The announcement of the imminent repeal of the three controversial farm laws signals a victory for not just the year-long farmers’ mass movement and civil society, but also represents a triumph of Constitutional values, writesS.N. SAHU.
MAHATMA Gandhi had very presciently told the peasant leader N.G. Ranga on October 29, 1944, “If the legislature proves itself to be incapable of safeguarding kisans’ interests they will of course always have the sovereign remedy of civil disobedience and non-co-operation.”
The year-long farmers’ agitation against the farm laws captured the vision of Gandhi as well as the spirit of his first satyagraha in Champaran against the British planters, who forced farmers in Bihar to plant indigo in huge swathes of their fertile agricultural land. Eventually, because of Gandhi’s satyagraha, the practice of forcible plantation of indigo on the dictation of British planters was repealed by enacting the Champaran Agrarian Act in 1918.
What Gandhi did in 1917 for the cause of farmers, farmers in India did for themselves when they launched a remarkable non-violent movement against farm laws enacted by the union government without factoring their interests. Their unprecedented year-long movement has forced Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi to announce earlier today that those laws would be repealed.
Because the government pushed the farm bills in the Rajya Sabha, and they were passed in the House by contravening the Constitution, their repeal restores faith in the Constitution itself.
The non-violent movement of farmers started in August last year. The same union government which declared in 2015 the celebration of ‘Constitution Day’ on November 26 from that year onwards, trampled upon the Constitution by enacting the farm laws in 2020 without deliberation and consultation, and by passing them by voice vote in the Rajya Sabha in complete disregard of the demand of several members of the House for actual physical voting, as prescribed in Article 100 of the Constitution.
What Mahatma Gandhi did in 1917 for the cause of farmers in Champaran, farmers in India did for themselves when they launched a remarkable non-violent movement against farm laws enacted by the union government without factoring their interests.
Article 100, among others, states that “… all questions at any sitting of either House or joint sitting of the Houses shall be determined by a majority of votes of the members present and voting…”.
Even the Supreme Court, while dealing with the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the farm laws, observed that no consultation had taken place with farmers before framing the legislation. That was why it stayed the implementation of farm laws for two years and constituted a committee of experts to consult the farmers and submit a report.
It was indeed absurd that consultation, which should have preceded the passing of the legislations, was ordered by the Supreme Court after those were challenged. It clearly showed the unilateral approach adopted by the government in pushing the laws through.
PM Modi’s announcement that the farm laws would be repealed is, more than anything else, a thumping victory for farmers who launched and sustained a year-long agitation against the laws which were imposed on the farming community to advance corporate interests.
During the Champaran satyagraha, the Champaran Agrarian Bill was referred to a Select Committee of the Bihar and Odisha Legislative Assembly for scrutiny and examination, and even Mahatma Gandhi was asked to examine it. In contrast, the union government never referred the farm bills it framed to any parliamentary Committee for scrutiny and examination, even as several Members of the Rajya Sabha moved amendments to refer those Bills to the Select Committee of the House. Any attempt by the opposition for scrutiny and examination of those bills was thwarted by the government.
The Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairperson, M. Venkaiah Naidu, described the conduct of the opposition as “tyranny of the minority”. Such wilful disregard for thorough examination of government-initiated bills so that the government intent embodied in them would be fine-tuned by legislative intent through discussion and scrutiny of those bills in the Parliament and its committees constituted a negation of the law-making process.
During the Champaran satyagraha, the Champaran Agrarian Bill was referred to a Select Committee of the Bihar and Odisha Legislative Assemblies for scrutiny and examination, and even Mahatma Gandhi was asked to examine it. In contrast, the union government never referred the farm bills it framed to any parliamentary Committee for scrutiny and examination.
The Chief Justice of India said on Independence Day this year that the judiciary, while examining the constitutional validity of Bills, finds it difficult to fathom legislative intent in them because these have been passed without adequate discussion in the legislatures. What the farm laws actually represented was executive, and not legislative, intent as those were never discussed in-depth, neither in both the Houses of Parliament nor in its Committees. In announcing the repeal of the farm laws, Modi was announcing the repeal of the government intent inherent in them which never got moderated by legislative intent.
The announcement of imminent repeal of the farm laws unmistakably registers the triumph of civil society. The farmers’ movement represented civil society in an authentic manner.
A few days back, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval made an outrageous statement declaring civil society the “new frontier of war”. The repeal of farm laws would mean conceding to the movement of civil society which cannot and must not be dealt through adversarial posturing by the political regime.
This victory of the mass farmers’ movement provides vindication of the civil society and protest movements that are launched by exercising constitutional rights. Such movements, in the words of Professor Amartya Sen, immensely contribute to public reasoning for deepening democratic decision-making process.
Victory for composite culture
Over 750 farmers attained martyrdom during the protests, and their supreme sacrifices have resulted in bringing an arrogant government, driven by majoritarianism, to its senses. It is a victory for Ambedkar’s vision, anchored in his slogan “Educate, Agitate and Organise”; the farmers’ movement remained firmly rooted in that vision.
The repeal of the three farm laws should pave the way for moderating Hindutva forces which are polarizing our society. Imposing draconian laws on innocent citizens and the unfair description of the farmers’ movement as a movement of Khalistanis have been exposed as abuses of law and empty rhetoric respectively.
What the farm laws actually represented was executive, and not legislative, intent as those were never discussed in-depth, neither in both the Houses of Parliament nor in its Committees.
State agencies were used by the government to target, among others, climate activist Disha Ravi and arrest her earlier this year on sedition charges by falsely accusing her of having employed a toolkit for hatching an international conspiracy to support the farmers’ movement and defame India.
It is instructive to note that in Odisha, the Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik took a stand in favour of the farmers and their movement, and demanded implementation of the Report of the National Commission on Farmers chaired by Professor M.S. Swaminathan, popularly known as the Swaminathan Report.
The Bharatiya Janta Party, which earlier declared its intention to implement the Swaminathan Report, backed out and enacted the farm laws, in complete contravention of the not just the constitutionally ordained procedure of law making, but also the report’s recommendations.
The intensity of public opinion generated by the movement of farmers was such that the whole country was moved by its genuineness.
It is worthwhile to note that the farmers’ movement witnessed participation of large numbers of women who gave a huge gender dimension to it. In our country, millions of women are engaged in farming and they also head families of farmers. Such massive presence of women farmers in the year-long agitation emerged a major feature of the historic non-violent farmers’ movement against the farm laws.
Some members of the Rajya Sabha like Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam demanded actual voting from his seat as per rules of procedure governing the business of the House. So the repeal of farm laws constitute a vindication of the Constitution and rules of procedure of the Parliament, and the non-violent method of protest to defend the Constitution and parliamentary process.
The repeal of farm laws has a huge implications for upholding the methods of parliamentary process of decision-making, which was flagged by the Justice R.S. Sarkaria-led Commission in its report as indispensable for upholding the unity of India.
In a way, the repeal of the farm laws is victory for the idea of India.
(S.N. Sahu was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India KR Narayanan. The views expressed are personal.)