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How Govt can win over farmers

Last updated on: December 18, 2020 20:02 IST

'As of now, it is hard to see how the stalemate can be broken.'
'For the Sikh Jat farmers who constitute the core of the protest are a simple-minded but stubborn lot.'
'They are unlikely to call off the stir unless provided a sense of 'victory'.'
'Give them a reason to boast that they brought the government to its knees and they will start singing hallelujahs to the Modi government,' argues Virendra Kapoor.

IMAGE: Farmers protest at Singhu border, New Delhi, December 13, 2020. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI Photo

More than three weeks after Punjab farmers first began to assemble at the Delhi border, protesting against the farm reform legislation, and after multiple rounds of talks with the government, a solution still eludes to end the stir.

What had begun with a demand for a firm assurance on the continuance of the Minimum Support Price mechanism for the procurement of wheat and paddy has now ballooned into a maximalist position, with the farmers insisting on the outright repeal of the reform laws.

This is unacceptable to the government.

The compromise offered would virtually neutralise the effect of the long-overdue reforms, though there would be no actual repeal of the laws.

Those with vested interest in the decades-old system can, however, be expected to oppose any move aimed at opening up the farm sector.

The stranglehold of 'arthiyas', who habitually exploit the actual growers, under-weighing, underpricing the produce and lending money at usurious rates and thus keeping the farmers captive, is not easily broken.

It is they who are funding the protest, dispatching more and more 'jathas' in trucks and tractor trolleys to Singhu and other borders of the national capital.

Admittedly, the fact that there are multiple farmers unions participating in the negotiations further complicates the task of finding an acceptable solution to end the stalemate.

With each union leader keen to out-pitch his counterparts in order to present himself as the fiercest defender of farmers' rights, it is no surprise that the eminently reasonable compromise proposal, allaying all doubts and fears of farmers, and offering legal guarantee on the continuance of the MSP system, has been rejected out of hand.

For, if any one of the 13 unions were to press for a compromise, even if it met most of their demands, it would find marginalised by the rival unions.

Another hurdle in the way of a negotiated settlement is the role of the Opposition parties and a handful of civil society activists supported by a section of television anchors.

Desperate to force the Modi government on the back foot, in the farmers stir they espy their chance to regain relevance.

Despite making a strong case for the same reforms while it was in power, and, in the case of the Congress party, endorsing these further in its 2019 poll manifesto, they now brazenly egg on the farmers not to compromise till the repeal of the reforms.

As of now, it is hard to see how the stalemate can be broken.

For the Sikh Jat farmers who constitute the core of the protest are a simple-minded but stubborn lot.

Even if misguided about the real intent and objective behind the legislation, they are unlikely to call off the stir unless provided a sense of 'victory.'

Give them a reason to boast that they brought the government to its knees and they will start singing hallelujahs to the Modi government.

IMAGE: Women farmers during the protest against the new farm laws at the Singhu border in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

An exchange that took place over six decades ago between my grandfather and the biggest commission agent in Rampuraphul, a sub-divisional town in Bhatinda, the epicentre of the protests, would bear out the simple-minded nature bordering on innocence of the Sikh peasantry.

On being asked why the Jat farmer brought his wheat and other produce only to his shop, the response is relevant to this day : "Chaudhry Saheb, not only him, his grandfather and father too sold their wheat and cotton at my shop... and probably so would his son. It is because he trusts me."

"Having left his bullock-cart laden with the produce this morning, he will now return in the evening after buying clothes, liquor and other supplies for the entire family, and maybe will also watch the 12 noon film at the lone theatre we have...

"He will ask for 'hisab (accounts)' and on being told the weight of the wheat and the rate at which it was auctioned... he will take his money after settling the old dues, if any, and return home a happy contented man."

And then he added the sentence which still rings loud in my mind: "Par ek baat hain, Chaudhry Saheb, is ko mere pey bhishwas hain. Yeh Janata hain ki bania thodi moti herapheri to karta hain par jis din is key dimaag mein aa gaya key mein is ka ullu bana raha hoon, to is ka gandasa hoga aur mera sir hoga... (He trusts me. He is aware that I might be cutting corners here and there, but should it get into his head that I am making an utter fool of him, he will hit me with his spear with the intent to kill...)"

The point is that the jat Sikh peasantry, which constitutes 90 percent of the protesters who have laid siege to the national capital, has lost that crucial trust (vishwas) in the reform legislation, suspecting these to be aimed at paving the way for the entry of the corporates into the farm sector.

Their fears and suspicions may be entirely baseless, but there is no remedy to allay them.

As they say in these parts of Punjab, 'Shaq di dawa to hakim Lukman key pass bhi nahin hain (Even the best doctor has no remedy for doubt and suspicion).'

The problem is that the longer the siege continues, the greater the chance of it turning violent.

Regardless of their commitment to protest peacefully, it would take a few mischievous elements to start a riot.

Above all else, the way the farmers are squatting 24x7 in the open fields/roads without basic sanitary provisions, it further risks the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having made a serious effort to assuage the grievances of the farmers, the government still has no reason to abandon them to their own sorry plight.

It is expected to press on harder still to try and persuade them to be reasonable in their own interests.

Once the farmers realise that the government under no condition would repeal the reforms, though short of repeal may offer more concessions, they may be prepared for a compromise.

Both sides need immense grit and patience for the waiting game that lies ahead.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/