Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Wednesday appealed to protesting farmers to engage the government in a logical debate on every clause of the new agricultural legislations, and allow the administration “to do the needful to address their problems”, ANI reported.

In an interview with the news agency, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was anguished to see the farmers protesting against the reforms, which he initiated with the intention of doubling their income. “There is no question of being insensitive as far as the subject of farmers is concerned,” Singh added. “Our farmers are holding demonstrations and I am not the only one pained. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pained as well.”

Singh’s outreach came as farmer leaders geared up to hold another round of talks with Union ministers, a month after their massive agitations against the three new laws. Five rounds of talks between the farmers and the Centre have failed to produce any breakthroughs.

Farmers’ unions still insist they want the laws repealed, and on Tuesday said that the first item on the agenda of the meeting should be the modalities of scrapping the legislations.

Ahead of the meeting, Singh reiterated that the laws were a much-needed reform that would benefit farmers. He also accused the Opposition of spreading fears of farmers’ exploitation by corporations.

“Some forces have tried to create some misconceptions amongst farmers,” he said. “My only request to farmers is that clause-wise discussion based on logic should be done and not seek ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. We will find a resolution to the problem.”

The defence minister claimed that the government had consulted farmers before enacting the contentious legislations, which came into force in September. “I have myself seen the laws and I am aware of the problems of the farmers,” he added. “The farmers should at least see the implementation of these laws for two years as an experiment.”

He again offered to make necessary amendments to the law. “If the farmers want experts to talk with the government for amendment in certain clauses, we are entirely flexible,” Singh said.

The Modi government has been criticised by the Opposition and farmer groups for not holding enough consultations before the bills were passed. A Right to Information query filed by NDTV on Tuesday revealed that the government does not “hold any record” on whether the farmers were consulted about the laws.

Farmers say the agricultural reforms will weaken the minimum support price mechanism under which the government buys agricultural produce, will lead to the deregulation of crop-pricing and leave them at the mercy of corporations. The government maintains the reforms enable farmers to market their produce and boost production through private investment.

Singh on Wednesday told ANI that the government was willing to pledge that guaranteed prices will continue. “How will we renege on our promises?” he added. “If leaders renege on promises in a democracy then the people punish them under this system. We are striving to increase the income of farmers.”

On derogatory remarks about farmers

While Modi and his party’s leaders continued to try to allay farmers’ concerns about the new laws, some of them have called the farmers “misguided”, alleging they are being motivated by separatists and “anti-national” elements.

When asked about these allegations, Singh said the government wholly rejects them. “We express our deepest respect towards them [the farmers],” he added. “Our heads bow in respect towards our farmers. They are our ‘annadatas’... there is no question on their integrity.” The minister said that the contribution of Sikh brothers in protecting the country’s self-respect and its culture will always be remembered.

At the same time, the defence minister said he was also against the derogatory comments allegedly made about Modi at the farmers’ demonstrations, asserting that the prime minister was not just an individual but an institution.

“Baseless allegations are made. Should this be done? Derogatory remarks should not be made against a prime minister. Prime Minister is not just an individual but an institution. In my political life, I have never used abusive words against any former prime minister. The kind of sloganeering done against the prime minister - ‘mar ja, mar ja’ [go die] this kind of sloganeering. I felt hurt.”

— Rajnath Singh to ANI

Singh accused Opposition parties of maligning the farmers protests. “The Opposition should understand its responsibility,” he added. “I am no one to advise them but the institutions should be respected. If the institutions are weakened, democracy gets weak.”

On Rahul Gandhi

In his interview to ANI, Singh also took on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who has accused the prime minister of introducing the laws to help a few corporate entities. The defence minister dismissed the Congress leaders questions about the legislations, and asserted he knew more about agriculture than Gandhi.

“Rahulji is younger to me and I know more than him about agriculture,” he said, according to the news agency. “Because I have been born from womb of a farmer mother. I am the son of a farmer and we cannot take decisions against the farmers. Our prime minister was also born from the womb of a poor mother.”

When asked about Gandhi’s recent meeting with President Ram Nath Kovind, and him presenting a memorandum to the president against the new reforms, Singh said these were attempts by “some forces to create doubts in the minds of farmers regarding the farm laws”.