“JAB TAK SANSAR rahe tab tak sanvad chalte rehna chahiye…kuch kehna aur kuchh sun’na, yahi to sanvad ka praan hai.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, moments after he lorded over the Bhumi Poojan ceremony for India’s new Parliament. Modi quoted Guru Nanak:
ਜਬ ਲਗੁ ਦੁਨੀਆ ਰਹੀਐ ਨਾਨਕ ਕਿਛੁ ਸੁਣਿਐ ਕਿਛੁ ਕਹੀਐ (SGGS 661)
(jab lag dunee-aa rahee-ai naanak kichh sunee-ai kichh kahee-ai.)
As long as we are in this world, O Nanak, we should listen, and speak.
CLEARLY, Modi was speaking to the farmers, currently seen as the bane of his muscular government, and who have torn apart his image of an invincible leader. They have cornered the regime with their humble ways and a shrewdly managed agitation.
Modi was at pains to stress how unreasonable farmers were being; they were no longer negotiating. Hence, the recourse to Guru Nanak. Modi was making a case for negotiations with regards to the three impugned farm laws.
Anytime a government says it is ready for negotiations on any subject, dispute, law, proposal or demand, it always means only one thing: the negotiation has already started and it has little intention to budge from its stand.
For after all, what is negotiation?
In the political realm, negotiation is one side making a certain claim, or a certain demand, and the other side countering the argument and trying to make a counter-claim.
The government brought in three farm bills, claimed these will usher a new era of prosperity for the farmers; the farmers saw the bills as a satanic move spelling their utter destruction. Hence, the negotiations.
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But the negotiation did not begin with the first round of talks held in Vigyan Bhawan. That’s media spin. The first round, the second round, the third round, the fourth round, and then some more lined up. The participation of two ministers. The invite from that king of all that he surveys – Amit Shah. The promise of a proposal. And the eventual rejection of the offer. All catering to a media spin strategy.
As this exchange proceeds, something else is also going on. The talks inside Vigyan Bhawan have been in-camera proceedings.
The only way to find out what transpired inside was through the media corps clamouring around farmer leaders emerging from the talks, quizzing them feverishly. And, of course, as you found out, every time without fail, nothing had happened.
But perhaps we should be paying much closer attention to the open dialogue the regime is having with the farmers. It is a continuous dialogue.
The king and his ministers are speaking on one side. The protestors and their leaders are speaking on the other side of the fence. Every point is being raised, every narrative is being challenged. Every argument is being met with a counter-argument.
It is this open, public act of negotiation that is key to understanding where each of the opposing sides stand.
Vigyan Bhawan chats were a farce. This public act of negotiation is the real thing. It is this part of the negotiation that the media is not reporting.
It had been happening for weeks now, much before the regime dug up national highways and rolled out concertina wire to stop farmers from meeting their dear leaders in Delhi for some hard Mann Ki Baat talk.
As the chill started to set in November, the farmers took a couple of steps back, saying they will allow goods trains to run.
The Centre dug in its heels and pushed farmers into a corner, will they agreed on Nov. 21 that they will not object to any train—goods or passenger—from running. It was then that the Centre delivered one more snub: it said it will only run goods trains initially and will run passenger trains later. That’s exactly what farmers had proposed, but then what’s a Modi-Shah regime if not the local muscular toughie?
This was also the week when farmers were seriously preparing for the march to Delhi, and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was working overtime—planning to dig trenches, and pothole his own roads, and erect barriers and deploy water cannons and teargas throwers for maximum shock and awe effect.
This was a most public form of negotiation going on in the public domain.
Farmer leaders saying, “Delhi should not take us lightly anymore,” and that they, “will block all roads to Delhi,” and Khattar responding with, “this is not the year for protests.”
The same day, the Centre called farmers for a second round of talks on Dec. 3, but Amarinder Singh was still issuing statements that a key farmer union was acting against the interests of Punjab.
On Nov. 24, Haryana sealed its borders with Punjab and Delhi. Multi-layered barricading came up on highways, additional troops with additional weaponry were deployed even as Punjab and Haryana farmers came together for the Delhi Chalo march.
This was actual, on the ground negotiation happening, every detail reported explicitly.
That very day, a shameless Khattar openly told the prime minister in a video conference that Haryana had imposed fresh curbs on social and political gatherings.
On the same day, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh gave a strategic miss to the same video conference session, because he did not want to be in a position where he would have to either counter Khattar or take a stand for farmers.
