“This flag is our life, it’s drawn from the blood and toil of our ancestors,” a farmer from Punjab told me, pointing to the Indian tricolor fluttering from the corner of his tractor as it joined a cavalcade of thousands on the morning of India’s Republic Day on Jan. 26. I hung on precariously, one foot in the air, one arm clasping the tractor’s overheated emission rod, as we rolled through a sea of people. It was a protest march, but the atmosphere was joyous. After two months of demonstrating at the capital’s borders against new legislation that farmers say will hand over the agriculture industry to oligarchs, the protesters finally had permission to cross the city limits and enter Delhi.
But what followed a few hours later almost unraveled the people-led agitation; eroded some of its moral force; sharpened the debate around democracy by diktat; shone a light on the compromised freedom of India’s institutions; and revealed a country at war with itself.
There are many versions of what led to a group of protesters clambering up a pillar at the capital’s Red Fort complex — the 17th-century fort from where the prime minister addresses the nation every Independence Day — to hoist the Nishan Sahib, a Sikh flag. To see a religious symbol at a place where only the national flag belongs undermined the very spirit of the movement. It was preceded by violent clashes between some protesters and the police, as barricades were broken and stones pelted.
Yogendra Yadav, a soft-spoken member of India’s political opposition and a key figure at the helm of the agitation, called it “India’s Capitol Hill scandal” in an interview to me, taking “moral responsibility” for what happened. At the same time, he demanded “administrative and political accountability” from the police and government. He suggested that the men who had undermined the movement were Sikh extremists whose presence he had flagged to the police and who he believed had deliberately been given a long rope by cops to discredit the protests. For their part, police have told me on background that 35,000 tractors rolled into Delhi instead of the 5,000 that were granted permission, and that the 200,000 protesters who entered in violation of the agreement also outnumbered them.
In the ensuing fog of claims and counterclaims, some journalists got their facts wrong. A prominent television anchor was pulled off air. Since then, several politicians and media personalities have had ridiculous criminal cases of sedition filed against them.
These past few days have been like a laser-sharp X-ray turned on India’s multiple fractures. In a society so polarized that people are now unable to talk across predetermined ideological positions, you are expected to either blindly support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government or the farmers’ movement. A more nuanced appraisal, which calls out lapses on each side, leads to ugly name-calling and brittle, hostile arguments.
Our media, especially our television channels, have embarrassed themselves, by their supplicant behavior at the altar of a government that does not like journalists or by not being robust enough in their reportage for the story to speak for itself. Right-wing ideologues are busy hate-mongering and labeling fellow citizens as anti-national and treacherous. Liberals are so sanctimonious that their certitude has pushed them deeper into their echo chamber. Our police have been lauded for their restraint on Republic Day — nearly 400 policemen were injured — but have also been under scrutiny since then for political partisanship. And our government, which initially seemed to blink by offering to hold the new laws for 18 months, appears to have aggressively doubled down.
At different protest sites, cement walls have been erected, nails, spikes and iron rods placed on the road, and Internet lines snapped. Farmers making their way to the capital are being blocked on national highways. After every reporting visit to the protest sites, I return with a gnawing fear at the volatility of the situation. Now, the build-up looks like a police crackdown may be imminent. A former police chief of Delhi, admitting that his force has been placed in an impossible situation — this is a political problem and not a policing one — calls the images of fortification “horrifying” and warns that “Delhi cannot become Tiananmen Square.”
The dread has gone international: Even Rihanna wants to talk about India’s farmers.
As a nation, we are playing with fire, especially in the northern state of Punjab, where many of the protesting farmers are from. An agrarian state, it sends the largest number of soldiers to India’s military. At the protests, I have met more than one proud farmer with a son serving in the military. All are appalled at being besmirched as separatists. They remind me that one of India’s national slogans has long been “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” or “Salute the Soldier, Salute the Farmer.” Yet no can erase the memory of the 1980s, when secessionist violence overran Punjab, culminating in the assassination of the prime minister and shameful pogrom against innocent Sikhs.
India cannot afford this inflammability. We cannot have a situation where force is even contemplated against thousands of men and women who have been on the street for weeks, peaceful for the most part. This is now about the compact between citizen and state. The Modi government should show generosity and repeal the laws instead of standing on prestige. The stakes are simply too high.