View: Anti-farm laws agitation, revolutionary democracy in action

What started as a set of spontaneous demonstrations forged into a full-scale movement in the form of the successful agitations against the farm laws. Over the past year, it took on a number of methodologies, guided by an eclectic set of inspirations – the symbolism of the colour basanti (yellow), popular and revolutionary chants and songs from pre-Independent India, and images of iconic leaders such as Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar, Chandrashekhar Azad, Udham Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose.

Interestingly, protesters also invoked Chhotu Ram, the pre-Independence revenue minister from Punjab province whose ideas as a ‘friend of the tiller’ have been echoed loudly in the speeches of the protesters. Ram’s methods were strictly democratic and within the purview of British India law, even as they were radical in their resolve to uplift the agrarian community.

The anti-farm laws protesters seemed to consciously borrow individual elements of these contradictory – revolutionary vs democratic – historical figures.

But even as Mohandas Gandhi has remained elusive from the protesting farmers’ narrative, the agitation has followed a decisively Gandhian path of long-term non-violent resistance. Familiar Gandhian techniques, including passive resistance and disciplined demonstrations through sit-ins, courting arrests and blocking transport routes have been undertaken since September 2020 to push back the farm laws. In fact, the ongoing farmers’ protest has sustained longer than Gandhi’s non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements.

The protesters erred on Republic Day, in an instance where revolutionary influence and acts of ‘individual heroism’ overrode the moderate and peaceable inspirations behind the agitation. Violence erupted in Delhi, leaving more than 300 policemen reportedly injured. Colonial history reminds us that unlawful means attract the government’s immediate attention, but are equally capable of derailing a mass movement. The momentum painstakingly created by persevering farmers appeared to almost collapse after January 26, but a gradual return to the Gandhian model brought the protest back in motion.

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So, one should attribute the protesting farmers’ success to collective action guided by Gandhian values. Now is the time for them to acknowledge the efficacy of satyagraha while also imbibing lessons on what lies ahead. Historian Bipan Chandra propounded the idea that Gandhian movements were informed by a ‘Struggle-Truce-Struggle’ pattern, in which alternating phases of protest and retreat stimulated progression towards overarching goals.

The demands put forth were never ‘total’ in nature. Instead, a number of reforms were successively wrested from the colonial regime. The period of ‘truce’ following each small victory allowed government and dissenters alike to recuperate and re-strategise. Today, protesters ought to pride themselves in their year-long resilience and in GoI’s slated cancellation of the three farm laws. They must also rethink the way forward and call it a truce for their own benefit and the farming community’s interests.

The borders of Delhi-NCR should be freed. As exemplified by Chhotu Ram, the democratic process of election, legislation and implementation is the best way to accomplish long-term aims. As Gandhi said, the suspension of civil disobedience does not mean suspension of war.


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