Democratic governance put to a stiff test - GulfToday

Democratic governance put to a stiff test

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

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The Narendra Modi government has been facing a determined agitation from farmers across the country.

The Judiciary joined the Executive last week in the effort to get farmers out of the highways leading to New Delhi. Farmers from neighbouring states, protesting against three laws enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, have been choking the highways since the beginning of this month.

The government says the laws will help raise farmers’ incomes. But they fear they will be at the mercy of corporates.  

The measures were brought in as ordinances last June. Three months later Parliament passed laws to replace the ordinances. At no stage did the government consult either the state governments or the farming community on the measures.

There was widespread opposition to the measures from the very beginning. Farmers of Punjab and Haryana, who had led India to self-sufficiency in food, organised rooftop demonstrations in villages and tractor rallies in district towns. Many were arrested.

The protesters submitted to local officials memorandums addressed to the Prime Minister, seeking withdrawal of the laws.

As embedded media blacked out news of the agitation the country remained in the dark about it. When the Centre went ahead with enactment of laws to replace the ordinances, farmers intensified the agitation.

Accounts of a tractor rally led by Baldeep Kaur, a 17-year-old girl, to the Bhatinda residence of Akali Dal MP and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, inspired youths to join the ranks of the agitators.

The Akali Dal, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party for 27 years, quit the Modi government. Thirty-one farmers’ unions formed a joint action committee to stage an indefinite protest in Delhi. Trade unions called a day’s nationwide strike in support of the farmers.

Overcoming obstacles put up by police, determined farmers from the two states reached the Delhi border. They were later joined by farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. An estimated 300,000 farmers are now camping out in biting cold. In three weeks at least 33 protesters died due to exposure.

The Centre invited farmers’ representatives to Delhi on October 8 to take lessons on agricultural reform. They rejected the invitation. The government then invited them for talks on October 13. They went to Delhi but walked out of the meeting as the government was represented by officials, not ministers. After the protest moved to Delhi, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar held a few rounds of talks with farmers’ representatives. Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s man for all seasons, was also in the picture.

However, the two sides could find no common ground. The farmers demanded repeal of the laws as a pre-condition for substantive talks. The government was only willing to consider some amendments.

The issue reached the Supreme Court through a batch of petitions seeking clearance of the blocked highways. The Court observed that the farmers have the right to protest but not to block roads.

This was the line it had taken when similar petitions came up during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The Court also suggested setting up of a panel comprising representatives of the Centre and the farmers to carry the dialogue process forward. Farmers did not respond enthusiastically to the idea.

The Court is yet to issue a formal order. It will be doing a grave injustice if it fails to take note of the fact that the farmers have brought to the fore gross deficiencies in democratic governance.

The farm laws, the new Citizenship Act and the changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir are examples of arbitrary exercise of power by a majoritarian regime without consulting those likely to be affected adversely.

Modi made no attempt to reach out to the farmers during the past six months. On Friday, in a video address to a farmers’ group in Madhya Pradesh unconnected with the agitation, he claimed farmers were already benefiting from the new laws. Will people in large numbers spend weeks out in the cold if the laws have boosted their income?

Taking note of the protests for the first time, he added, “If anyone has any concerns, then with our heads bowed and our hands folded, with humility, we are willing to discuss with them and assuage their fears.”

On Sunday he visited a Sikh shrine in Delhi in an apparent attempt to cajole members of the Sikh community who form a big chunk of the protesters. The government followed up these gestures with an offer to resume talks.  

Modi must tell the farmers he is ready to approach the issue with an open mind.

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