For a second year in a row, an attempt was made to derail a long-running peaceful protest, which became a thorn in the government's flesh, by riotous means. Thankfully, it did not take a heavy toll of human lives and property – public and private, as last February’s communal violence in northeast Delhi. Yet there are several other similarities between the two events. And none of them show either the Central government or Delhi’s police – directly under supervision of the Union Home Ministry – in good light.
To begin with, the setting was provided by peaceful protests against contentious laws enacted amid much parliamentary discord. While last year the opposition was to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, this year's protests were triggered by the three farm laws.
Besides opposition in Parliament and demands for greater legislative consultation, opposition to the law came from a specific state initially – Assam last year, and Punjab this time – and later spread to other parts of the country.
While last year the government persistently refused to engage with protestors, this year they entered into a semblance of dialogue although it often sounded unreasonable. Despite the stonewalling tactics of the State and name calling by the regime's affiliates, this year also, the agitation soldiered along peacefully and became representative of the people's resolve for resistance while drawing admiration from democratically-committed people in India and beyond. Like last year, this time too, the farmers' agitation polarised opinion and similar questions – like right to hold sit-ins on public routes – were raised.
The worst communal violence in Delhi in decades last year, coincided with the visit of the then American President, Donald Trump. Even as plumes of smoke were seen rising up at several places, a few kilometers away the political elite of the current regime gathered at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the Indian President hosted a grand banquet for Trump. On Republic Day this year, while acts of vandalism were still continuing at the historic Red Fort, more or less the same elite gathered on the lawns adjacent to the picturesque Mughal Garden, for the Presidential 'At Home'.
Like last year, on Tuesday too, the Delhi Police had no comprehensive previously planned strategy that could be put in place to ensure that the mayhem-causing mob were dispersed before they could disturb peace and normalcy in the city. Once again, a glaring intelligence failure was starkly evident. Thousands of protestors riding on tractors could not have made it all the way into the heart of the city from its borders, close to twenty kilometres away, if the police had been better prepared.
Who is to blame and to what extent
The events in the Indian capital are certainly unfortunate and matters should not have been allowed to come to such a pass. But blame has to be apportioned to the government and the leadership of the farmers' agitation in differing degrees. More than any other group or section, it is the State's primary responsibility to ensure that law and order must be maintained.
For the past seven weeks since the farmers assembled at various places on Delhi's borders, the government did not appreciate the remarkable restraint shown by thousands of farmers whose numbers kept swelling with every passing hour in recent days. Undeniably, the government acted as an unilateral regime which does not believe in consensus politics, wherein seeking opinion and heeding suggestions is the essence of the legislative process in a democracy.
The leadership of the ongoing stir also erred by not recognising the need to shift goalposts to ensure that long-continuing struggles against state policies, that show little sign of resolution, did not begin displaying evidence of frustration.
This is what happened as more combative groups did not stick to the agreed route for the tractor parade. Disappointment with an impasse during agitations either leads to more radical groups seizing control of the leadership, or the emergence of ginger groups that act on their own. Keeping a protest peaceful is not the only leaf that needs to be borrowed from the Gandhian book of struggles.
Did farmers’ leaders miss a trick?
It is equally important to learn from the number of tactical withdrawals the Mahatma made, at times even at the cost of personal popularity. Not every struggle can be treated as a 'fight to the finish'. As they re-group after the innovative idea of 'tractor parade', that almost gave the entire agitation a bad name, leaders of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha must deliberate if they missed a trick by not pinning the government on the offer to keep the laws in abeyance for 18 months. The nationwide support for the agitation has to be kept in mind, and this can be bolstered by greater flexibility.
The agitation leaders, especially after the adventurism of one section, must ensure they are not seen as being as adamant as the government. Inability to be smarter than what they have been so far will provide an opportunity to the government to open up other avenues of intervention, administrative as well as judicial, to force farmers back to villages. Already, a couple of groups have withdrawn from the stir and the leadership will have to innovate to keep the flock together.
The government certainly carries the burden of providing explanations regarding Delhi Police's incapacity to prevent those who broke ranks, reaching all the way into the heart of the city, including the Red Fort. The ruling party also has to come clean regarding allegations that sections among the protestors were propped up by people who have been close to it. The government must not succumb to the temptation of depicting this confrontation as one between the Sikhs and the State, for this carries national security implications.
India continues to pay a price for the concerted campaign that has resulted in a large number of Indians suspecting the patriotism of members of the country's largest religious minority. India has, with a lot of struggle, put behind it the selective targeting of Sikhs in the 1980s, especially after Indira Gandhi's assassination. In the era of instant communications and a hyperactive and incendiary social media, now being used by all and sundry, the danger of giving a religious hue to the conflict is grave.
The government must make a fresh beginning to draw the agitating leaders to the negotiation table, this time with the intention of breaking the impasse and not with the objective of getting its stance on the three laws accepted. Ordering an independent probe and judicial inquiry into the incidents would go a long way in starting anew.
(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.