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Farmers’ Strike : Why does the State become inhuman?

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
07 Dec 2020

It is a heart wrenching scene that the police are trying to stop thousands of farmers with tear gas, water cannons and barricades when Delhi is experiencing the coldest November in 71 years.  At the same time, it is highly inspiring that the farmers are braving the cruelty of the state without resorting to violence except occasional stone throwing. 

The agitating farmers even share food with the police. It is a pity that the farmers who feed 139 crore Indians are subjected to humiliation and cruelty by the BJP government that has promised sab ka saat sabka vikas and sab ka vishwas (Development for all and trust with all).

The question that arises in the minds of many people is how such a confrontational situation has been created and why the government failed to talk to the farmers before passing the laws that affect them directly. Democracy cannot be limited to winning elections. 

Making people partners in the decision making process through proper information sharing and consultation is also part of democracy. People’s representatives cannot rule over the people and impose their unilateral decisions on them, as the kings and emperors did in the past. 

From 25th November onwards, thousands of farmers, braving water cannons, tear gas and barricades of the Haryana police, reached the borders of Delhi. While some of them managed to enter the city, the rest are sitting at the border areas, saying they are ready to do anything till the government withdraws the three farm laws passed by parliament earlier this year. The three agriculture related laws are Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. These three laws together seek to open up the farming sector at both ends: production (through contract farming) and sale (through complete deregulation).

There is a disconnect and trust deficit between the government and the striking farmers. The government is of the view that these laws are expected to usher in a revolutionary change in the arena of Indian agriculture and would go in a long way in doubling the incomes of the farmers. On the other hand, the farmers fear that the complete opening up of the agricultural sector would throw the farmers at the mercy of the private players. Thousands of farmers across India fear that the three laws together will deprive them of guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP). They also worry that government markets or mandis will be scrapped, taking away their assured earnings. 

The three bills were passed in a hurry without enough discussion in the parliament. When the opposition parties and even an ally of the ruling BJP, Akali Dal, opposed the bills as they were presented, the government could have referred them to a Select Committee of the parliament for detailed study. Meanwhile the government could have entered into dialogue with the representatives of the farmers and the states, as agriculture comes under the purview of the states. The bills could have been passed after arriving at a consensus between the farmers and the government. In that case a massive strike by the famers, causing economic loss and untold suffering for the striking farmers, could have been avoided. Passing these bills in the monsoon session of the parliament was not urgent; it was an expression of the arrogance of the ruling party. “We will do whatever we think is good for the nation and all those who question us are anti-nationals” is the attitude of the government. That is why the BJP Information Technology Cell head claimed that the farmer protests have ‘Kalistani and Maoist’ links. 

This is not the first time that the BJP government showed its undemocratic, insensitive and aggressive way of adopting policies and implementing them ruthlessly in spite of opposition from the people. Examples are aplenty. 

Demonetization that made 85% of the currency invalid and caused untold suffering to millions of Indians, the badly planned implementation of GST (Goods and Services Tax) that made ‘surgical strike’ on the Indian economy, abrogation of article 370 and 35 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State, enactment of the anti-constitutional Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) despite stiff opposition from the opposition political parties and the civil society groups, and the totally unplanned imposition of nationwide lockdown just four hours notice, which resulted in the exodus of  millions of migrant labourers to their homes on foot in the absence of any kind of transport are only some of them. 

The inhumanity of the BJP government is exhibited in the arrest and incarceration of many social activists, journalists, academics, using the draconian laws like National Security Act (NSA), Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and sedition law. Their crime is that they have expressed their dissent to some of the policies and actions of the government. Postponement of the request of 83 year old Stan Swamy for straw and sipper by the NIA (National Investigation Agency) court for about a month is another example of the insensitivity of the state. He is suffering from various diseases, including Parkinson disease. Stan Swamy was arrested on October 8 and has been lodged at the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai, being accused in the alleged Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case. 

Why is the Indian State becoming cruel and inhuman? Arrogance of power seems to be the immediate reason. More than absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and near majority in the Rajya Sabha, and a weak and divided opposition have made the ruling party arrogant. This arrogance is shown in the way the bills are passed in the parliament, sometimes even without any discussion, making the parliament a mere rubber stamp. The arrogance is reflected in its dealings with the state governments, especially the states ruled by the opposition parties. The way in which the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid 19 was imposed without any consultation with the states is an example for the callousness with which the central government is treating the states. For the BJP, democracy has become winning elections and remaining in power. Hence the party is always in an election mode. 

