Worrisome for Democracy: Protesting Farmers charged at like General Dyer

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The controversial farm laws passed by the Centre in September have not gone down too well with farmers who have been staging protests since two months in different parts of the country. Farmers are protesting against “privatisation” of the farming sector as they fear the new laws will destroy their livelihoods. More than 300,000 farmers have now marched upon Delhi and set up vast camps with a view to staying there for months till their demands are met. The demand is no less than repeal of the “anti-farmer” laws.

The ruling government BJP says there is nothing wrong with farm laws as it believes hundreds and thousands of farmers who have left their homes in the dead of winter, amidst pandemic, facing water cannons and tear gas at Delhi border, have been “misled” by the opposition. The government believes that farmers who account for more than 40% of the working population in India no longer know what is right for them and Centre alone can unilaterally take decisions that it claims are good for them – just like the Centre believed demonetization was good for the country, Article 370 revocation was good for Kashmiris, that protesters were “misled” on the Citizenship Amendment law and so on. According to the ruling government people who apparently voted them to power no longer understand what is good or wrong if they exercise their right to peacefully protest and voice their concerns against the Centre’s actions.

Farmers have said they have not been consulted by the Centre before the laws were passed. “I took part in this protest to the Delhi border because the central government has sold out the farmers with these new laws, which did not have any consultation or input from farmers. If they are passed then the farmers’ rights will be finished,” said Ratam Mann Singh– President of Indian Farmers Association, Haryana. Singh said many of the farmers had brought enough food, supplies and blankets to last for up to three months. But meanwhile at the Delhi border police used tear gas and water cannons against farmers and also lathi charged them in what appeared to be a brutal scene from the imperial past. Police wanted nine stadiums to be converted into temporary jails for farmers but the Delhi government denied permission saying “Farmers were not criminals”. As police opened their attack on farmers the world raised concerns on the safety of farmers and their right to peacefully protest with politicians from Canada and UK standing in their support but the Indian government rejected their comments outright as interference in “internal affairs” of the country. However, the growing clamour from farmers has forced an earlier unmoved Centre to open “dialogue” with them.

A wide consultation and “dialogue” with them at an earlier stage could have avoided protesting crowds during the pandemic. But the Centre had hurriedly passed the bills in parliament despite the opposition calling for a wider debate and more deliberations by a parliamentary committee. The centre intends to do this debate now with the Agricultural Minister insisting on a “clause by clause” discussion with farmers.  If the farm laws were pro-farmer why didn’t the centre take farmers into confidence before bringing the laws? The corporate sector can wait before making gains from the agricultural sector (which progressed even as India witnessed negative growth), after safeguards are given to farmers.

This is the second time since 2014 that the BJP government has brought laws considered “anti-farmer”. The first attempt was with the land acquisition ordinance. Farmers have certainly developed an intense distrust for Centre’s farm laws. Their main worry is exploitation at the hands of big corporates who no doubt have more money, more bargaining power. The laws appear to open the agricultural sector to the greater benefit of private buyers than farmers themselves. Why loosen rules if farmers could benefit without doing so?

However, what’s more concerning is the way laws have been hurriedly brought and passed in parliament and thrust upon people by a brute majority. The government has unilaterally decided what it thinks and feels is right without consulting the people. Democracy has been stifled by dictates from those in positions of power. Dissent has been crushed with an iron hand. People who have the right to express themselves through voting cannot freely express themselves through protests without being dealt with imperially.

 

 

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