Jay Prakash Yadav understands why farmers are protesting.
“The laws are not good for the farmers,” said the 48-year-old autorickshaw driver who lives in Badarpur, South East Delhi.
“Their lands will be snatched by [Gautam] Adani and [Mukesh] Ambani,” he said, echoing the views of protesting farmers who believe the Modi government’s farm laws seek to benefit corporations at the cost of the cultivators.
Until Republic Day, Yadav, originally from Jaunpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, said he supported the farmers’ cause. But now he has changed his mind.
“If you want to take your rights then do so under the law but not by raising flags at Red Fort and vandalism,” he said, referring to the clashes with the police that marred an otherwise peaceful protest rally on January 26 in which hundreds of thousands of farmers participated. “I saw [a video of] them hitting a policeman with a sword. Isn’t this wrong?”
Standing next to his rickshaw in Jangpura in South Delhi, he opened a copy of the Dainik Jagran, among the largest-selling Hindi dailies, and pointed to a news report dated January 28 headlined: “Grill ke niche dabi Rekha va Ritu par dande barsa rahe the updravi.” The report was about two women constables who were injured after “updravi” – the Hindi word for rioters and vandals – allegedly assaulted them with sticks.
“This is hooliganism, what do these sardars think of themselves?” Yadav said, indignantly.
Then, chillingly, he referred to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that took place after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
“There are rumours that these people [protestors] will only understand when the conditions become like 1984,” he said. “Phir kaante maare jayenge, phir unke samajh mein aayega.” They will be maimed and killed, then only will they understand.
After farmers from Punjab had arrived at the doorstep of Delhi in November, some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders had tried to discredit them by labelling them as “terrorists” and “Khalistanis”, who were allegedly in the garb of a farmer agitation plotting to create a separate Sikh homeland.
But the government was eventually forced to negotiate with the farmers, partly because the movement spread to Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and beyond, and partly since a large section of public opinion was sympathetic to the farmers.
“They are not doing anything wrong,” Suraj Kashyap, 20, a flower-seller in south Delhi had told this reporter on January 17. He had visited the protest sites at Singhu and Tikri, and even volunteered at the langer or community kitchen.
“The government should listen to them,” he said.
But the events of January 26 – and their media portrayal – threaten to erode this support.
While expressing anguish over the violence, many protesting farmers have strenuously pointed out that the tractor rally was overwhelmingly peaceful, but the media selectively focused on the clashes. The image of a Sikh protestor climbing up a flagstaff to unfurl the Nishan Sahib, a religious flag that flies atop gurudwaras, in particular, was shown in an inflammatory way on many pro-government TV news channels.
Farmer-union leaders maintained the violence was instigated by those acting at the behest of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Others questioned the government’s failure to secure the Red Fort despite a fringe group provocatively announcing a reward for whoever scaled the monument.
But on the streets of Delhi, opinion was divided.
Suraj Kashyap stuck to his support for farmers. “Some BJP men entered the parade,” he claimed on Thursday. “They were the ones rioting and breaking the bus. The sardars did not do anything.”
But others like Yadav scoffed at such conspiracy claims. “Where were their leaders when such a big thing happened?” he asked. “Why were they not able to control them?”
Those who had been sceptical of the farmer protests from the start felt validated.
“Danga ho gaya na?” said Ranjeet Singh, 28, on Thursday afternoon. A riot happened, wasn’t I right?
Singh, who hails from Samastipur in Bihar and works as a tea seller in Central Delhi, had told this reporter on January 17 that the protests were being orchestrated by those who wanted “to ruin the future of the country”.
The farm laws, he had claimed, were beneficial for the farmers. “Modi has said if you want to sell your anaj [grain] at the mandi then you can do it, and if you want to sell your anaj in your house then you can do that too,” he had rattled off what he had heard the prime minister say.
On January 28, two days after the protest rally, Singh sounded even more belligerent and said the guilty farmers must be punished: “Some people are trying to do good for the country, but there are others who are derailing progress.”
‘Modi is doing the right thing’
The divide in public perception of the protests was evident even during the tractor parade on Republic Day among residents who had stepped out of their homes to watch it.
In Nangloi, a neighbourhood in West Delhi, while women and children greeted the protestors with flowers, a group of men stood discussing their motivations.
Bhoop Singh, 62, a retired police official, said the protests were motivated by the Congress party: “Kisan ke kandhe pe bandook rakhke chala rahe hai.” They are shooting from the shoulders of the farmers.
It would be a terrible precedent if the government gave in to the farmers’ demand and revoked the laws, he added. “Then those who do not want [Article] 370 will also ask for the laws to be taken back, and the same with Ram temple.”
But another Nangloi resident, Ramesh, who stood overhearing the conversation shot back with reference to the recent change of power in the United States: “If Biden can come and take back Trump’s rules, then they [Centre] can also take back the farm laws.” The 63-year old who works in a plastic factory added: “He [Modi] is not in Parliament to merely show off his beard. They [the government] tried to bring the land acquisition law many times but they took it back.”
Satpal Malik, another member of the crowd, however, disagreed. “If [protests] happen all the time then the whole country will be ruined. Where will Modi go?”
While Bhoop Singh supported Malik, Ramesh dismissed the concerns. “This is such nonsense…this is 1,000% propaganda by the media,” he said.
But the pro-government media propaganda seemed to have worked. Even the women who waved at the rally in support expressed latent fears.
Mamta Kumar, a 44-year old Mundka resident in North West Delhi, said she supported the cause of farmers but wondered if the protestors were indeed genuine farmers. “I saw a video where a Muslim leaves the mosque and then comes out as a sardar,” she said, expressing anti-Muslim prejudice. “There are some traitors among the farmers.”
When asked for her regular sources of news, she said she watched the Hindi news channel, Aaj Tak, known for its pro-government slant.
But not everyone was swayed by the anti-farmer propaganda.
Watching the tractor parade on January 26, Sanjeevani, a 25-year-old Mundka resident, said she had heard that the protestors were “terrorists”. But she didn’t believe such claims. “Maybe someone from the crowd is one [terrorist]. But I have heard that there is always food and they are nice people.”
Ram Kumar, 34, enthusiastically clicked pictures of the tractors that passed by and waved at the farmers driving them.
“This is happening for the first time, I have never seen anything like it,” said Kumar, a migrant from Bihar’s Darbhanga district, who works as a driver in Delhi. He said the protest had continued long enough and it was time for the government to attend to the farmers’ demands. “The government is not listening to them and they are sitting in the cold. Would you sit in the cold?” he asked.
In the aftermath of a protest rally largely depicted through the prism of violent clashes, and worse, the image of the unfurling of a Sikh religious flag, the sympathy for the farmers’ cause has given way to anger and prejudice.
“Apni hi pairon pe kulhadi maar di…They have damaged their own cause,” said Yadav, the autorickshaw driver, who openly and disturbingly backed violence against Sikhs.
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