Author: Jasdev Singh Rai
Director, Sikh Human Rights Group
In a civilian protest rally of a million or so, it should not surprise even the most naïve that a few hundred will take matters into their own hands—run amok and engage in dramatic acts to gain attention. Governments often like these unplanned breakouts. They exploit these undisciplined few completely, squeezing out every drop of advantage they can get, even using it to justify sending in armed forces to crush the dissent. The mass tractor rally in Delhi has given government that opportunity. It now depends whether the government milks it or acts wisely. The media is already on script.
The narrative of violent elements having hijacked the protest and secessionists hoisting the Sikh flag on Red fort (Lal Qila) are the headlines. There has been little coverage of the other 99% of the peaceful protestors.
But neither Farmers’ leaders nor the millions around the world supporting the farmer protest should feel guilt, remorse or surprise. The leaders are not professional sergeants trained to manage a battalion of trained troops with discipline. Nor are the millions of volunteer protestors a well heeled army of ‘marching’ cadres. The discipline of armies was on show a few miles away at Rajpath. The creative indiscipline of ordinary people was evident in the farmers protests.
There is also a long history of agent provocateurs disrupting well intended peaceful demonstrations. Often, state security services deliberately provoke or leave windows open for aberrant breakaway groups. Yogendra Yadav, one of the farmer leaders, has already made a statement accusing the police of deliberately allowing this circus to happen.
Moreover, fringe groups who rarely get any publicity or support will piggy-back on legitimate mass movements with dreams of precipitating a ‘revolution’. It happens everywhere in the world.
These sort of passionate acts and violence happened in the otherwise peaceful Rath Yatras led by Advani, ending in the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. In America, violence at Black Lives Matter protests gave Trump excuses to call for violence. It has also happened in most big protests in Britain such as the miners strike and the poll tax strike. It even happened in the demonstrations in Punjab in 1982.
It would be quite an underhanded act for the government to exploit this side show of violence in the otherwise peaceful demonstrations to distract from the central issues and use it as an excuse to crush the farmers. It will be a punitive win.
The vast majority of farmers, including their families, children and elders, held steady on their intended protest. Many protests took place in other parts of the country and they were all peaceful except the ones in the capital.
The government may soon take out its old playbook and start up a game of distraction tactics, arrests and charges. It will likely be tempted to make claims that national security is under threat and hope for an anti-farmer public opinion wave to crush the protests. The now very compliant Indian media houses will oblige. However, looking at the history of these tactics, the government should assess the risk of this policy which has failed before.
This has been tried many times before. For example, the undisciplined protests of 1984 allowed the government to undermine a legitimate movement for greater state rights and label it as a secessionist terrorist campaign. But it backfired leading to two prime ministers assassinated, a fractured country, a demoralized army, the rise of new political fundamentalism and a country on brink of bankruptcy in 1992. It took some fifteen years to get back on keel.
This time around the protests are not confined to Punjab but have spread throughout the country. Additionally, there is now a bigger, more menacing neighbor than Pakistan willing to exploit internal dissent. No number of shiny Raffaele jets can control people’s movements as the mighty USA has found in the Middle East.
The grievance of the farmers are real, no matter how much the government tries to delude itself into believing that the protests have been hijacked by communists and secessionists. It is simply about land.
A country fights for every inch of its land against neighbors and invaders, there are always neighboring countries wanting to expand their territory and gain access to resources. India, like every country has a huge armed infrastructure in place to protect that every inch of land.
Farmers too fight for every inch of their little patch of land against predatory corporates and big money who want to take over their land and exploit the resources. Unlike a country though, the farmers only have their legs and their will to fend off policies that favor corporate takeovers of small farms. What is so difficult to understand about that?
Prime Minister Modi has not been able to convince the farmers that his brand new, wonderful laws are really for their (farmers) benefit. He has lost the argument. Pushing it with tyrannical or dictatorial force is neither democratic nor in the best interest of the country.
But Modi is not necessarily a tyrant. Tyrants destroy those nearest them to consolidate power. Modi is too dependent on the party and the RSS to be a real tyrant. Does the BJP want its image to be like the Baath Party of Iraq?
Modi is also not a real dictator. Dictators don’t usually bring in policies that endanger their rule. They are careful. Modi is a victim of his own myth rather than a true dictator.
Moreover the Indian democracy does not really let tyrants or dictators last for long. Modi is a man caught in his own mythology. His party has built a persona of Modi the strongman, a man who never does a U turn. These sort of hyped up public profiles do not work well in democracies. They end tragically for the person and usually serve the interest of those who build the myth.
That is what happened to Margaret Thatcher. She fell on her own sword, brought down by her own party and financiers when they no longer needed her. That is what happened to Trump in the end. That is what is happening to Boris. That may well be the tragic political end of Modi as those close to him dig in the knife and burst the myth. Democracies are built to oust despots, tyrants and dictators, not to boost their rule. Indian democracy is no different.
Powerful politicians are those who can do U turns without looking weak. PM Modi has left little scope for himself to open his arms and say sorry to farmers and repeal the laws. He and his coterie of myth makers think that will shatter the image of the strong man. It is foolish and its is dangerous. It is not political art. Politics is the field of compromises and sometimes the compromise has to be total to survive longer.
This is now a dangerous impasse for both Modi and the country. A heavy handed response and attempts to malign the farmers could trigger deep resentment and rebellions.
The fact is, both farmers and the government feel there is a need to bring in reforms. But the government has listened to the wrong economists and policy advisors. Most of them are old retired economists still hooked on GDP rather than comprehensive economics that incorporate aspects such as security, people’s contentment, life opportunities etc.
Exploiting the side show of violence in the farmer’s protest and using the law and armed force may win the battle. But winning a battle does not win a war—that is what the government should consider seriously. The best move is to treat the aberrant group of protestors as just that and let it be. Concentrate on the issue real issue and the other 99% of peaceful protestors. Repeal the laws, work with farmers and bring a better set of policies and laws in place. The alternative does not look good.