India: Farmers’ Protest & Modi’s Democracy! 

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by Nilofar Suhrawardy     14 February 2021

The continuation of farmers’ protests in India for more than six months is too serious an issue to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, there appears to be no government’s willingness to yield to farmers’ demand of repealing the farm laws they are protesting against. Sadly, while farmers’ demand has attracted support and attention from across the country and most parts of the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems hardly moved by the same. Clearly, this approach raises questions about democratic ethics being in play in India. On the one hand, awareness about their democratic right to protest and concern regarding their socio-economic future have compelled farmers to reach this stage. The socio-political reality of their protest being conducted in an extremely civilized manner cannot be ignored.

In all probability, Modi’s government is hopeful that turning practically a deaf ear towards the farmers will force the latter to return to their homes sooner or later. However, this doesn’t seem to be the situation at present. Attempts have also been to make their life miserable at certain protesting sites by cutting the supply of water, the Internet, and so forth. These haven’t shaken farmers’ determination to remain committed to their goal. There have also been reported incidents of policemen attacking them with sticks, water-cannons, tear-gas shells, and so forth. Farmers have not backtracked from their protests.

Coverage received by these incidents cannot undoubtedly be expected to have enhanced Modi’s image globally. Rather, the possibility of it having suffered considerably cannot be sidelined. Incidentally, “reports” about certain issues to distract people’s attention from farmers’ protests haven’t succeeded much. At least, not till the time of writing this piece. Describing farmers’ protests as an internal issue, the Indian government has tried to silence questions raised by other countries. While diplomatic murmurs may have subsided officially, international media has not been silenced.

Prime Minister Modi, known to be a master-strategist in promoting his “image,” appears to have stumbled in reacting to farmers’ protest. Besides, a continuation of farmers’ protests for more than six months with support and sympathy from within and outside the country cannot be ignored. A true leader cannot afford to ignore farmers’ determination to continue their sit-in agitation along Delhi’s borders till the government repeals controversial farm laws. A true leader needs to give greater importance to the people’s voice than making sure that his own voice remains more assertive. But if he does not, that too in an age of communication boom, what does this suggest?

Communication lapses seem to be gaining greater importance than what is supposed to be primarily communicated and/or not communicated. Of course, some level of communication lapse is expected to exist at practically all levels. There is no guarantee that what is conveyed through various means of communication may actually be understood by all recipients as desired by the communicator. There is also no guarantee that whatever is conveyed by a key communicator may actually be presented similarly by various tools of communication. Neither is there any guarantee that whatsoever is conveyed may be understood in the same manner by all recipients. The latter may choose to support, oppose the same, and/or accord it the importance they perceive as pertinent in their respective understanding.

India is home to several religions, many castes, regions, languages, and differences among numerous people. It isn’t surprising that there is no dearth of means of communication in this country. These aren’t limited to being controlled by any specific body, whether linked with government or not linked with government. This point is being specifically made against the backdrop of the ongoing farmers’ protest, taking the shape of a movement against several agricultural laws. As reported, attempts of various kinds have been made to check their spread. So far, chances of this protest coming to a sudden or even gradual end seem fairly limited.

The preceding point is supported by thousands of people participating in supporting this protest across the country. Reports of the protest being supported from outside the country cannot also be dismissed lightly. When communication reaches the stage of involving people directly with each other, sources of communication opposing it cannot be expected to have a stronger impact than what is felt and communicated by participants and their supporters.

Undeniably, taking part in any protest is not an easy job. It amounts to participants leaving their homes’ comforts to assert their voice strongly about issue(s), compelling them to reach this stage. Besides, the need to protest extending beyond a few months is only felt when participants feel their lives, means of livelihood, and/or identity are threatened. Protestors at Shaheen Bagh opted for this path when they felt strongly about their national and religious identity being questioned as well as targeted. It may be recalled; they earned support from across the country and coverage from national and international media. What demands attention is that humane concern cutting across various barriers earned support for protestors at Shaheen Bagh.

In this context, it may be noted, attempts made to add religious, as well as a socio-economic bias to coronavirus, have fallen flat. The vicious virus hasn’t discriminated along these lines. Besides, corona-panic and its impact across the world have raised concern primarily along humanitarian lines. Simply speaking, when many people are involved and attract attention – cutting across various barriers – it is imperative to view their (people’s concern) from a humane angle.

Irrespective of the differences of opinion between rival factions about agricultural laws, ethics demand that farmers’ protests be viewed from a humanitarian angle. Some importance needs to be given to thousands of persons raising their voice about what they feel strongly about and that their protest is earning them substantial support. A true leader is one who aligns himself with the concerns of the people he leads. No leader loses his dignity or credibility by choosing to walk a few steps with his country’s aggrieved people. A different image is likely to be projected if he chooses to keep a major gap between his aims and what people desire. The gap is also suggestive of there probably being a major communication gap between him and the people.

When linked with people’s basic needs- bread and butter – communication gaps cannot be covered by political rhetoric. Numerous attempts made to the touch-sensitive religious nerve of people along communal lines are also least likely to have any impact. Farmers’ protest is over what their families have been engaged in for generations. How can they be expected to take this issue lightly? Even a small, marginal farmer is extra-concerned about his plot of land and what he earns from there. Practically, many of these marginal farmers spend a part of the year in cities to earn and then return to their villages for farming when needed. More than 60 percent of the country’s population is engaged in the agricultural sector.

“Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” (Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer), the slogan coined by second Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, clicked with people as the majority understood its significance.

Given the nature of farmers’ protest and coverage together with support and sympathy being gained by it, those opposing it need to rise above themselves, if nothing else, at least out of humanitarian concern for protestors. Considering that Prime Minister is a master-strategist and is extremely particular about promoting a positive image of himself, he needs to seriously think about his approach towards farmers’ protest along such lines. The need of the moment is to bridge the communication gap and not ignore it!

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