Guest post by C.P. GEEVAN
What the farmers’ movement has achieved is nothing short of historic, even if the authoritarian government had not gone back on its intent for uncompromising implementation of the laws meant to reinforce major structural changes for facilitating corporate dominance of the farm sector. The inflexible approach of the government and the massive repression has claimed almost 700 lives since agitation began nearly one and half years back. Be it celebration or analysis, we must pay sincere homage and tributes to all those dead.
Mere declaration of the intent to withdraw the anti-people laws is not enough and the manner of doing it — justifying the laws in its entirety – bizarre. The sudden declaration seemed to have dismayed even the ministers who supposedly are collectively responsible. The decision not only showed the dictatorial approach that is the hallmark of the present government, but also was conspicuous by Modi’s characteristically cynical use of religion. Out of the blue, on Gurpurab, the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak (first Guru of Sikh religion) became the occasion to announce the repeal of the contentious laws. It was meant to target the Sikhs who constitute a significant social base of the agitation. Never mind that Hindutva supporters had defamed sections of the Sikh community as separatists, even accusing them of having terrorist links. Perhaps, neither the festival of Diwali nor Dussehra was good enough or the intelligence reports about the political ground realities in UP and Punjab might not have come in early enough.
The parliament must repeal the laws following norms quite unlike the scant respect the Prime Minister showed for norms when the laws were first introduced by executive order and later hastily passed in parliament. The spin doctors of the government and loyal media are trying to create a new narrative, which is of a return to democratic functioning and the softening of the otherwise ‘hardened’ state. Suddenly and strangely, the hard state is uncharacteristically willing to listen, as far as headlines and optics go, and the PM is being lauded for flexibility and pragmatism (after over one year)! Along with the formal repeal of the unconstitutional farm laws, both central and state governments must ensure immediate withdrawal of all the cases against the protesters. Hopefully, the repeal will not be a repeat of the parliamentary fraud employed earlier to pass the laws without proper deliberations.
There have been very few tenacious struggles like the farmers’ movement before. The farmers’ movement has managed to sustain the struggle against all odds and massive repression spanning the physical and all other forms, from attempts to create social disharmony to divisive tactics branding sections of the farmers as terrorists and anti-nationals. The intimidation tactics included the indiscriminate use of draconian laws. We cannot forget how the Indian state suppressed within a span of just 20 days the historic strike of the Indian Railways encompassing 1.7 million workers in 1974. In contrast, the remarkable grit, enormous tenacity, astute tactics, and considerable maturity of the leadership of the farmers’ movement has succeeded in sustaining longer than a year the struggle that began in a fragmented way, transforming it into almost a pan-India movement. While democratic India must celebrate the historic achievement of the farmers against the authoritarian state, there are many reasons to remain vigilant and cautious.
The sudden, apparent retreat of the belligerent PM has been described as a defeat of arrogance and hubris. Ramachandra Guha has described it as “a triumph of satyagraha, the force of truth, against arrogance and hubris” and “a rare, partial, and perhaps reversible victory of democracy over authoritarianism, but a victory nonetheless.” Strangely, the editorial in Indian Express argues that “it is not important why the government retreated.” Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s opinion piece in the same paper, however, cautions that “what it signifies is very much an open question.” To him, the concession came at a time when the movement itself seemed almost at standstill.
It is worth quoting Pratap Mehta at length, “The visible modalities of protest had, through various means, been cleared out, even though BJP politicians at the local level were facing resistance. In short, the government had the staying power to stare down and repress the protest. To a great extent it did, and could have continued to do so. The timing of the announcement is not driven by the momentum or power of the movement, which is why it is a bit of a surprise. But what the government seems to have recognised is that suppressing or managing a protest can, paradoxically, create a deeper simmering discontent that might be harder to manage.” While P. B. Mehtha argues that what is behind the tactical retreat can be summarised in just one word — “Punjab”, he concludes by pointing out that the PM was indulging in “political incitement” trying to pit farmers against farmers with the devious calculation that his decision will help to aggravate the material and social contradictions within the farmers.
