Thursday, February 29, 2024

Protest or Perversion?

On 27 September from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. farmers in India carried out “Bharat Bandh” – a nation-wide strike commemorating one year since the farmers commenced their protest opposing three highly contentious farm laws passed by the Modi government.

Leading the protest, the Sanyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) called for complete closure of public and private entities including educational institutions, industrial and commercial establishments, along with key national highways and railroads. Thankfully, exceptions were made for emergency and essential services such as hospitals, medical stores, relief and rescue workers.

The call for the bandh was fully supported by the Central Trade Unions (CTUs), which are equally unhappy with the legislation and reform initiatives contemplated or being implemented by the present government. In all fairness, both sponsors – SKM and CTUs – called for the nation-wide protest to be carried out voluntarily and peacefully.

Bandhs cause total lockdowns bringing an economy and society to a standstill. From Delhi to Haryana and Punjab, national and state highways, link roads and railway tracks were blocked as part of the protest, bringing road and rail traffic to a halt and suspending all traffic in goods and services.

As law and order easily breakdown during a strike, police forces in the affected states were put on alert to tackle any violent eruptions. Luckily, the protests mostly remained peaceful and restrained, but disruptions caused enough inconvenience to put a dent in the average citizen’s (aam aadmi’s) support for the protest.

Pro-bandh media channels and experts who consider protest a legitimate right of people to convey their grievances in a democracy, expectedly decry government’s highhandedness in preempting, preventing, punishing or crushing publicly expressed dissent as a blow to core democratic tenets. Anti-bandh forces, conversely, frown upon bandhs as a vicious sabotage of the nation’s functioning, executed at high cost to the national economy and people’s livelihood.

That adverse impact did not go unnoticed and in fact invited the ire of the highest court. On October 2, a date inextricably linked to Mahatma Gandhi – the originator and master practitioner of ‘satyagraha’ or peaceful protest – a two-judge Supreme Court bench came down heavily against disruptive protest. “On the one hand, you have been strangulating the entire city and blocking highways, and now you want to come inside the city?” asked the court of petitioners seeking permission to protest outside Jantar Mantar in India’s capital – New Delhi. The court further wondered the pointlessness in keeping up the protest while approaching the court at the same time. “What is the point of doing satyagraha? You have approached the court. Have trust in the court… Are you protesting against the judicial system?” the court pointedly asked.

Within a day of the court ruling which elicited hearty approval of the public who repeatedly endure the disruptive impact of protests, violence has already erupted with some opposition party members along with farmers refusing to dispose of the dead bodies of two farmers until the government agrees to meet with the protesters to hear and settle their grievances.

Farmers’ objections against the trio of statutes enacted earlier are well known as is the central government’s resistance to their withdrawal. Both the farmers and labor groups are dead set against what they deem are “the anti-people” reform measures initiated by the government. In addition to the highly resented farm laws that seek to alter traditional procurement and distribution mechanisms, objectionable measures include general sales tax imposition on tractors, seeds, pesticides and farm equipment leading to lower earnings and increased debt load for farmers, and tougher labor codes, Asset monetization policy – especially the move to sell 100 profit making PSUs (Public Service Undertakings) – are feared to work against the interest and employment of labor.

Trade Unions rightly suspect that workers will lose jobs while government will not step up to provide alternative jobs or social security coverage. Privatization of PSUs will only transfer wealth and well-run profitable ventures to already rich private entities. According to the CTUs, “it does not require deep economic knowledge to know that Government can fill its coffers by taxing the rich and super-rich in India. But the Government refuses to tax their friends, rather their masters– the rich and the super-rich”.

Even though the farmer and labor grievances and their “cause” are legitimate, like any protest, they are easily manipulated. Not surprisingly, the support for the bandh goes well beyond farmers and workers. It suits and directly reinforces the agenda of opposition parties which are desperate to undercut the support for the ruling party. That all Opposition parties including Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Telugu Desam, DMK, RJD, NCP, Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, and the Leftists champion the protest is proof of their intrinsic skin in the game. When Congress’s Rahul Gandhi claims “I stand with farmers”, he is less than candid. It is CPI’s Amarjeet Kaur who candidly explains the true motivation of opposing parties when she asserts, “Bharat Bandh on September 27 is the start of Mission Defeat BJP.”

Whether the farmer and labor bandhs eventually succeed in eliciting a compromise from the ruling party or worse, to overthrow it, is a losing bet. What is assured is the continued determination of opposition parties to keep the protest fires burning. In the struggle for ascendancy between political parties, farmers and workers can expect to serve as mere pawns. At worst, they risk becoming collateral damage.

Author profile
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author and opinion writer. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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