol and drug dependency. Every family has one member abroad and thus becomes vulnerable to radicalisation from Khalistan supporters there.
Despite all this, in Punjab, there is no time or thought for Khalistan. True to their culture, Sikhs are too busy living life king size — khadha peeta lahe da, baki Ahmad Shahe da (whatever you can eat and drink is yours, rest belongs to Ahmad Shah, a reference to the Afghan invader).
If this patriotic community, chastened by the bloody decade of 1980-90, continues to be branded as Khalistani by the neo-nationalists and a section of the media with the perceived support of the ruling dispensation, then the consequences for national security will be horrendous. It is time for a course correction by the government before it is too late.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.