Farmers' protest vs Shaheen Bagh agitation: Comparison and contrast

Protest over the three farm bills at Delhi borders has brought back the memory of the Shaheen Bagh agitation over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Here's a comparison of the two agitations that dominated headlines for months in India.

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Farmers camping at the Delhi borders demanding complete rollback of the three farm reform laws. (Reuters)

Protest over the three farm bills at Delhi borders has brought back the memory of the Shaheen Bagh agitation over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Thousands of farmers, primarily drawn from Punjab, have constricted entrance to Delhi demanding a rollback of the three farm bills -- The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020. They have called for all-India shutdown on Tuesday (December 8) to force the government to accept their demands. There are a lot of similarity between the farmers’ protest over the three farm bills and the Shaheen Bagh agitation earlier this year.

ALLEGATION OF GOVERNMENT HIGH-HANDEDNESS

The protesters squatting at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi demanding repeal of the CAA alleged that the government passed the law showing acute high-handedness. They said the government pushed the bill through Parliament to serve its political agenda without holding wider consultations.

In the case of the farmers’ protest over the farm bills, the protesters accuse the government of the same high-handedness. The farmers sitting at the Delhi borders have alleged that the government did not consult farmers’ unions while pushing the three farm bills through Parliament.

In both cases, the demand is of total recall of the laws.

LIMITED BUT VOCIFEROUS PROTEST

Both the anti-CAA agitation and farmers’ protest over the farm bills have been limited in spatial expanse but vociferous in nature. The anti-CAA protest was epicentred at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and had expression in Muslim-majority areas in different pockets of the country.

The farmers’ protest is centred at the Delhi borders with limited agitation outside. The smaller farmers in big states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh among others have not seen much support to these protesters. The primary reason is that the protest is centred around a guarantee over the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which is not a matter of practical concern for over 90 per cent of the farmers.

ABSENCE OF POLITICAL BANNER

Though opposition parties such as the Congress, the Left and others have extended their support to the farmers’ protest over the farm bills, the protests at Delhi borders are not being held under a political banner. Even at the roundtable conferences with the government, political leaders have been left out.

It was the same in case of the Shaheen Bagh protest against CAA. The protesters did not organise under a political banner. The Congress and other opposition parties did extend their support but the agitation was not held under a political banner.

An elderly anti-CAA protester at the Shaheen Bagh protest site in Delhi. (PTI)

PREPARED FOR LONGER FIGHT

In both cases, the protesters came prepared for a long haul. In Shaheen Bagh, the protesters sat on the road for months before they were forced to vacate in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic spreading in Delhi and rest of the country. Essential supplies were ensured to the protesters by many volunteer groups working within.

In case of the farmers’ protest, the volunteers have taken it onto themselves to maintain essential supplies. In media reports, the farmers say they have come prepared at the Delhi borders with supplies for up to one year. In both cases, the protesters sounded fully determined to fight the government using the tools of civil disobedience for an indefinite period.

GOVERNMENT ON DEFENSIVE BUT FIRM

The government’s response to both anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest over the three farm bills at the Delhi borders is similar. In both cases, the government expressed its firmness on its legislative decision while stating that it is open to allay all the fears of the protesters.

In both cases, the government said the law has been brought to fix the problems that were left unaddressed for decades. What sets the government’s response to the farmers’ protest from the Shaheen Bagh agitation is that a ministerial panel has held negotiation with the farmers’ leaders while nothing of the sort happened during the anti-CAA protests. It was, however, helped by the fact that the anti-CAA protesters of Shaheen Bagh did not form a group of representatives to hold talks with the government.

RELIGIOUS PARALLELS

This has also happened in both the protests against the government. The anti-CAA protests pivoted on the Muslim support base. The farmers’ protest has evoked a Sikh identity response as the strongest voice has emerged from Punjab. Some of the commentators have gone on to say that the Modi government may have miscalculated the Sikh sentiments in the farmers’ protest over the three farm bills.

In the anti-CAA protest that hinged on the Shaheen Bagh agitation, the commentators said the Muslim sentiments against the BJP-led NDA government was not taken into consideration by the Centre. The anti-CAA protest erupted in the backdrop of the triple talaq law, the abrogation of special privilege to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and a Supreme Court verdict favouring construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. All three were the BJP’s pet issues and stereotyped as anti-Muslim developments.

INTERNATIONAL REVERBERATION

Both the anti-CAA agitation at the Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest over the farm bills at the Delhi borders found international reverberation. A host of Islamic countries expressed concerns over the government ignoring the apprehensions expressed by the Shaheen Bagh protesters. Time magazine featured an old woman protester on its list of the most influential persons.

In the case of farmers’ protest, countries with significant Punjabi or Sikh migrants saw gatherings taking place in support of the farmers. Canada, which has several Sikh ministers, was the most vocal with its Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing concern over the farm bills drawing a sharp rebuttal from India. Protests were also held in New Zealand and Australia.

Despite the parallels between the two anti-government protests, it remains to be seen if the farmers’ protest over the three farm bills will go the same way as the anti-CAA agitation losing its steam after a few months with the government showing patience to see the storm dissipate.