The next day, the newspapers carried telling pictures of boulders on roads, multi-level barricades put up by the Haryana government, and statements by the Delhi police denying farmers permission to enter the Capital.
This was also when the agitation anthem song hit headlines – Kich Lai Jatta Khich Tiyari, Pecha Pai Gaya Centre Naal!
What else is negotiation? The Centre was talking, farmers were talking, Haryana was talking, Delhi police was talking, and the intellectual community was talking. This was a most open and public negotiation taking place.
Everyone was watching. Except for Amarinder Singh, of course. He was hosting Navjot Sidhu for lunch, a highpoint in his political career over the last few weeks.
The Nov. 27 scenes of farmers braving water cannons and crossing the barricades that shook India and galvanized Punjab, Haryana and the farming community in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan were the most public form of negotiation between the two warring sides.
As farmers hunkered down at Delhi’s borders, and Amarinder Singh reduced his role to issuing mere weakling statements about his Haryana counterpart, India saw the negotiation playing out in a public space that was nothing less than our very own Tiananmen Square.
Only, the regime couldn’t bring tanks. In certain places in India, it wouldn’t have hesitated. Kuchh din to guzariye Kashmire mein. Dantewada mein. Northeast mein.
This was a negotiation in which farmers rejected the joint command of Amit Shah-Amarinder Singh, and chose to camp at Singhu Border, thus drawing out the battleline.
In a battle like this, where exactly are the trenches dug and camp set up by forces is often the most important card in the play. The protesting farm union leaders decided Singhu Border would be the frontier, and not Burari, as Amit Shah had suggested and Amarinder Singh had wanted. This was farmers dodging defeat in a public negotiation.
It was also the day when Amarinder Singh was subtracted from the agitation, a day that journalists missed taking note of, but the history of public movements in Punjab will bookmark explicitly.
He used the Government of India mouthpiece—the All India Radio—and every other organ of the state that could amplify the message further and proceeded to talk down to farmers from his Mann Ki Baat bully pulpit.
Laws are good for you, Modi was telling farmers. Someone is misguiding you. You have been demanding these, he said. The new laws will set you free, he added. The ruler was educating the rustic crowds.
This was a most strange way of conducting public dialogue. It basically amounted to insulting farmers in the town square.
When translated very roughly and simply, it meant, “You stupid people, you cannot see that I am giving you benefits. You cannot understand statute formulation. You are so stupid that anyone can misguide and provoke hundreds of your leaders.”
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After this, the government of India wanted farmers to say, “Oh Yes, dear Lord and Master. Now that you have educated us, we will go back and start tilling our fields. Sorry, we wasted some of your teargas shells, bouncing these off our chests.”
“Did Khattar call me, when did he call me, why did he call me, show me the call details?”
No one was interested in his little tantrums. Amarinder Singh’s phone calls did not interest anyone, there was no juice in the story, not even when Khattar released phone call details, calling Amarinder Singh’s bluff. Meanwhile, talks were preponed to Dec. 1.
Guru Nanak’s gurpurab turned Singhu Border into a festival site, and Haryana farmers’ trucks and trolleys joined those from Punjab. News trickled in that Rajasthan’s farmer convoys were also on their way.
The Khaps were meeting. Haryana’s voters had opened open talks with Dushyant Chautala’s JJP: Are you with us, or are you with them? Chautala has been effectively in hiding since, and his political future is hanging by a straw.
The Prime Minister was in Varanasi on Nov. 30, from where he directly spoke to the farmers in the same tone, “Farmers were falling for rumours and false propaganda,” the PM told them from the banks of the Ganges.
Clearly, this was the sheet anchor on which the Vigyan Bhawan negotiations were to be based. Clearly, this was a prime minister sabotaging the in-camera talks through an open, public negotiation hours before the Dec. 1 non-event.
Amarinder Singh made his contribution to next day’s newspapers by making headlines that attempts were being made to divide the country along communal lines. This was BJP-RSS speak coming out of Amarinder Singh’s mouth.
This is the standard stuff that Rahul Gandhi never says, and Amarinder always does. This is where the Royal House of Patiala and the Intellectual School of Sambit Patra meet.
While the farmers did not pick up the line, Arnab Goswami, the great friend of Punjab’s farmers did. Somethings go together, indeed. Nothing that Amarinder says is not from Arnab’s book, but itself deserves a more detailed write-up.
