The government of India has told protesting farmers to approach the Supreme Court with their demand that it should repal the three new farm laws passed in September. The government says that it would be difficult to withdraw the Acts as they have been approved by Parliament and the President has signed them.

The government seems to be telling the farmers that Parliament is paramount and the government is bound by its will. As a general principle, that should be the case. But that can hold only if we have a government that is answerable to Parliament. There could also be a situation, not uncommon in the history of the nations, when the reverse is true: parliaments being answerable to the government.

In the India of our times, Parliament has been held hostage to the whims of the government. Parliament was forced it to hold sessions when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak. But now, when all government offices and other establishments have returned to functioning as normal, the government decided against holding the winter session.

The government claims to be acting within the powers conferred on it by the Constitution. Experts agree. ​“What has been decided by the elected representatives cannot be undone by a crowd,” said the constitutional scholar Subhash Kashyap. “This is a democracy not a mobocracy and the government will not be worth its salt if it passes a law today and repeals it tomorrow under pressure. It will set a very bad precedent. Instead of parliament making laws, crowds will make laws.”

In other words, a constitutional government cannot be forced by mobs to change its mind. But only the smugness of expertise could denigrate the agitating farmers by calling them a crowd or believing that crowds should not be allowed to present their point of view to a government that works on a constitutional mandate.

The farmers, it must be remembered, have been calling for dialogue even when the government was calling them names.

‘The New Movement’

How do we understand the relation between a people and its government? While admiring the grit and determination of the farmers’ movement as they have doggedly agitated at the entry points of India’s Capital, exercising their soul force against a powerful government armed to the teeth, I recalled the essay titled “The New Movement”, written by a figure who has generally been forgotten. The author is Bipin Chandra Pal, who along with Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak formed the famous Lal-Bal-Pal trio that played a key role in the freedom movement in the early decades of the 20th century.

Pal was writing when Minto and Curzon were viceroys. In the essay, he quotes Lord Curzon: “ It is absolutely necessary that whatever reforms are introduced by the Government of India must be initiated by the Government itself; and it would be a mischievous thing for the British Government of India if the idea got abroad that the Government of India has no conviction of its own, that they initiated reforms under the pressure of the public opinion here…”

Pal says that it is very clear from this declaration that public opinion in India would not have any influence on the government of the country – reforms must come solely from the government. Pal says that he, along with others, had always believed that the government of India was amenable to listening to public opinion. If it had not been guided by Indian public opinion thus far, it was because sufficiently strong public opinion has not been created.

But Minto’s response demolished this hope. “No, we shall not budge a fifth, a tenth, a hundredth, or a millionth part of an inch,” he asserted. “No pressure of Indian public opinion can influence the government.”

Lala Lajpat Rai of Punjab, Bal Gangadhar Tilak of Maharashtra, and Bipin Chandra Pal (right) of Bengal, the triumvirate were popularly known as Lal Bal Pal. Credit: Unknown author -Public Domain,

The refusal of Minto and Curzon to give the voice of Indians any quarter in the business of law-making or administration led Bipin Chandra Pal to wonder about the nature of the Indian government. He says that there are two types of government. An absolute government and a constitutional government.

“An absolute government is that which refuses to be amenable to public opinion...,” Pal noted. In other words, a government that does not heed the voice of the public is a despotic government. Pal explains, “An absolute government is that which does not agree to be guided and controlled by the opinions, ideals and sentiments of those whom it governs.”

Pal laments the fact that for the previous 25 years, Indians had been living under the impression that the government of India was a constitutional one. The supporters of the government adamantly claimed so. Pal responds to them by saying it is pointless to make this claim. All governments have to be constitutional in some sense: “If a government had no constitution, there would be nothing to regulate the parts to the parts and parts to the whole.” Even in the Russia of the Czar, the government had a constitution.

Pal makes it clear that the meaning of the term needs to be understood. By constitutional government we mean a government “”which organises the state machinery on the basis of recognised organs through which the opinions of the people may apply themselves on the work of the government.”

Constitutional governments allow, by the very same constitution, every right to the people to assert their opinion and ideas effectively upon those who govern.

If the people do not have these rights, if they are not allowed to assert themselves and if the government refuses to acknowledge this right, it does not remain constitutional. It is simply a despotic government, an absolute government.

If the governments become despotic, the people have every right to agitate. Their agitations cannot be called unconstitutional simply because they are opposing certain moves of the government that they think are harmful to them. “Constitutional agitation means an agitation which is consistent with the safety of the agitator,” Pal wrote.

A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

It is safety of the agitator that is primary. The agitation is also one that does not transgress the existing laws. “We respect the laws of the present government as long as those laws respect the primary rights of citizenship,” he said.

Pal reminds the government that there are certain rights that governments do not create, but rights that create governments themselves.

 “Those are not constitutional rights; they are not created rights; they are natural rights ...rights which inherit to every individual human being, rights the charter of which is received from no man but Him who stands on the High, who has endowed every man with his life, with his limbs, who has endowed every man with his human instincts, who has endowed every man with his intellect and every spiritual and ethical endowment. The charter of these primary rights comes not from any crowned head, but it comes from the King of Kings, from the throne of God himself.”  

Forgive Pal for using the gendered language of his time, but can we remain unaffected by the sublimity of this timeless principle? Can any people, if they are not dead, allow the governments to take away their right to exercise their intellect, their basic human rights?

The farmers gathered on the borders of Delhi may not have read Pal. Not perhaps was his work familiar to the the women and others who organsed sit-ins for months early last year to protest the unequal citizenship law.

But the protesting women and men at both sites prostrated themseleves before that Unseen. In Singhu, Tikri and Shahjahanpur, there are musicians immersed in Shabad Kirtan, the Sikh hymns sung in gurudwaras. They are not raising a war cry. The farmers are drawing strength from the divine power that makes them believe in their own worth. It ensures that their hearts are not filled with hatred for anyone, not even this government.

The serenity of the protest sites is a reminder to the government that the people know that they are His people and not creatures of this government.

Perhaps they could the words of Bipin Chandra Pal to remind the government of their strategy: “So long as the ...government of India will respect those natural, those primary, those uncreated rights of person and property of Individual ...citizens, so long we shall respect their laws , and our agitation shall be conducted on those lines.”

It is for the government to remain alive to these rights of the people, people with feelings, emotions, intellect, and to avoid humiliating them by describing them as mobs. The government must understand that their protests are constitutional.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.