Opinion

MP farmers’ stir: How Shivraj Singh Chouhan pulled a fast one (and not for the first time)

In the past, when under fire for the plight of farmers in his state, Chouhan has successfully deflected the blame.

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s fast to restore peace in violence-hit western Madhya Pradesh – the hub of a farmers agitation to secure fair prices for their produce and loan waivers from the state government – lasted nearly 28 hours, till Sunday afternoon.

Before he started his fast on Saturday, Chouhan said that his penance would continue “till complete calm returned in the state”. However, by then his stated objective had already been achieved. No fresh incidents of violence were reported from curfew-bound Mandsaur town, where five farmers were killed on June 6 when the police fired on them. The rest of the state was also peaceful, and fresh trouble seemed unlikely to erupt as the 10-day long farmers stir had ended that day itself.

Then why did Chouhan sit on an indefinite fast at Bhopal, 350 km away from Mandsaur, the epicentre of the violence?

Gandhian weapon

Two previous fasts that Chouhan has gone on are evidence that no other Bharatiya Janata Party leader understands the usefulness of the Gandhian weapon of fasting better than he does. These fasts allowed him to successfully deflect the fire he faced because of the plight of farmers in his state.

In 2011, two years before Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal went on a two-week-long fast to protest against alleged inflated water and electricity bills in Delhi, Chouhan started a hunger strike to highlight the United Progressive Alliance-led Union government’s alleged discrimination against Madhya Pradesh’s farmers.

At that time, Chouhan was under tremendous pressure from the main Opposition Congress and farmers’ bodies in the state to provide a relief package to farmers whose crops had been damaged by frost. He needed a way out. Chouhan blamed the plight of farmers on the Centre, and announced a fast against the Manmohan Singh government. The venue was Dussehra maidan, also the site of his latest fast.

However, Chouhan called off his intended indefinite fast within minutes of starting it following an assurance given to him by the prime minister. The week-long build-up to that fast, however, brought him nationwide publicity. It bolstered his image as a pro-farmer chief minister even though he had done little to assuage the woes of farmers.

The same tactic came handy in 2014, when Chouhan started another fast against the Centre on March 5, which was also his birthday. (Significantly, June 10, when he began his latest fast, is his wife Sadhna Singh’s birthday. She fasted with her husband, while their two sons were present at the fast site. Birthdays add to the emotional quotient of such exercises, and Chouhan seems to be well aware of that.) The four-hour-long fast, held two months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, was part of a state-wide bandh that the BJP had called to protest against the Union government’s alleged indifferent attitude towards Madhya Pradesh’s farmers who had been hit by unseasonal rains and hailstorm. At that time, Chouhan had appealed to the Union government to provide the state with a special package of Rs 5,000 crores to help it deal with the crisis.

Then too, the chief minister succeeded in deflecting onto the Centre the heat he faced regarding the plight of farmers. In the subsequent elections, the BJP won 27 out of 29 parliamentary seats in Madhya Pradesh. Chouhan’s image as the “humble son of a farmer” was built up during campaigning for the polls.

During the farmers' agitation in Bhopal on Sunday. (Photo credit: PTI).
During the farmers' agitation in Bhopal on Sunday. (Photo credit: PTI).

Shifting the blame

Rattled by the violence during the latest farmers’ stir, Chouhan perhaps felt the need to shift the blame again. However, this time Chouhan’s own BJP is heading the Union government, so blaming the Centre was not an option. Instead, the narrative changed from the Centre’s discrimination against farmers to the Congress party’s instigation of farmers as the main cause for the widespread unrest.

The latest fast was carefully scripted. It started on the last day of the 10-day-long stir, when leaders of defiant farmer unions from the state were in New Delhi to chalk out strategies to expand the agitation across the country.

The families of four of the five farmers who had been killed in the Mandsaur police firing were brought to the fasting site, and Chouhan met them late on Saturday evening. Following that meeting, Chouhan told the media that he had assured the grieving family members that those responsible for the police firing would be punished, and that the families had asked him to discontinue his fast.

The Congress described Chouhan’s fast as a “drama”.

“One thing that made me emotional was the number of our children that we lost in these protests,” Chouhan told reporters on Sunday. “Their parents came to meet me and despite such grief befalling upon them, asked me to put an end to the issue.”

But despite meeting the families of the victims of police firing on Saturday, Chouhan ended his fast only the next day, possibly in order to exploit media coverage of his fast to the hilt.

When the farmers’ stir started, Chouhan’s image had taken a severe beating in the media. By giving interviews to assorted news channels during his fast, which were later picked up and published by several news websites, he managed minimise the damage and also succeeded in getting the media to broadcast his emotionally suffused comments on welfare measures that the state has extended to farmers in the last 11-odd years that he has headed the state government.

“The farmers and their issues were in my thoughts and dreams,” he told reporters. “I have always tried doing a lot for farmers, and their problem is ours. They are our own.”

Chouhan also caught the attention of his party leadership. By the time veteran BJP leader Kailash Joshi offered him coconut water with which he broke his fast, senior party leaders including Union minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, state BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya and Union minister Narendra Singh Tomar had visited him at the site. State BJP president Nand Kumar Singh Chouhan also claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah had called on Saturday night to enquire about Chouhan’s health.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.