On November 25th, 2020 an army of “annadatas” marched to the Indian capital from the surrounding states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh answering the clarion call of “Dilli Chalo” (let us go to Delhi). In 1943, Subash Chandra Bose had roused the fire of freedom among soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA) formed in Singapore with the same call. Both the INA and the farmers though separated temporally faced an uncompromising and supercilious ruling power unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue nor accede credence to legitimate demands. Two months in and the farmers have braved the frigid winter with unyielding resolve. Their struggles have now evolved into a crucible which will have a lasting impact on Indian democracy.
Democracy in its most popular and simplistic understanding is “of the people, by the people and for the people” as famously aphorized by Abraham Lincoln. However, democracy in its entirety has political, economic and social facets. The earlier mentioned aphorism deals largely with its political aspects. Unquestionably, the resilient farmer demonstrations as well as the government’s response paints a sordid portrait of Indian political democracy and all its facets.
The seed which sprouted this democratic debacle is the erosion of ideal parliamentary procedure. The three farm laws were first pushed through as an ordinance and later confirmed by the ruling power in the two houses without a modicum of deliberation or consultation. In fact, in the Rajya Sabha the bills were passed via a voice vote despite vehement calls for a recorded vote from the opposition; this is in stark contravention of the constitution (Article 100) and is reason enough for the judiciary to quash the laws on
In defence of the ruling disposition, agricultural reforms in India are long overdue. The sector is rife with stagnant incomes, lethargic private investment and over saturation of middlemen. Although the spirit of reforms is laudable, the ends cannot justify the means.These reforms should have been designed in a consultative manner bringing farmer unions into confidence through expansive public deliberation.
Furthermore, flouting the system of parliamentary committees which serve the purpose of allowing nonpartisan inputs before submission in the legislature has given credibility to calls of ‘crude majority authoritarianism’. The opposition in parliament is not just a clique of sore losers at the general election but represent the will of the people as they have been democratically elected. This authorizes them to have a say in all matters of legislation even if the government of the day will have its way.
Additionally, Mahapanchayats1 being organised across Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have been inundated with farmers flocking together in solidarity against the farm laws. This portends a legitimation crisis2. Government attempts to portray the discontent of farmers to be limited to Punjab is floundered by the overwhelming attendance in these events. Furthermore, this symbolises the power of decentralised political authority as these Mahapanchayats are organised by village Khaps (communal organisation) which although declared illegal by the Supreme court3 continue to be an active element of rural India. Failure on the government’s part to assuage the protesting farmers have allowed these Khaps to reposition themselves as the true champion of rural causes. While violence as an expression of protest is inexcusable in every regard, the fortification of Delhi borders with nailed roads, trenches and barricades has engendered a sentiment of dissociation from the incumbent and strengthened allegiance towards the Khaps.
Clearly, the political milieu is fraught with parliamentary impoverishment, subversion of the opposition and reliance on the unelected.
Economic democracy is ensured when all who participate in the production process receive an equitable share of the burdens and benefits which accompany growth. A society is economically democratic if its workers have a voice in choosing what they produce, how they produce it, channels of distribution to be used and the price they wish to realise for it.
The agricultural sector has been in decline and this is evident in its diminishing contribution to GDP from 41.63% in 1968 to just 16.5% in 20194. Though it can be argued that this is due to the growth and development of the manufacturing and service sectors, it is alarming when viewed against the participation of 44% of the Indian workforce in agriculture5. This indicates the meagre returns accrued by nearly half of the workforce contributing to the sustenance of the nation. The average monthly income of an agricultural household in India is less than Rs 6,5006.
In the context of these shocking figures, the unfounded fears-as claimed by the government- of farmers that the MSP system will be done away with is understandable. The Mandi system, though a monopsony, has served as a regulated market that establishes a benchmark for price. Although some states like Kerala never subscribed to the Mandi system, the continued growth of agriculture in Kerala owes to the existence of strong grassroots level procurement. However, Bihar which scrapped the mandatory mandi system in 2006 has reported the lowest levels of growth in agriculture among all states with procurement which is often at lower than MSP prices7. This is why the demand for legal sanction of the MSP system has been at the forefront since the initial protests had sparked in October of 2020.
The given data and the Bihar case study points to the precarious positions that the agricultural community may sink into in the absence of a regulated market. Deregulation will definitely spur the flow of private players and their capital into investment starved agricultural infrastructure. But, the fear of corporate predation at the cost of farmer welfare is real.
