Home >Opinion >Columns >The costs of a prolonged stand-off

We did what we could, now the ball is in your court." With these words, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar brought the 11th round of talks between farmers’ leaders and the Centre to an end on Friday. Unlike in the previous rounds, no date has been set for the next round—both sides have to pull back from the precipice if things have to move forward.

The government showed flexibility by postponing the implementation of the controversial laws for 18 months, and offered to reach an agreement through negotiations during this period. But the farmers are firm in their resolve, demanding a repeal of the laws, and have announced plans to intensify their movement. They are also determined to take out a tractor rally on 26 January.

However, on Saturday evening, some positive news came in. After a marathon meeting between the protesting farmers and the Delhi Police, it was agreed that the tractor rally will be allowed to enter Delhi on Republic Day, and the farmers apparently agreed not to make any stops or deviate from the agreed upon path. The details of the route have not been disclosed yet. The onus of the whole event passing off peacefully is now squarely on the Delhi Police and the farm leaders. The movement has been peaceful so far, so great care must be taken to ensure agent provocateurs do not try to disrupt the rally when it enters Delhi.

But, why is it that, despite the government displaying its willingness to take a step back, the matter was not resolved? An old anecdote may offer a clue. Sometime in the 1990s, a friend of mine, a senior IAS officer, was suddenly offered the post of collector in an important district by the Uttar Pradesh government. This district was known for farm agitations and demonstrations. My friend later spoke about dealing with the farmers effectively. When asked how he did that, he replied that if farm discontent is not controlled in time, different kinds of problems could arise. It could start as a sit-in demonstration, but with an increase in crowd size, the escalation of their demands may also increase. I recalled his words when witnessing the collapse in talks during the 11th round.

The matter should have been dealt with when the agitation was confined to Punjab. Now, it has taken hold in Haryana. Many said farmers found support in Punjab as it is ruled by the Congress, but what explains the discontentment of farmers in BJP-ruled Haryana? Instead of talking to the farmers, the state used water cannons and teargas shells, even the roads were dug up to stop the farmers from moving towards Delhi. But, nothing has worked.

This has to be seen through the prism of the Jat-Sikh psyche. This is a community whose ancestors fought against the Mughals, and this is why their traditional proverbs and songs are about a glorious narrative of fighting the takht (seat) in Delhi. While the agitating farmers have no intention of occupying any seat in Delhi, they are not likely to back off easily.

Sikh gurdwaras have a tradition of providing assistance to agitators. The concept of seva (service) is a recurring theme among farmers. This is the service that was initiated by the Sikh gurus to strengthen the morale and fibre of the society. Today, community kitchens, pharmacies, toilets and laundry services are being run as a part of the tradition of gurdwaras at the agitation site. All this seems commendable, but it does give rise to several questions, some of which relate to national security.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana have received support from the border areas of western UP and Rajasthan. While many of these areas are dominated by Jats, it would be a mistake to assume this is just a Jat farmers’ movement. It is also true that the movement has not yet expanded geographically beyond a certain area.

No one doubts the patriotic credentials of the agitating farmers. But in the 1980s, a terrible catastrophe opened the doors to militancy in Punjab and interference from across borders. When emotions are running high, a small spark can snowball into a firestorm. Past experience suggests that it is best to resolve disputes well in time before they spiral out of control.

The government has extended an olive branch. The farmers must respect this and reciprocate. The tone set on Saturday should pave the way for a permanent solution.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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