The last time Delhi witnessed a memorable farmers’ protest was in 1988, when Mahendra Singh Tikait, a Jat farmer leader from Uttar Pradesh, laid siege to the capital with a charter of demands. With him, nearly five lakh farmers with their tractors, cattle and cooking utensils took over the Boat Club lawns – the original protest venue in Delhi, on Rajpath – till the Rajiv Gandhi government finally relented to their demands, which included an increase in the price of sugarcane and some waivers. It was after Tikait’s sit-in that the protest venue was shifted to Jantar Mantar so agitators could be kept at a safe distance from government buildings.

The farmers from Tamil Nadu who have been protesting in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for a month now are a small number in comparison – there are barely more than 100 of them. But, the protest has, to an extent, engaged the attention of the national media.

Staging a protest

“If they put us on the train back to Tamil Nadu, we will pull the chain. If they beat us, we will jump off the train,” chanted P Ayyakannu, leader of the protest. “We will stay here till our demands are met or we die.”

This is the man who devises the theatricality that has marked this protest since it began on March 14. The 72-year-old farmer and lawyer from Tiruchi is a protest veteran, and has been campaigning for farmers’ rights in Tamil Nadu for nearly 20 years.

Ayyakannu came to Delhi last year to discuss the crippling drought in his state, which had not received much rainfall from either the July-September Southwest monsoon or the retreating Northwest monsoon in October. He said that the last time, the government gave them assurances and then sent them back. So in March, they came prepared with props, skulls and mice and snakes, and have been pulling off one desperate act after another, almost daily. The group is determined to get the government to meet their various demands, which include a Rs 40,000 central drought relief fund and pensions for old farmers who can no longer tend to their fields.

They’ve performed angapradakshinam – rolling prostrate on the street at Jantar Mantar – staged suicides, conducted mock funerals, shaved off half their moustaches and beards, stripped in front of the Prime Minister’s office, eaten dal and rice off the road, stood with mice in their mouths and have hung skulls around their necks, which they claim belong to farmers in their state who committed suicide because of mounting debt.

In its essence, the “skull protest”, as the media has nicknamed it, is the longest continuous demonstration in recent times and is an expression of the oldest form of protest in India – the nonviolent protest.

Organised under the protection of police and the consent of the state, it is contained and unlikely to descend into chaos, unlike some of the recent agitations in the country, such as the one in Chennai’s Marina Beach in January against the ban on Jallikattu and the quota stirs by Jats, Patidars and Marathas over the last two years, which started off as peaceful protests but soon turned violent. The only violence that has been seen at Jantar Mantar has been self-inflicted.

A farmer from Tamil Nadu plays dead near symbolic skulls during the ongoing protests in Delhi. Sajjad Hussain/AFP
A farmer from Tamil Nadu plays dead near symbolic skulls during the ongoing protests in Delhi. Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Grabbing attention

Yet, the agitators are well aware that their protest has to be suitably dramatic for media consumption. A photographer from a daily newspaper who has been covering the farmers’ protest regularly, said: “My editors don’t want to write about the issue, they just want dramatic photographs.”

This is the tragedy of the protest, which is being staged from the national capital, but does not concern the rest of India. Shut out from social media and unlikely to engage the support of urban, middle-class India – who have been at the centre of the most vocal and hence, visible protests in the recent past – the farmers at Jantar Mantar have their work cut out for them.

In 2015, a rally against the land acquisition Act organised by AAP went tragically wrong when a staged suicide by a farmer at Jantar Mantar led to his accidental death. The incident emphasised the futility of spectacle as a form of protest.

The plight of the Tamil Nadu farmers is genuine, but there are questions being asked about the political forces behind the protests. Though there are no clear answers to this, there are also whispers about support from NGOs.

Irrespective of whether that is indeed the case, by now, the protest has taken on farcical proportions. The performance seems to have become the point of it, and the protest itself is lost.

So, what can the farmers hope to achieve beyond getting noticed?

HT Photo
HT Photo

How effective are protests?

While it is difficult to establish the impact of public agitations and very little research exists on it, India has a history of effective protest. It goes back to Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with satyagraha and civil disobedience at the time of the Independence struggle, which were the bedrock for social movements in the West, like the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.

But, somewhere in the decades after 1947, apart from student movements, protests in India were appropriated by political parties and politically affiliated trade unions – a hallmark of that era were incessant bandhs, hartals and dharnas. The average Indian citizen, meanwhile, became increasingly disconnected from the process of democratic engagement.

This has changed in recent years, said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “In the last four or five years, we are seeing a larger number of people-led protests in India on different issues,” he said. “At one time, protests were only organised by political parties.”

Explaining why some of these protests have turned violent, he said, “People do not have the patience or the capacity to wait anymore, to protest for months on end. They want their demands to be addressed immediately, they are not willing to give a longer rope to the government, as they think it is inactive, and so violence is the means to capture attention.”

The 2012 Delhi gangrape protests. Adnan Abidi/Reuters
The 2012 Delhi gangrape protests. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Loudest voice

The year 2006 was a turning point, when the middle classes demonstrated in large numbers in the Jessica Lal case, taking part in candlelight vigils and silent marches. It was the first time that technology – emails and SMSes – was used to galvanise the masses. From then on, the middle class in India, most often accused of apathy, has increasingly turned to protest as a force for social change.

Some of the most resonant agitations include the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement of 2011, the 2012 protests that followed the December 16 Delhi gangrape and the student protests last year triggered by Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide that spilled over to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

All these protests had similar defining characteristics: they were unorganised, not localised or restricted to any one city and were a spontaneous outpouring of deep-rooted anger of the middle class on issues like corruption, women’s safety, caste and freedom of speech.

As protest becomes more widespread with the reach of social media, the diversity of agitations in India has expanded. People are taking to the streets for very different issues, from anti-corruption crusaders, to supporters of women’s rights, gay and lesbian people, Dalits and other minorities.

“The diversity of protest has broadened the idea of the ‘public’ in India,” said Sanjay Srivastava, professor in sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “There is a new definition of who is the public which can legitimately demand things.” We have moved from a narrow, homogeneous and mostly male category of “public” to one which encompasses diverse identities.

What hasn’t changed is the role of the State as the focus of all protests. Said Srivastava, “One would imagine that with globalisation and corporatisation, the significance of the state would diminish, but that’s not the case. With increasing political and economic uncertainty, the state is the only entity that people can appeal to for every issue, from job reservations to sugarcane prices to rights of minorities.”