Monday, September 20, 2021

Reconstructing our solidarity with the farmers’ protest

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The controversial farm laws brought by the union government are essentially about the agricultural market. As the domains (Agriculture and the Market) come under the state list, only the state governments and its assemblies have the right to legislate on these topics. Thereby bringing legislation on the issues of market and agriculture, the present laws should be seen as a violation of the federal system; one of the basic structures of the Indian constitution.

The Union government indeed has the authority to frame legislation for food items as it comes under the concurrent list. However, agricultural products in its raw form do not belong to the category of ‘food items’ and there are many such foods which are not made from processed agricultural products. The Constitution classifies food items and agricultural products as two different categories because they are conceptually distinct. However, the union government compromised its constitutional mandate by conflating these distinct categories. 

Within the union farm laws, terms like food and trade area are defined in an unscrupulous manner to widen their legislative authority beyond the stipulations of the constitution. If the meaning of the terms is left to the discretion of authorities, nothing that is written in the constitution would prevail; let alone the state’s legislative authority.

Although the NDA government has refused to budge so far, it is shaken to the core at the across-the-board support that the protest has received. However, the recent interventions and developments that appear to be an attempt to resolve the crisis, has, in fact, set the government’s delegitimizing strategy in motion. Negotiations are designed to fail and are aimed to prepare the ground for slandering the protesting farmers by portraying them as adamant, having vested interests and as a section who are uninterested in genuine solutions. Once the delegitimizing process begins, “proofs” of terrorist associations and criminal activity will follow, and so will the criminal charges. Despite the iron-will being shown by the protesting farmers, the protest is on the verge of being annihilated as the government’s subtle and steady prelude for the oppressive measures are on the right track. The state apparatus is gearing up for the misuse of its official powers, ranging from charging sedition to senior journalists and opposition leaders to being complacent on the mob violence against the protestors.

 At this critical juncture, we must ask ourselves how rational are the forms of solidarity and strategies adopted by us in supporting the farmers’ protest. For instance, a year ago, the entire country was up in arms against the repugnant citizenship laws. Anti CAA- NRC protests were one among the biggest protests in post-independent India, demonstrated the urgency and will for another independence struggle; yet the conclusion was targeted violence, that evolved into a massacre that left 53 dead and over 400 injured. And in the aftermath of the violence, several anti- CAA protestors and victims of the violence were framed. During the Delhi riots in March 2020, Hasim Ali whose house was burnt and looted filed a complaint to the police detailing the horrific events; however, later the police clubbed the FIR to that of another complaint and arrested Hasim. The FIR listed offences of rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly and use of explosives.

The farmer’s protest in Delhi is seeing a similar kind of siege by the state. Protests in solidarity with the farmers have sprung up in every nook and corner of the country, while the NIA is making its move against the protesting farmers in Delhi. Although we are rallying behind the farmers by hoping that the farmers’ protests will not meet the same end as of previous ones, the significant question is – what are the changes we have adopted in form and structure in showing our solidarity to people’s movements? If no changes have been adopted in our solidarity to protest forms, it is bound to come to a similar situation which can be described as irrational or insane; doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

Like any other social activity, protests and solidarity also have a social form or structure that evolves over a period of time. Each form of protest presupposes a form of government and if we fail to revise or update our forms of protest in accordance with the nature of the government of the day, it may defeat the very purpose of the protests. Perhaps, no one else emphasized it as strongly as Ambedkar did, while talking about the ‘grammar of anarchy’.

For a long time, Indian solidarity-protests have been following a framework, which can be called as epicentre-protest or single-space protest. A protest that evolves or gathers around a particular space that can be called an epicentre of the protest and all solidarity protest hinges upon this epicentre. The epicentre could be Shaheen Bagh, Jama Masjid, Ramlila maidan, Singhu or Tikri, but inevitably solidarity-protest across the country revolves around an epicentre; in fact, it depends on an epicentre for its existence. Solidarity protests get weakened or strengthened in accordance with the intensity of the protest at the epicentre. A single- space protest model enables protestors to employ their entire energy into a focal point and use the administrative or cultural importance of a space to highlight their issue.

The problem with the model is that it addresses only one power centre. In the case of farmer’s issue also, solidarity- protest occurs in different parts of the country, but all the solidarity- protest is aimed at the union government. None of them shakes local spaces they occupy or pose a challenge to local power centers. In other words, protests that occupy local spaces do not develop as a local protest. The solidarity-protests that occur locally act only as a reminder of the protest that is occurring in Delhi.

The predicament which we have as a democratic nation has to be kept in mind when we review the strategies and modes of protest and solidarity. The farm laws are not the first unconstitutional laws that were passed by this regime and it is not going to be the last. The recent streak of the unconstitutional acts of the NDA governments has a clear path. It begins with the 103rd constitutional amendment that purports to weaken the constitutional measure that safeguards the right to equality of the marginalised communities. The first major assault on the constitution from the second term of the Narendra Modi government was the abrogation of Article 370 and what ensued was the repugnant citizenship law amendment.  

Our present crisis is not that we have a government that has a penchant for passing unconstitutional laws that dismisses people’s constitutional rights but there are no independent constitutional institutions that can act as checks and balances of a government that overrides the constitution.

Eradication of independent power centers is the hallmark of authoritarianism. The key feature of an authoritarian regime is that it annihilates all the power centers that are supposed to act as the checks and balances of the government. Not only that it annihilates all other institutions, but it also creates a perception these institutions are subservient to it. The mere perception of an independent institution irks the authoritarians. Therefore, defeating authoritarian tactics and strategies of a regime involves reviving alternative power centers. The solidarity-protests in our country ought to bring forth alternative to that are latent or inactive. When the solidarity-protests appeal to only one constitutional authority and to its subservient institutions, unwittingly it reinforces the image that there is only one power centre that matters.

The constitutional institutions that are to be brought to the front line of the issue are the state governments. It is not only that the union government has no constitutional authority to legislate on the issue of agriculture that categorically comes under the state list, but the state governments are constitutionally bound to protect the farmers through state legislation. The union farm laws, while affecting the farmers of the state that have an APMC market system, also affect the farmers across the country, as the provision of the contract farming outlined in the laws is set against the farmers. The farmers are stripped of their right to approach the court if they are deceived by the corporate. It is strange that when the country is witnessing one of the most significant protests of its time, only the state governments of Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have stepped up to pass legislation that supports the farmers’ cause. The solidarity-protests ought to zero in on the indecisive state governments and the unconstitutional actions of the governor’s office.

Nevertheless, focusing on the state governments does not mean that the localisation or decentralization strategy ignores the role of the union government. On the contrary, the state governments are harnessed as a means of conveying the people’s will and power to the union government. During the passage of the farmers’ bill in the Rajya Sabha, the union government went to the extent of violating a basic norm of voting only to insulate its allies from peoples’ ire. In the case of the farm laws, the allies and their governments are the BJP’s Achilles’ heel. Moreover, once the solidarity protests are decentralised, the union government would realise that aggressive measures against the protesting farmers in Delhi will not stoke the countrywide protest as each of the protests revolves around an independent local axis while marching hand in hand.

Decentralisation of our strategy places the state governments as check and balance to the union government. State government’s rise as a new form of constitutional measure against the union government’s power abuse has untapped a potential waiting to be realised.

Dr. Philose koshy is now working as a visiting faculty in IISER Mohali and has been doing research and teaching in philosophy of science for the last ten years.


Image courtesy: Randeep Maddoke; randeepphotoartist@gmail.com | Wiki Commons

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