Let us talk, Rihanna

Since Rihanna wants us to talk about the ongoing protests in India, let’s indeed talk about the issues one by one.

Akhilesh Mishra February 03, 2021 18:18:15 IST
Let us talk, Rihanna

Farmers break the police barricades at the Ghazipur border as move towards Akshardham during their tractor rally on Republic Day in New Delhi on 26 January. PTI

"Why aren’t we talking about this?!" asked Rihanna in all seriousness. Not leaving anything to chance, she even used the hashtag #FarmersProtest in the same tweet to let the world know the issue on which she wants all of us to talk.

Since the Barbados born singer wants us to talk about the ongoing protests in India, let’s indeed talk about the issues one by one.

First, let’s talk about the right to protest. The activists first started protesting in the state of Punjab between September to November 2020 by blocking railway lines connecting rest of India to Punjab and the border state of Kashmir. India is facing a sensitive issue on its borders with China and despite knowing this the rail route connecting that state was blocked. Yet, no coercive action was taken against the protesters. Since end of November 2020, the activists have been blocking multiple entry points into India’s capital city. Local business and livelihood earning opportunities of the locals around the blockaded regions have come to a halt. More than two and half months later, the roads are still being blocked without any coercive action by the Police.

So yes, let’s talk about the right to protest. Let’s talk about how, despite hardships faced by thousands of innocent citizens who have as much equal rights to livelihood, the Indian authorities have been very patient and have allowed the activists to protest at a place and mode of their choosing.

Second, let’s talk about the violence and anarchy unleashed during the protest. Republic Day is “a cherished national commemoration, the anniversary of the inauguration of the Constitution of India”. This sacred national day was besmirched, and violence and vandalism were unleashed in the Indian capital by the activists representing the farmers. Thousands of police personnel were brutally attacked with swords and sticks and more than 500 had to be hospitalized with serious injuries. Many of the police personnel are still in ICU.

The sacred Indian flag was being disrobed in front of their own eyes. Fellow Police officers were being manhandled and attacked in front of their own eyes. And yet, the Police did not retaliate. It had every legitimate and lawful authority to forcefully bring down the vandals and the attackers. And yet, the Police displayed exemplary restraint against the activists, for they were claiming to represent the farmers.

So yes, let’s talk about the violence unleashed during the protests. Let’s talk about the human rights that police men and women also have – to be not murderously attacked in their own land while performing their lawful duty. Let’s talk about how the India’s most sacred day, a national day for every Indian, was violently besmirched by those claiming to represent farmers.

Third, let’s talk about the right of protesters to be heard. The three farm laws have been under debate for over two decades and the same proposals have been recommended under various forms and shapes by different expert committees and under various governments. Finally, in September 2020, the three laws were duly passed by the Indian Parliament after a long and meaningful debate.

In a parliamentary democracy that should be enough. However, the Government of India, demonstrating its democratic credentials, still went out to negotiate with the farmers with the honest intention to find an amicable solution. The top ministers of the central government have held 11 rounds of talks with the farmers.

First an eight-point proposal was given to the activists which promised to address all the stated and unstated fears of the farm leaders. That offer was rejected.

Then the Supreme Court of India offered to create a four-member non-governmental expert committee, while staying the implementation of the laws, to work out a settlement. That offer of the Supreme Court of India was also rejected.

The Government of India then offered, at the level of Prime Minister, to put the laws in abeyance for one and half years, till a mutually agreeable situation was worked out. This offer was not just rejected but the violence during India’s Republic Day was unleashed after this offer was made.

Despite this background, the government has once more invited the farm leaders for talks. They have responded by announcing another road blockade agitation on 6th February.

So yes, let’s talk about the right of protestors to be heard. Let’s talk about the demonstrated willingness of the Government of India to engage in a dialogue with the activists at the highest levels. Let’s talk about the obduracy of the activists who are insisting on ‘my highway or the highway” model and are refusing to negotiate – a complete antithesis of all democratic norms.

Fourth, let’s talk about the three farm laws themselves. Let’s try and understand what do the farm laws intend to do and what could be the problem with them?

The first farm law gives the farmers the freedom to sell their produce anywhere in India, to whoever they wish to and at whatever price they can command. Earlier the farmers, unlike any other producer, could only sell in government designated markets and at prices fixed by the government. Now the farmers are free to sell anywhere, just like any other producer of goods or service. If the farmer finds a better price in a private market he can sell to the private buyer. If the farmer is not so interested, the farmer can continue to sell in the government designated markets at the Minimum Support Process (MSP) just like they have been doing till now. What could be the problem with giving the farmers this freedom? Why should the farmers not be free, like everyone else, to be masters of their own destiny?

The second farm laws end the damocles sword of a draconian law hanging over private entrepreneurs who would invest in farm logistics and supply chain. The Essential Commodities Act, a relic of the 1950s, was a law often used to terrorize private investors or used as a tool for rent seeking by corrupt officials. Who could have a problem which takes away the power from government officials to harass investors and wealth creators? Is private investment in India’s farm logistics, cold chains network and farm processing units not needed? Who has a problem with a law which facilitates this by doing away with a provision which prevented private investment in farm logistics for more than five decades?

The third farm law facilitates contract farming in India. The law mandates that the contract will only be on the crop and no sale, lease or mortgage of the land is allowed. The farmer is free to withdraw at any time from the contract, without any penalties, while the contractor cannot withdraw without paying the full contracted amount. Who could have a problem with contract farming, the established model of modernizing farming with modern equipments, and technology? Contract farming is the surest way of substantially increasing farm yields and increasing farm incomes. Who could have a problem with such a law which protects farmers while bringing in modern technology, promotes Agri Start Ups and would create a chain of food processing units at the farm source itself? Who could have a problem with contract farming that would assure buying of the farmers crops, protect them from vagaries of nature while creating additional jobs for the youth in rural areas?

So yes, let’s talk about the actual farm laws themselves. Let’s talk about who are the vested interests who will lose out if the farmers become free and empowered? Let’s talk about why the United States and Canada have vehemently opposed India in all WTO forums when it comes to India’s agriculture subsidy and MSP regime but now influential people from these same countries are pretending to care for Indian farmers?

Let’s talk about who will stand to lose if the farmers of India get the same freedoms and rights and protections as the farmers in Western countries.? Indeed, let’s talk about the logic of protesting against a decision of the government to give freedom to farmers and instead ask for reversion to a situation where the government and its bureaucracy made decisions for farmers rather than the farmers themselves.

“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” asked Rihanna in all seriousness. Yes, Rihanna, let’s talk about the issues you want to talk about. Let’s debate. Let’s listen to you answers. Let not your seriousness be limited to just trending a hashtag. You asked - “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Let us talk Rihanna.

The author is the CEO, Bluekraft Foundation

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