Conflict Alerts # 206, 17 December 2020
In the news
On 17 December, the farmers' protest entered the 22nd day as the government remained resolute with no signs of withdrawing the agricultural reform legislations. Consequently, agitation by farmer unions expanded in several parts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Many 'khaps' (local organizations) of Muzaffarnagar in UP extended support and promised to join the stir on 17 December on Delhi borders.
On 16 December, a Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice proposed setting up a committee that would include farmer leaders from across the country and government representatives. According to the Chief Justice, "The committee can talk and resolve this issue. Secure the names of some farmers' unions who want to join... It should include BKU and other farmer leaders. They should be drawn from across the country. It affects all and this will soon become a national issue."
On 15 December, to keep the dialogue open with the farmers protesting against farm bills, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar proposed willingness of the government to discuss once farmers respond to the proposed amendments.
On December 14, the protest was organized in 350 districts across the country and was claimed as successful to the satisfaction of farmers. Farmers also made 150 toll plazas free. Expanding the protests have in turn caused inconvenience to the public as highways and borders to the country's capital remain blocked.
Issues at large
First, the politicization of the protest. Barring the inherent flaw in the bill, which is the core focus, the protests by the farmers have now being usurped by different political actors and counter rhetoric. The government has blamed the opposition parties for their failure to rectify the plight of farmers, when in power. The opposition parties have ganged-up to malign the image of government misinforming the farmers about the merit of the laws. This has put the farmers in a spot between the blame games. Members of the government have also been claiming of external hand and support to the protest. Mud-slinging upon the protests, including claims and counterclaims, have increasingly politicized it amidst its intensification.
Second, the State's diversionary tactics to evade dialogue with genuine protestors. On 15 December, Tomar and members of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) had a dialogue. Accordingly, the working committee of All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) has criticized the government of adopting illusory and diversionary tactics as the people whom the government is talking to, neither represent the struggling farmers nor do they articulate the right demands. Startlingly enough, it reveals the crack within the farmers' movement. Nothing could be more detrimental than this to the cause of agriculture and farmers.
Third, the farmers' loss of life and expansion of the protests. Nearly 20 farmers have been declared 'shaheed' (martyr) by now, which has further enraged them to escalate the protest. Subsequently, farmers are getting firm that they will negotiate only after the three laws are repealed. However, earlier the farmer unions claimed that they are ready to negotiate provided government pay heed to their demands with concrete proposals. This is making the deadlock a hard nut to crack with enough potentials of turning violent and further loss of lives in the process given toughening winter conditions.
Fourth, industrial production stands choked. Many of the agriculture-based industries are on the verge of shutting down on account of the shortage of raw material even though they are operating at 30 per cent of their workforce. ASSOCHAM claims loss of 3,000 to 3,500 crores on account of value chains and transport disruptions in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and J&K. This will further damage industrial production reeling on account of lockdown and shows the deep dependency on agrarian production.
Neither the daunting cold nor the COVID-19 pandemic has deterred the spirit of farmers since 26 November, when they commenced their protest. Increasing politicization and invectives about them on social media too has not let down their courage to stand like gladiators against the government machinery, which is hell-bent on castigating and declaring it anti-social, anti-national and politically motivated. Persistent and protracted protest indicates government to get into serious negotiations and resolve it amicably in the larger interest of farmers. Good sense must prevail on 'opposition leaders' not to politicize the interest of farmers and agricultural business for sheer political mileage.
A competitive and alternative market mechanism for agricultural produce is the need of the hour but not at the cost of farmers interest and lives. Thus, the challenge continues.