From then onwards, crowds kept swelling, the roar grew louder, the Singhu-Tikri Mason-Dixon line became a media corps magnet, the rest of India wondered how the spirit of Punjabiyat infused the crowds, scenes of farmers having langar and taking bath and spending wintery nights by the roadside made it to the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and every international channel.
In Delhi, Amarinder Singh’s party president also swung into some belated action. Rahul Gandhi issued some impassioned statements, unlike the Punjab chief minister. A most open negotiation broke out over whether or not there was a Khalistan aspect to the entire protest.
And it took a publicly carried out negotiation to snub the effort to give a bad name to the movement. Some of the liberals, always trying to endear themselves to the Deep Establishment, were also exposed during this conversation.
Meanwhile, no one noticed a major absence. Remember the last big public movement India had witnessed was over the CAA/NRC when those opposing the new citizenship laws from Chandigarh’s Sector 17 to Jantar Mantar thought they will be handicapped without a Tiranga in hand.
The tricolour became some kind of a shield behind which to hide and proclaim that one was as patriotic as Amit Shah.
The Constitution-waiving Hum Bharat Ke Log shouted slogans against CAA but squirmed behind the Tiranga.
No one remembered to bring along the Tiranga this time. Not even the Hum Bharat Ke Log.
Here were farmers taking a stand, putting their bare bodies between the cruel regime and their land, livelihoods, and future.
They did not need a shield. They could challenge you as to who was a bigger patriot. They did not need a striped cloth. They did not have to underline their Indian-ness. They were India.
The absence of the tricolour should be a lesson to those brandishing it in public square agitations.
The flag’s absence is an act of public negotiation unless we are too stupid to not see it. No one was singing Saare Jahan Se Achha. They were doing bhangra to Pecha Pai Giya Center Naal!
People who celebrate the tradition of martyrdom sing songs of Shahadat, not of peace. They did not have to don yellow turbans in Bhagat Singh style. You do not need to copy sartorial fashion statements; the martyrs aren’t models. They are role models. As are the farmers at the Singhu border.
Meanwhile, news of farmers dying on the frontlines kept trickling in. Not in a single case did Amarinder Singh reach out or drop in to see the family of the deceased and offer his condolences or extend solidarity. The Punjab government did not take any initiative to send any doctors to the frontlines.
The Congress government did not think of sending portacabins or makeshift toilets to Singhu Border. It did not even send psychologists to engage with children, who have been watching the brute force of the state brought to bear upon their parents, forced to spend chilling nights out on the road.
Punjab’s top writers, intellectuals, artists, players, scientists, and other professionals are returning awards won through a lifetime of labour and sweat, but Amarinder Singh cannot bring himself to openly welcome the move.
Not one minister of Amarinder Singh’s cabinet, not one member of the Congress Working Committee, not one family member of the chief minister spent a single night with the farmers. Some say it would have given the farmers’ movement a huge boost if Amarinder Singh or his friend Aroosa Alam had come to visit the protestors, but then it would have been so much out of character.
The Centre remained busy pretending that the amateur moves made by Narendra Tomar or a Piyush Goyal would be capable of clinching any decision other than what to have for lunch. (They failed at that, too. The farmers preferred to have their own langar.)
And the media kept itself busy projecting scant details of the multiple rounds of talks held inside Vigyan Bhawan.
All this while, people were closely watching a negotiation carried out most publicly.
They knew exactly where the government stood, and what the protestors’ stance was, and where exactly did the media fail, or an Amarinder Singh flail.
It is always the publicly carried out negotiation that tells you the truth.
If the government wanted the Vigyan Bhawan negotiation to succeed, they would have shirked from issuing incessant statements outside. We have the outcome that the government has forced.
The only achievement that the entire negotiation drama has achieved is that a significant number of people have now found out the name of the country’s agriculture minister.
As to what the people have achieved during this public negotiation, the list is endless.
It has brought Punjab together; the village has found new warmth in cities; the landless and the landlord have come closer; communities have forged ever closer ties; Punjab and Haryana have forgotten decades of bitterness; and people have found that you can stand up for a cause and not be swayed even when you have puny leaders masquerading as your saviours.
If this movement had not been thrust upon us, we should have invented it. In many ways, this public negotiation has been with our inner selves. And that’s a negotiation worth having, even if it happens on the battlefront at Singhu Border!
Some fights are worth it, just as some negotiations aren’t.
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