Late last night, "Rude boy", the super hit by international pop star Rihanna, was playing at the three farmer protest sites at the Delhi border. Rihanna, one of the world's biggest celebs, has a new fan club - the agitating farmers are thrilled that Rihanna has tweeted support of their cause.
How do I know that Rihanna is the big new fave on the playlist at the camps? Because I was talking to a farm leader on the phone and was nearly deafened by the song on loop. Rihanna was not the only one. Greta Thunberg, teenage climate change activist, and lawyer Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, have also tweeted support for the agitating farmers in the last 12 hours. The Ministry for External Affairs at a press conference today reacted by saying, "Some vested interest groups have tried to mobilise international support against India."
The statement gives away just how big an embarrassment the international support is for the Modi government - in the last few days, the internet has been switched off in some locations around the protest camps, spikes have been embedded into roads, concrete barriers have been stacked up, all to impede the farmers' agitation. On Monday, Twitter blocked over 250 accounts of those tweeting about the farmers with a hashtag that was apparently objectionable to authorities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his dexterous use of social media, as are many of his party leaders and ministers.
After the riot in Delhi on January 26, where a section of those who entered Delhi with hordes of farmers turned on the cops and attacked them, the farmers' movement lost some of the goodwill it had earned in the nearly two months since thousands of farmers, camped at three locations near the capital, demanding that the government cancel three laws that they claim leaves them as easy prey for big corporates. In particular, they feel the laws will remove the minimum support price for their produce given by the government. The government and its supporters say the laws contain reforms that will provide farmers with huge new opportunities. Eleven rounds of talks between farmer reps and ministers made no progress.
But after the violence of Republic Day, the movement proved why it is sui generis in so many ways. Rakesh Tikait, a farmer leader from Western Uttar Pradesh, broke down; the video instantly galvanized thousands more to join the sit-in camps. And today, a maha-panchyat or huge local gathering is being held in Jind in Haryana, led by Tikiat, who is 51. This is the first time that the Jats of western Uttar Pradesh have gathered with Jats from neigbouring Haryana - the cross-border unity has resulted in a massive swell.
The Jats, a farming community often seen as rigid, aggressive and of highly conservative values, form six percent of the population in western UP, nine percent in Rajasthan, 25 percent in Haryana and 35 percent in Punjab. Their restiveness is bad news for the BJP and it will be concerned especially about UP will hold assembly elections next year. The Jats are known for their all-powerful khap panchayats, which often function as kangaroo courts, handing out harsh punishment to preserve archaic values - like penalizing inter-caste marriages. Because the khaps hold so much sway and enforce social boycotts, the Jats get away with punching above their political weight.
I spoke to Tikait yesterday and asked him about the wide-spread speculation that he had served earlier on as a BJP proxy in the agitation. There was also talk that he had promised a minister in the Modi government that he would end the agitation on January 26. Tikait said that he had made no such promise and that the crackdown on the farmers using "goondas" (criminals), while the police watched had upset him and the protestors. He was referring to a large crowd that pushed its way into the farmers camp at Singhu, claiming they were locals who wanted the farmers to clear out and let life get back to normal in the area. "Our duty is clear - to get the government to repeal the three farm laws. We will not leave before that. It was the Modi government's duty to protect the Red Fort. Why didn't they?" said Tikait to me.
This agitation is a delayed coming of age for Tikait. In 2013, he was one of the prime movers of the maha-panchayat in Muzaffarnagar, the Jat heartland of Uttar Pradesh, which subsequently led to huge communal riots between Muslims and Jats and paved the way for the BJP to get 70 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014's general election. Because of Tikait's role in mobilizing the Muzaffarnagar maha-panchayat, he was perceived as someone with close links to the BJP. He has lost two parliamentary elections, which he contested as a candidate of a regional party.
The Jats are also angry at what they see as poor representation in UP and Haryana. Yogi Adityanath has two Jat ministers in the former. In Haryana, M L Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri, has been appointed Chief Minister twice and here, the BJP's alliance with Jat leader Dushyant Chautala, who serves as Deputy Chief Minister, is flickering. In Punjab, the farm laws cost the BJP its oldest ally, the Akali Dal.
It is therefore no surprise that BJP MPs and MLAs from western UP are flagging their concerns to the party leadership, making the case for an urgent resolution - or at least a breakthrough of some sort - on an issue that is politically sensitive and immensely vital. The RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP, has reportedly conveyed to Home Minister Amit Shah that the public opinion on the laws has been "misguided" and needs to be corrected. The barricades, the barbed wire, the steel batons which look like swords and were seen in the hands of the police this week, have created ugly optics for the Modi government. Even the listless opposition has jumped in.
The farmers say the government's offer to keep the laws on hold for 18 months while talks are held between both sides is unacceptable. The government says it will not repeal the laws but is open to hearing what changes are needed. The latest pictures arriving from camps, though, of farmers being virtually blocked into their sites, speak volumes of how far apart the two sides remain.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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