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The leaders of the agitation must now throw out the extremists and fundamentalists

There are, broadly speaking, two and a half ways of looking at the farmers’ agitation.

The first is the view favoured by many economists (long before this agitation began). It is that the farm sector must be opened up to market forces and cannot remain a government-controlled operation.


You can argue about the lack of consultation that preceded the passing of the farm laws, say some economists, but the merits of opening up cannot be challenged.


   The second is the view expressed by the farmers themselves. They are fed up, they say, of being told by politicians and urban economists about what is good for them. They recognise these laws for what they are: an attempt to remove a governmental support structure and to leave them at the mercy of big business, which will first offer attractive prices and then, when an oligopoly forms, squeeze them dry, knowing that there will be nowhere else for them to go.


   But there is also a half-view, full of innuendo and conspiracy, that has emerged even as the merits of the new laws are being discussed. This view lurks on social media and turns up, with increasing frequency, in conversations.


   Why, ask proponents of this view, has this been a Punjab-centric agitation? The new laws affect farmers all over India. But in the rest of the country, the opposition to these laws has been lukewarm. It is only the Punjab farmer who seems the most agitated. The reason for this, the conspiracy theorists claim, is because this is not really an agitation about farm laws at all.


   It is no secret that Pakistan has marked 2020 as the year when it will try and revive the Khalistan movement. Hence the talk of Referendum 2020, the sustained social media campaign by Khalistanis and the anti-India, pro-Khalistan Sikhs in such countries as Canada who are vocal on the issue. This agitation, say the skeptics, is about pitting the Sikhs against the Indian state. And then, when clashes ensue, it will be claimed that Sikhs are being mistreated in India.


   Nobody doubts that Pakistan is trying to revive the Khalistan movement - the Chief Minister of Punjab has asserted this again and again - but equally, few sensible people accept that the Punjab farmers, braving the Delhi cold, are anti-national or have Khalistani sympathies. They wave Indian flags and insist that this is an all-India movement and their leaders are the last people you could call Khalistanis. The attempt to club the farmers with separatists is sinister and just plain wrong, as many of us have said again and again.


 "The worst aspect of the events of January 26 is that they have turned what was meant to be an agitation about farm laws into a confrontation between a few Sikhs and the Indian state."

   That is why the events of January 26 take on a special significance. It is clear that men like Yogendra Yadav had planned a symbolic protest that reiterated the farmers’ faith in the Indian system while asserting their right to protest against laws that harm their interests. Unfortunately for Yadav and other farmers’ leaders, a relatively small and determined group did not share their sentiments. As far as this group was concerned, this was as much a religious protest as it was economic. These protesters  did not abjure violence (as we can see in the videos of the assaults on the police), did not stick to the route that the farmers’ leaders had planned and committed to, and were eager to make a religious statement, even if it meant disrespecting a symbol of Indian unity in diversity.


   The farmers’ leaders have offered explanations. They had always known, they say, that there were groups that would cause mayhem and had informed the Delhi police about them. I am sure that is true. But if they knew that mayhem was on the cards, should they not have acted against these groups? Should they not have condemned them first? All of us have seen the TV footage of Deep Sidhu (now blamed for his involvement in the Red Fort intrusion) praising Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Should he not have been publicly shunned and disowned—especially if he was, as some are now saying, a BJP plant? (To be fair, some farmers groups did deny him a platform after his Bhindranwale remarks went public, but too little was done to publicly condemn his positions.)


   There is a certain depressing similarity between what the farmers’ leaders are now saying and what LK Advani said in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid: “Saddest day of my life; did not know this was going to happen; a small group of men broke our record of discipline; it is the frustration of people who have been denied justice for so long spilling over.” Surely, these are not parallels that Yogendra Yadav and the other fundamentally decent people who speak for the farmers can be happy about.


   The worst aspect of the events of January 26 is that they have turned what was meant to be an agitation about farm laws into a confrontation between a few Sikhs and the Indian state. It is true that the overwhelming majority of Sikhs disapprove of any insult to national symbols. (In fact there is footage of some Sikhs abusing and chasing Sidhu away.) And it is as true that many non-Sikhs (myself included) believe that the farmers have a valid point.  But I fear that the footage of a Sikh swinging from the flagpole on top of the Red Fort as a religious flag flutters in the wind may well become the defining image of the farmers' protests.


   The leaders of the agitation must now work quickly to throw the extremists and fundamentalists out of their ranks. They must recognise how much damage has been done to their cause. They made the mistake of not acting against the extremists because they wanted a broad coalition. But they should now go beyond North India and find a way of making the protests more national in scope.


   Otherwise, they will have been played for patsies by men who have no real interest in their demands and wish to follow a completely different agenda. Equally, the state must be thoughtful and measured in its response. The more it makes it sound like a police versus Sikhs conflict, the more the extremists will rejoice.


   There is a certain dangerous power to a half truth, especially when an army of trolls, echoed by elements in mainstream media, help spread that half truth. We must not let a legitimate cause be defamed only because some extremists tried to hijack it for their own ends.



Posted On: 30 Jan 2021 11:15 AM
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