Lakhimpur as a portent
The day after Gandhi Jayanthi should have been just another Sunday in Tikunia, a nagar panchayat with 77,000 odd population in Lakhimpur Kheri, UP’s largest district, bordering Nepal. But it was not. Agitating farmers had assembled at the helipad at Maharaja Agrasen ground, to prevent the Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya from landing there. According to eyewitnesses, a convoy of four vehicles, one of which was registered in the name of BJP MP and MoS for Home Ajay Kumar Mishra, mowed down four farmers. In retaliation, four others were killed. The resultant political conflagration, involving the minister’s son, Ashish, said to have been present there, has galvanised the national political scene, unlike any other recent incident.
After briefly sketching the political fallout, would like to address a wider issue, which lies at the heart of the ruling party’s response reflected in Trinamul MP Mahua Moitra’s tweet, before the arrest of Ashish, that “MoS Ajay Mishra attends a national conference of prison officials today while his son avoids jail time or even interrogation.” Her leader, Mamata Banerjee, was more explicit, “They (BJP) don’t believe in democracy, they only want autocracy. Is this ‘Ram rajya’? No, this is ‘killing rajya’.”
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, detained by the UP police outside his Lucknow residence, staged a protest sit-in on being denied permission to visit Lakhimpur. Congress general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, confined to the Sitapur guest house for over 24 hours, was arrested to “prevent the commission of cognisable offences.” After their chopper was not permitted to land, a team led by Punjab Deputy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa tried to enter UP in cars but were stopped and arrested. Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi after announcing an ex-gratia payment of Rs 50 lakh each to the families of the farmers and the journalist killed in the incident, emotionally tweeted that it “has brought back horrendous memories of Jallianwala Bagh.” Raman Kashyap, 28, worked with Madhya Pradesh-based Sadhana Plus TV news channel. He leaves behind his wife Aradhana, daughter Vaishnavi (11), and a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Abhinav.
Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was stopped from leaving Lucknow airport, where PM Modi was visiting to attend a conference-cum-expo, despite telling the police he was “not going to Lakhimpur Kheri”. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and former Union Agriculture Minister warned the BJP that the “people will show them their place. Whether it is the government at the Centre or in Uttar Pradesh, they are not sensitive at all. The kind of situation that was created in Jallianwala Bagh, we are witnessing a similar situation in Uttar Pradesh.”
Before meeting Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut said, “If the law is equal for everyone, then why is Priyanka in jail and the accused roaming free?”
All this has contributed to reports of disquiet in the BJP, with some suggesting it was a “pre-planned conspiracy,” while others have expressed anguish at the leadership’s handling of the tragedy. Reacting to BJP UP spokesperson Harish Chandra Srivastava’s tweet that Khalistanis had killed BJP workers, party MP from Pilibit Varun Gandhi cautioned that using “pejorative and demeaning” language against the “struggling farmers” is “unfair and cruel.” For his pains, he, and his mother, Maneka Gandhi, have since been evicted from the party’s national executive!
The callous silence of the BJP top brass on this mayhem raises grave concerns over democracy in present day India voiced by various international watchdog agencies. In 2018, remarking on the “autocratisation process” heralded by “a partial closing of the space for civil society,” and the decline of political transparency, the Varieties of Democracy Institute labelled us an “electoral democracy.” We ceased being a “liberal democracy.” The 2019 Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit found India slipping 10 places in the 2019 global ranking to 51st. We joined “flawed democracies,” because of “an erosion of civil liberties in the country”.
In its 2020 report, Freedom House revealed that India had “the largest decline among the world’s 25 most populous democracies.” Thus, India was counted among “countries in the spotlight,’’ along with Haiti, Hong Kong, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine. To round off the dismal performance, in the annual World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders we slipped by nine spots between 2016 and 2020, ranking 142 out of 180 countries.
Coming back to the unflagging intensity of the farmer protest, we need to view it as more than anger over removal of the minimum support prices. Rather it testifies to the fact that farmers realise that they have little opportunity to raise grievances through bargaining within the system. By road rolling the controversial laws through Parliament, the BJP fortified this perception.
When people are denied a genuine platform for democratic venting, they adopt other means, including street protests, to raise grievances. By extension, that people can oppose and criticise the government without posing a national threat is a fundamental tenet of democracy. The amicable settlement of any disagreement, not the absence of dissent is vital to democracy. It is the attempted criminalisation of such dissent that is profoundly disturbing.
I will conclude with my departed father’s favourite image from Roman history. It is of the slave behind the conquering general entering in triumph into Rome, holding a gold crown above his head, and all the while whispering in his ear, “Remember, you too are mortal.” It is an abiding admonition, more so since we claim to be a democracy.
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP.
(English version of the original Malayalam article in the Mathrubhumi of October 13, 2021)