At least superficially, the state of the agitation, particularly after the mowing down of eight peaceful protesters by the convoy led by the son of a minister in central government, was of an enigmatic lull before a likely political storm. Situation appeared to be one of entrenched war of position (in the Gramscian sense) where the widening circles of solidarity within and beyond the farmers movement was growing strong enough to challenge the entrenched political power of the Hindutva fascists at various levels. That was checkmating the repressive apparatus despite the willingness of the authoritarian state to use any degree of repressive force. The farmers’ movement seemed to be metaphorizing or was on the verge of evolving into a larger antifascist platform with an unprecedented social base. This was a situation no political formation in India currently can dream of, let alone achieve.
The larger social coalitions spawned by the Farmers’ Movement had begun to effectively challenge the Hindutva mob politics and divisiveness in a significant way. The movement could successfully begin to build bridges to heal the fissures engineered by the Hindutva through the Muzaffarnagar riots. The nuanced measures taken by the movement made this possible, as it boldly confronted with a shrewdness rarely seen in recent times the blatantly communal fascist rule in Uttar Pradesh that has made violations of the constitution the norm. Not allowing the rogue government in UP to divide the movement strengthened unity extending the movement’s social base. Thus, when overtly nothing remarkable seemed to be afoot except the usual buzz of realpolitik from approaching elections, certain social processes were at play. These were unscripted but defied all the calculations of the Hindutva fascists.
At this historic juncture, certainly an inflexion point, elections are looming with the writing clearly on the wall that Hindutva power is facing a challenge they never imagined could arise given weakness of the electoral rivals. The farmers’ movement had more or less stalled the politics of divisive polarization, catalyzing a secular unity and solidarity across various divides across the country, that the Hindutva forces were finding difficult to counter. The unifying effect of the movement had its reverberations across the country, often cutting across political divides. Despite the ominous calm, the movement and politics in northern India seemed delicately poised at a cusp.
The Hindutva regime that ruthlessly pushed the anti-farmer and anti-people legislations — e.g., farm laws, CAA and virtual abrogation of Article 370 — was finding the upcoming electoral challenges, especially in UP, more difficult than they estimated. Winning the assembly polls in UP by any means is a crucial move they need before the 2024 general elections. While both Punjab and UP elections are important on their own, capturing power in UP remains central to the electoral strategy for 2024. To ensure another scripted win in the general election of 2024, by every means, fair or foul — not merely EVM tampering — is not an easy task. Such manipulations require a certain degree of political and social fragmentation which can become somewhat difficult to realise if the farmers’ movement digs in and manages to shift the balance in its favour in the war of position. Every gain across the social divide was not only strengthening the movement but also sending out political waves weakening Hindutva hegemony.
The fascists desperately needed to make a tactical shift for diffusing this advantage. The sudden reversal of stand on the farmers’ laws serves as an opening to dilute gains of the movement and regain some of social base Hindutva lost. The Hindutva fascists are looking for tactical measures to disrupt the secular unity nurtured by the farmers’ movement. This is also a game of deception in which the election of 2024, as in 2014, will be preceded by a perception war. Through media and various headline-grabbing tactics, an impression will be created that despite everything, the Hindutva Far Right stands a better chance. Having created such an impression (e.g., media blitzkrieg in 2014 projecting a Hindutva Far Right win, the stage-managed border incidents in 2019 supposedly unleashing nationalist fervour), it becomes easier rationalise electoral gains that are seemingly out of reach through fair poll under normal circumstances. More electoral fragmentation there is, the easier it is to manipulate. The present tactical move creates a perception that ‘democracy works’, the authoritarian regime is not obdurate, the PM is ‘flexible’, etc. While farmers’ movement has made a historic win by forcing the authoritarian regime to relent, the sudden decision to repeal is a tactical move. It marks the beginning of a new phase in the war of position where the democratic forces must be very careful in not allowing the gains made to be weakened by the games of deception and subterfuge that the authoritarian regime is bound to unleash using new ways of repression and to sow seeds of division.