Lack of timely intervention by the judiciary to protect the constitutional values and the fundamental rights of the individual citizens is another reason. The government is under the impression that the judiciary is not going to intervene even if it enacts laws that violate the fundamental rights of the citizens.  According to A P Shah, the former Chief Justice of Delhi and Madras High Court, the Supreme Court has “completely abdicated its duty to defend fundamental rights” and it is going to “affect the credibility of the Court and its prestige”. "In several cases, the Court has refused to act in defence of citizens who have been victimised for their protest and dissent or for simply exercising their fundamental right of speech and expression," said Shah in an interview with Karan Thapar in the Wire. 

The most important reason for the State becoming inhuman seems to be the ideology of the ruling BJP, and its commitment to ethno-religious nationalism. Shashi Tharoor, a renowned author and Indian Parliamentarian, in his latest book, ‘The Battle of Belonging’ has elaborately explained how the ethnic, religious and cultural nationalism is different from ‘civic nationalism’. He has also narrated how India, which adopted after independence ‘civic nationalism’ by way of its constitution and institutions, has drifted away from ‘civic nationalism’ and is in the process of embracing ‘ethno-religious’ nationalism that is exclusionary and restrictive, under the BJP rule from 2014 onwards. 

As mentioned by Shashi Tharooor in his book, the methods used by the ruling party are: “weaken the independent institutions, demolish the autonomous checks and balances, stifle dissent, persecute and prosecute the critics, suspend genuine politics and replace it with mass rallies, parades, celebrations, and entertainments, while treating the populace to ‘bread and circus’”. 

According to Shashi Tharoor, ‘civic nationalism’ is, essentially, the nationalism that originates in the consent of citizens to participate in a free and democratic society of their own making. “Civic nationalism requires liberal democratic institutions, constitutionalism that guarantees freedom of speech and association, and representative democracy, and is therefore the form of nationalism most closely associated with the modern state”. It consists of inclusivity, acceptance of difference, celebration of diversity, respect for all religions, equality, fraternity, and concern for the poor. Crucially, it emerges from a voluntary participation in civic society. It is this civic nationalism that is guaranteed by the Indian secular constitution, writes Tharoor. 

On the other hand, ethno-religious nationalism is based on the superiority of a particular race or religion or culture and naturally excludes those who do not belong to that particular race, religion or culture. In ethno-religious nationalism “the individual is subordinated to the collective and the individual who is outside the collective is despised for not belonging”.

 Ethno-religious nationalism often promotes hate for people other than one’s own by encouraging ‘us-them’ syndrome. For example, the Nazi type of nationalism requires not just ‘enmification’ (making the other an enemy) but also the defeat and domination of those who are excluded from its ambit. History is a witness to the fact that this kind of extreme nationalism has led to warfare, genocide, racial extermination, mass expulsion of populations and ethnic cleansing, as happened in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Georgia. 

What can be done to make the state human, sensitive and compassionate?  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” as Lord Acton has said. Any individual or party that is in power will naturally try to increase its power. A combination of ethno-religious nationalism and enhanced state power can be disastrous for the people of our country. Hence preventing the accumulation of power and promoting nationalism in tune with the Indian constitution and the Indian pluralistic ethos appear to be a viable solution. 

The main reason for the expansion of the power of the BJP is the weakening of the opposition parties. Unless and until the parties that are opposed to the BJP come together and present an alternative before the people the victory procession of the BJP will be continued. A coming together of the opposition parties only to fight election will be a futile exercise as already has been proved from the past experiences. They have to agree on a shared ideology and a minimum common programme. The common ideology should be ‘civic nationalism’ which Shashi Tharoor qualifies as the ‘soul of India’. 

Shashi Tharoor has mildly criticised in his book the Congress for adopting ‘soft Hindutva’ to compete with the BJP for capturing the votes of the majority community. The opposition parties will be rejected by the people, if they adopt a policy of soft Hindutva. The only alternative that can robustly compete with the hard Hundutva of the BJP is Indian constitutionalism. Copying the BJP will be a disaster for the Congress and other parties. 

The last part of Shashi Tharoor’s book ‘The Battle of Belonging’ is titled as ‘Reclaiming India’s Soul’. He has not given concrete proposals in his book for reclaiming the soul of India or restoring and reinstating ‘civic nationalism’. The first step could be reinventing the Congress party, the main opposition, which has pan Indian presence, by returning to its original ideology with innovative strategies. The second step is building an alliance of opposition parties which believe in ‘civic nationalism’, and the third step should be a nationwide campaign by the alliance to project an alternative narrative of India to the narrative presented by the BJP. This narrative should be focusing on the issues of the people: job creation, quality health care for all, quality education for all, restoring the dignity of all Indians, and replacing hatred with love. The focus of RJD on the issues of the people, especially employment creation, in the recently concluded Bihar election vindicates that people can be liberated from the illusion presented by the BJP.  

As long as India is ruled by a party that is committed to ethnic-religious nationalism, the State will remain insensitive and inhuman to all those who do not agree with it and its ideology. 

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