Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday that the contentious new farm laws would soon be repealed is definitely a moment for rejoicing. Though farmers across the country had waged a sustained protest against the laws for almost a year, the possibility of a victory of their just struggle had looked like a dream only the day before.
This triumph will help fight the sense of defeat that has been setting in, especially in civil society, ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government returned to power in 2019. The farmers have shown that the brute majority that the party commands in Parliament can be made to bend before the resolve of the people on the street.
Actually, it would be more accurate would be to say that the farmers, by taking the path followed by the Muslim women when they decided to launch their struggle against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, demonstrated that instead of depending on the courts and legislature for justice, the street must be transformed into the theatre of politics.
Democratic politics becomes meaningful when people take their destiny into their own hands. This moment belongs to the farmers and we must not take away their glory by talking about the cunning of an autocratic ruler beating the retreat in an attempt to confuse the electorate ahead of the crucial state elections.
It is not a masterstroke. He has been forced to backtrack.
Crisis and change
The decision also demonstrates that unless citizens precipitate crisis for a government that is insensitive to their interests, they will never emerge from the chaos. Democracy functions through crises and not by evading them. The job of the citizens is not to make the life of the government easy. It must always be kept on its toes and its decisions and actions regularly examined.
Governments that have the backing of an absolute majority in the legislature require even more scrutiny from the people they claim to work for: history shows that the people’s mandate is often usurped to disenfranchise them. Their own voting choices are used to make them powerless. The only remedy is strong people’s action .
This retreat by the government is a reminder that ordinary people should not be browbeaten by the arrogance of “specialists” and “experts”: often, these figures exist to serve the establishment and status quo. For instance, the advocates of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax mocked those who critiqued these decisions even though they wrecked millions of lives.
The critics were portrayed as negativists, and blamed for dragging India back from the path of progress.
The long struggle of the farmers went through many turbulent phases. The chaos of the January 26 demonstration at the Red Fort and the repeated attacks on the protest sites of Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur were designed to defame the movement and to unnerve the leadership. That they held their ground has something to do with their being farmers: Nehru recognised it when he wrote that they have a certain grace because of their relationship with the earth.
Farming actually gave them the tenacity to fight a long battle, to face uncertainty.
It is clear that a government that is adversarial to a section of the electorate – Muslims and Christians, in this case – cannot bring good to any section of society. This government’s record is a testimony to this. The citizenship initiatives, the removal of the special status that Kashmir enjoyed under the Indian Constitution, the introduction of demonetisation, the dilution of environmental protections and other similar moves have caused great upheavals in the lives of a great many Indians. The only section of India that seems to benefit from this government’s initiatives is the corporate capitalist class.
This victory should give the educated middle class an opportunity to reconsider its tendency to blindly accept all government diktats – even those that hurt them. Perhaps it will also prompt the judiciary to review their orders supporting government decisions and not to act as mere legitimisers of the ruling powers.
This victory should give citizens courage and energy to resume righteous battles and start new ones. Victory depends on factors, many of them beyond the control of citizens. In the end, all they can do is to struggle to achieve their goals. There is no respite from that.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.