Bedabrata Pain’s ‘Déjà vu’ and controversy around farmers’ protests

By Rajshekhar Singh*

Born on March 27, 1963, Dr Bedabrata Pain is an Indian scientist-turned-film director. He has won National Film Award for Best Debut Film of director for “Chittagong”. All his movie genre mostly focuses on human rights and movements associated with it. Recently he undertook a 10,000 km journey, to Mid-West USA to document the lives of farmers for his upcoming film “Déjà vu”.

In the interview he explains why the documentary is titled Déjà vu – because the discussions on “opening up” of agriculture to free market, end of minimum support price (MSP), contract farming, minimum government control etc. that India is having today took place in America 40 years ago. Even words used by Prime Minister Modi about how these reforms would bring prosperity, how big companies are really ‘good citizens’ and wealth creators, are like what President Ronald Reagan had said in the US.

Nothing is thus new, and that’s why the movie is called Déjà vu. “What India is witnessing and is being told, we already heard here and are living through the consequences. It is Déjà vu,” American farmers told him in the film. Now let’s look at what exactly happened in India.

In June 2020, the Union government promulgated three ordinances with the stated benefits of empowering farmers, a transference of risk from farmers to sponsors, attracting private sector investments to enhance supply chains, and other benefits. Reactions to the ordinances were swift and polarized, in the form of protests, criticism and support.

In September 2020, the ordinances were replaced by corresponding bills that were tabled and passed in Parliament under contentious circumstances. Protests ensued in different parts of the country. They intensified in late November, especially after calls for a march to Delhi were supported by over 470 farm outfits.

Farmers from States around Delhi (Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) would march towards Delhi. In contrast, those in other States would hold protests at state and district levels. While the intensification period does coincide with harvest season for kharif crops, initial statements by protesting farmers indicated that they were prepared for durations ranging from two to six months (click here for timeline of protests).

With the protests crossing the 100-day mark in early March, some key developments were the build-up on police and paramilitary forces on highways leading to Delhi; eleven rounds of talks between representatives of farmer unions and Government of India (GoI) between early December and late January made limited progress with the latter offering to withdraw on penalties for stubble burning and the Electricity Amendment Bill as well as agreeing to suspend implementation of the laws for 18 months, none of which were accepted by farmer unions.

After initially denying permission, a Kisan Gantantra Parade on designated routes was allowed, however, the day was marred by clashes, violence, fatalities and the storming of the red fort; subsequently additional deployment of security forces was accompanied by internet restrictions. While the outbreak of violence was a significant setback, the movement has since recovered with several ‘Mahapanchayats’ across Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal, with plans for more in Karnataka and Odisha.

In early February, Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and many international figures drew attention to the farmer protests in India. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reacted by labelling this propaganda, and this was followed by several Indian celebrities posting content on Twitter calling for unity and delivering the message ‘India Against Propaganda’.

Thunberg also initially tweeted out and then deleted a link to a shared Google Docs file containing a ‘toolkit’ which sparked off the ‘toolkit’ investigation to identify and punish India-based collaborators of the document. This event consumed several news cycles throughout the month.

Criticisms of various forms have followed the laws in their journey from ordinances to acts. These are:

1. Introduction the bills as ordinances while the Union Parliament was not in session.

2. The passage of the bills in Parliament with inadequate discussions in less than ten days.

3. Ignoring opposition demands in the Rajya Sabha for sending the bills to a select committee and a tallied vote in favour of a vote by voice.

4. Perception amongst farmers that the laws will result in an erosion of state-backed benefits and security leading to a concentration of power in the hands of private industry

5. Contention that the bills represented an overreach by the Union government for legislation that should have been in the domain of state governments.

Thus, the demands of the protesting farmer groups included a repeal of the three laws: legal safeguards that minimum support prices would not be withdrawn and maintained at levels recommended by the Swaminathan Panel Report; withdrawal of the Electricity Bill.

Meanwhile, the Union government has remained steadfast in its claim over the question of authority to legislate on these subjects and made the case that the laws will lead to beneficial outcomes. It has also characterised any opposition to the laws across a spectrum ranging from ill-informed, motivated to outright malicious, even stating in the Parliament that specific flaws with the bills have not been raised. Supporters of the reforms have likened them to ‘90s era liberalisation’ efforts.

These fundamental disagreements over the legitimacy of the laws, the means employed to ensure their passage, their stated benefits versus anticipated outcomes have resulted in a series of mobilisation and counter-mobilisation efforts to further each sides objectives and narratives. In turn, these efforts have had the dual effects of supporting adjacent groups and galvanising opposing groups.

*MBA student of IIM Bangalore

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