To bring the farmers into consonance, the government while implementing reforms should have assured that economic safeguards through public procurement were knitted into the farm laws.
A State which is resolved to be socially democratic ensures the welfare of its circumstantially disadvantaged. Such democracies actively balance pre-existing inequalities arising from social privileges of birth and all forms of unnatural discrimination. These efforts of the State achieve fruition only when supported by a robust civil society united in awareness and collective action striving for social equality.
A responsive civil society act as conduits of communication between the State and its citizens. They amplify public interests, create an ambience for unfettered discussion and dissent and ponder over possible solutions to existing grievances. The apparent lack of social deliberation and pontification from urban personalities prior to commentary from western celebrities -Rihanna and Greta Thunberg8 – exemplifies urban apathy to the plight and cause of the farming community.
This absence of widespread urban opinions on the more than two-month-long demonstrations by agricultural communities is a jarring reminder of the growing alienation between crop producers and consumers. Sadly, globalisation has more accurately tuned urban India into the frequencies of Instagram trends and deafened them to the legislative realities which affect our annadatas. It is important to point out that relevance lies in the need for an external trigger to spur urban comments and not whether the said opinions are for or against the farmer protests.
The bootstraps of civil society in a democracy is free and fair media. Assuredly, the violence which wrought havoc on Republic Day is deplorable and has no place in Gandhi’s India9 . The turn of an emotionally riled association of people into an angry mob is surprisingly common all across the world, the Black Lives Matter violence in the USA is a testament to this
10 . In no way does this justify or exonerate the events of 26th January 2021 and it will forever remain a blemish upon Indian democracy. However, what is uncommon is government action against media houses and news agencies for their coverage of the violence. A prominent news anchor and the editor of an English magazine are among many Indian journalists to have been charged with sedition11. This was presupposed on incorrect reports of a farmer having died due to a police gunshot. Some erroneous reporting in the midst of a violent unfolding of events is within acceptable limits of human error. The response to misinformed reporting must not be an act of penal retaliation but a call for corroborative journalism. Such harsh government steps can only be viewed as an attempt to stifle journalism through intimidation and fear. Fortunately, no prison is big enough to contain free speech.
More disconcertingly, the government of the day has resorted to using identity indicators as a defence against the unrelenting opposition to the farm reforms. Deeming protesting farmers as ‘Khalistanis’12 disenfranchises the protesters from the right, under Article 19, to freedom of expression by branding them as seditious. This strategy isolates an entire Indian community (Sikh) and disgorges their identity as legitimate citizens by blanketing them with the separatist tag. This places the social edifice of the nation in precariousness and restricts India in its quest for unity in diversity by dismissing dissenting stances as anti-national.
THE DANCE OF DEMOCRACY
Indian democracy is swaying dangerously to trumpets announcing tribulation. So which steps can bring Indian democracy back on beat?
Politically, parliamentary accountability and procedure must be reinvigorated. The opposition in the legislature must be allowed to be an agent of constructive criticism and given their say. Rescinding the farm laws on the condition of reimagining reforms in a consultative manner is emerging as the only politically acceptable response to this impasse. This can impede the growing legitimacy of unelected communal khap panchayats and renew faith in the government.
Economically, the goal of doubling farmers income as laid out by the Ashok Dalwai committee13 must be meticulously chased. Greater income levels for farmers will have a multiplier effect by enhancing rural demand and reducing the debt burden. The system of MSP if given legal sanction must include a caveat of it being temporary, like with reservation. This will give demanded economic assurances to protesting farmers while also not permanently burdening the government with a new legal right.
Socially, the government of the day must abandon the use of identity as a tool for managing crises. A concern for any section of Indian society must be acknowledged as relevant to India as a whole. Thus, isolating problems as relevant to only particular states or communities is a disservice to the
ethos of unity that constituted this great nation. It is also incumbent upon urban India to be concerned and involved with issues of national relevance. Their active participation will expand the diversity of opinions on the matter which enables better decision making. A free, fair and open media which engages and captures the attention of the citizenry is a key element in stirring urban viewpoints. The State must encourage as well as recognize new media houses and publications and not charge journalists with sedition. In place of arresting reporters for inaccurate coverage, the government can set standards of veracity which if infringed can invite fines.
The actions taken to go forward will determine 2 aspects, whether we should heed these early warnings and strengthen Indian democracy or will we trip and falter in disorientation to the prevailing cacophony.
"The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Renaissance"