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Home >Opinion >Columns >How to choose a moral stand on the farmer agitation

A moral position is an opinion that is somewhat more moral than the person who claims it. It is usually formed after a cursory understanding of agreeable facts or borrowed from agreeable people. A moral stand is thus usually very easy to take. It costs nothing. Yet, the ongoing farmers’ agitation has not supplied a clear moral stance to the country’s urban mainstream. The past few weeks, I have often heard people in need of an opinion ask people who have opinions, “What do you think of the farmers’ protest?" The seekers then listen, but in the end, they are still not sure.

I am not talking about consumers of ideology, people who form the long tails of politics, either ‘left’ or ‘right’, and are conditioned to delude themselves into taking a prefabricated moral stand seconds after any news breaks. I am referring to most regular people.

At the heart of the matter, there are three new laws that intend to transform how farmers do business and how the government does business with farmers. And there is a section of farmers who hate and fear these. What can be so perplexing about this?

The reason for the moral confusion is that the laws make a lot of sense. The sense is on paper, but then laws are always on paper. The trouble is that the branding of farmers as impoverished victims is so strong in India that the instinct of the conscientious urban class is to take their side.

What must you do then? Let this column help you form your moral stand. The most important factor in its formation is not the nature of the issue, the farce of pros and cons, or other ritual arguments. What matters is your nature. Who are you?

Have you done well in the past five years? Or have you done poorly? Are you more privileged than your parents, or have the other Indians caught up with you after your early head start? Do you secretly or overtly feel you are genetically superior and that you belong to a genetically-superior race or caste? Or do you feel more racially modest? Do you feel very healthy, lucky and rich, and confident that your future too will be this way? Or do you feel shaky and vulnerable ? Do you feel it is very cheap to be upper middle class in India? Or do you feel it has become very expensive to be part of the elite in India? Do you feel your religion and mother tongue are your home, or do you feel more at home in Manhattan, London or Paris?

In essence, in a political field, at any given situation there are only two kinds of people. Those who feel smug, and those who feel nervous about their own circumstances.

If you are smug, it will be easier for you to take the side of the government and its attempt to reform agriculture. And your argument should run like this:

The new laws liberate farmers from the monopoly of Agricultural Produce Market Committee mandis, the only places in several Indian states where a farmer who grows some of the most popular crops can legally sell his produce. But the new laws free the farmer to sell his harvest to anyone he wishes anywhere, even online. The biggest losers are middlemen who connect farmers with mandis for a commission, and the state governments that earn thousands of crore on licence fees for running these statutory wholesale markets. No wonder then that big agricultural entrepreneurs, many of them politicians, are behind the agitation. As it happens so often in India, street rebels are merely cheap recruits of the rich.

Also, the new laws do not abolish the guarantee of minimum support prices (MSPs) for crops that were once deemed essential. The fact that some popular crops have been removed from the list of essential commodities is a practical necessity. ‘Essential commodities’ is an idea from olden days, a poorer time when Indians had to be protected from spikes in the price of foodgrains. Hence the hoarding of crops that were deemed essential was banned. Today, India does not have to be so paranoid. If a corporation is now allowed to buy huge quantities of crops directly from thousands of farmers, it also needs legal freedom to store what it has procured. ‘Hoarding’ is merely a mean word for ‘storing’.

If you are not smug, if you instead are one who feels vulnerable and hence hate the strong, like the government, any authority and the cultural winners of your time and place, and your own fragility has created compassion for others, then you will naturally be drawn to the farmers’ cause. Even though the laws are sound, you do have some excellent arguments against them:

While it is true that the government has not abolished MSPs, the fact that corporations can now buy huge quantities directly from farmers means that they could form a cartel to push down prices in the open market, increasingly making government procurement through mandis look fiscally extravagant. This is the beginning of the end for the idea of guaranteed MSPs, which has helped millions of Indians join the middle-class. Also, the new laws play down the right of farmers to go to court if they feel their contracts with private procurers have been violated. Instead, the laws are bent on persuading them to accept a less reassuring mechanism. Their liberty of appealing to the courts has been sacrificed for the speed of conflict resolution.

These are the two sets of arguments for two emotional sets of people.

But what is the truth, you may want to ask, as only one stand can be morally justifiable, surely? There is no such thing. There are always two moral stands—one for the smug, and the other for the nervous.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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