The proclamation of Emergency in 1975 came as a bolt from the blue and hundreds of political leaders and workers were arrested in midnight swoops by the police. Political activity came to a standstill and all instruments of the Constitution stood blunted. Such was the atmosphere of fear that people were scared of going out on the streets. The biggest fear was of sterilisation and the Youth Congress hoodlums. At that time, it seemed as if the darkness would last forever, but resistance was building up quietly. We had tall leaders in the Opposition like JP Narayan, Vajpayee, Advani, Badal, Morarji Desai and Fernandes, to name a few. The Akali Dal was the first party to have a mass rally to oppose the Emergency in Amritsar and launched a ‘morcha’ against it. All these leaders had a vision to lead us during and after the Emergency, but a lot of them failed when it came to governance. Today, we have only puny leaders in the Opposition firing salvos through tweets. They will soon lose their offices, residences and security paraphernalia if they do not step out into the streets and fight the good fight. We could have looked into other fields for leadership but today, the university, the press, the visual media, the NGOs, the intellectuals and the social scientists are under attack and some of them have been locked up on trumped-up charges and even bail is not available to them. There is no relief from the highest judicial levels and the aged and infirm septuagenarians in jail have to beg for straws and sippers.
Now once again, as draconian laws are passed against the peasants and small farmers, the Punjabi farmer has led the charge and is joined by his comrades from across the country. Devoid of any political leadership, the common folk have chosen their own path to oppose and negotiate with the ‘Dilli Darbar’. India’s farmers are on the move everywhere. Today, Delhi is no longer ‘door ast’. It is within striking distance. All of a sudden, the Central Government and the urban elite are in a face-to-face situation with the ‘peasantry’. Who are these people and where from have they come in such big numbers? They were supposed to be ‘unseen and unheard’ in their remote villages but today they are vociferous and raising slogans, burning effigies of political and corporate leaders.
Why have they come to Delhi? Because most of the effective power now rests with the Central Government and state capitals are empty shells devoid of any meaningful power. There is no point in agitating in the state capitals, hence the shrewd farmer has bypassed the state capital, ignored the Chief Ministers and proceeded straight to the seat of power to get his grievances redressed. Delhi is also where these new laws were promulgated — which farmer asked for them, by the way? How have we reached this stage where the states no longer matter? Where is the federalism enshrined in our Constitution? The answer is simple — federalism is dying a slow death, through a thousand cuts. GST ended up taking away whatever financial independence the states had legally in their hand — the states are paupers today, scrounging for whatever crumbs are thrown from the high table. Come the lockdown and the states were left facing lakhs of migrants going back. In addition, they were left to look after the victims of the pandemic for which they had no infrastructure.
I could go on about instances of the Centre chipping away at the powers of the states, but must dwell on the biggest strike so far — the assault on the farmers and the grievous blow to them, ‘their land’. However, the Centre was in for a surprise; the farmers understood the implications of these so-called reforms and went in for direct action. The farmers were not taken in by the state or Central Governments because for the first time, they have identified the beneficiaries of these laws and named them — ‘the corporates’, that are the favourites of the powers-that-be. These laws would place the land, the produce, the marketplaces and the prices in the hands of the corporates and their political friends. This is why the farmers are targeting the corporates as joint villains. Now is this a one-off partnership, or has it been going on for a considerable period of time? Is this the new social contract? Is this the new model of governance in which the corporates own most of the valuable resources and infrastructure and the small traders, farmers, workers become serfs? Is this the reason why young boys and girls and mid-level businessmen and industrialists are moving out of the country in huge numbers? Is this why the stock exchange keeps soaring while all other parameters of the economy keep falling? According to some recent surveys, even Bangladesh is beginning to outshine us.
Unlike the way of the government, the farmers have not gone by stealth, they have used their vehicles, not hijacked state transport and they have gone with the sun shining brightly over their heads. They have placed their demands in a forthright manner and their terms are non-negotiable. There are no go-betweens. This has come about because the normal concept of democratic discussion and decision-making has gone for a toss. Decisions are announced at midnight and promulgated through ordinances. When and if Parliament meets, hardly any worthwhile discussion takes place and the brute majority forces its way. Decisions which affect the whole country and especially the marginalised sections are taken without discussion, without debate and without consultation with the Opposition parties.
The standard-bearer of free speech and liberty — ‘the media’ — has been totally co-opted by the corporate-political setup and there are very few exceptions. The media has been a great disappointment because in its absence, how do you spread the counter-narrative to the one given by the authorities? They have taken on the role of the prosecutor, jury and judge. Advani’s famous description of the media — ‘you were asked only to bend, but you chose to crawl’ — is more than apt today. Talking of judges, if 1975 was a low defined by AN Ray and the habeas corpus case, the deafening silence of the courts today in most matters has probably surpassed it.
The land of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev has shown once again that it will not bow to tyranny and that we will fight back for what is rightfully ours. The farmers have shown the way and lighted a new path for our survival. It is up to us, ‘we the people’. We are the people who gave ourselves this Constitution after decades of mass struggle and oppression led by fearless and self-sacrificing leaders of the calibre of the Mahatma, Nehru, Patel, Tilak, Gokhale, Maulana Azad and many more. We are their descendants and it is up to us to safeguard and preserve what they bequeathed to us. Today, there is no foreign ruler, today we have our own government. It’s time that a solution was arrived at democratically — Parliament should convene and listen to the voice of the people. It is no longer Punjab alone but Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand, MP, Andhra Pradesh and the rest. It is no longer limited to being an agitation of farmers; rather, it has become a movement of the people as a whole. The farmers, however, started the good fight and in the words of Majrooh Sultanpuri: ‘Mein akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manjil magar log sath aate gaye aur karwan banta gaya’.