India is fighting the deadly coronavirus, with the second wave of the pandemic coursing through the country. Reported cases are more than 2 lakh a day, the total death toll has crossed 3 lakh with 50,000 of them in just the last 12 days. A significant amount of blame has been apportioned to recent religious events and the assembly elections that concluded at the beginning of this month. In the middle of this all, the protest by farmers at Delhi’s borders against the Centre’s new agricultural reform laws have continued.
Now, farmers have announced that they will observe May 26 as “Black Day” nationwide and the move has been backed by 12 opposition parties, prompting sharp criticism from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party over “political opportunism”. Thousands of farmers have reportedly set off from neighbouring Punjab and Haryana towards the national capital for the demonstration.
“We extend our support to the call given by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) to observe a countrywide protest day on May 26 marking the six months completion of the heroic, peaceful kisan struggle,” a joint statement of the 12 political parties reads.
Justifying the decision, Congress Lok Sabha lawmaker Gaurav Gogoi told CNN-News18, “The BJP government is responsible because of their incessant arrogance and dictatorial attitude towards our farmers. These farmers provide our food and are now worried about the future and safety of their children. All Prime Minister Modi has to do is listen to these farmers and put these pro-corporate farm laws on hold. What is more important: the farmer or the ego of the PMO?”
The protesters have been demanding the repeal of the central government’s three agricultural laws passed last year— the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020— calling them “pro-corporate”. They also want a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for their crops. Several rounds of talks with the Centre have failed to break the deadlock.
“The government is arrogant and they should’ve held dialogue with them. Farmers are the annadata (food providers) and they’ve been left to suffer in the Covid situation. Only the government is responsible for this,” said D Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India. The CPI is also a signatory to the joint statement.
“If the ruling party cannot stop elections like Bengal, which is the main reason for the spread of the pandemic, we couldn’t stop Kumbh, then why does the government blame farmers’ protests? The government must take sincere interest to resolve the issues of farmers,” said Sanjay Raut, Rajya Sabha member from the Shiv Sena that is also backing the farmers.
Former union minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP Dayanidhi Maran said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mismanaged the Covid crisis. ”Our party leader has simply said that we will be supporting farmers. What is the problem in the Prime Minister, who is meeting everyone, calling for a meeting with the farmers? Why should he be so arrogant? All that the farmers are now requesting is for the PM to meet them. Let Modi emerge as a leader now,” he said.
The support extended by the twelve major opposition parties should be seen as an act of solidarity with the farming community that has seen and felt only brazen insensitivity from the government, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Rajya Sabha member Professor Manoj Jha told CNN-News 18. “The government has been calling its version of monologue a dialogue without caring for the genuine concerns of lakhs of farmers. Six months of a continuous sit-in is a living testimony to their commitment. Before questioning them for holding a protest during the pandemic, the government should hold a mirror and check why they have allowed their stubborn attitude as their policy. We urge the government to respect their sentiments and immediately withdraw the farm laws,” he said.
Non-aligned parties including the Biju Janata Dal support the farmers’ cause but are not in favour of any congregation. Senior MP from the BJD Dr Amar Patnaik said, “The government of the day by now should have resolved this issue so that farmers were not out on the streets. But in the larger interest of the country we do not support any congregation or gathering in the name of a protest during these times when the country is grappling with rising Covid cases.”
Another such party representing the farmer-dominated economy of Andhra Pradesh too echoed similar sentiments. Lok Sabha floor leader of the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP)
Midhun Reddy told CNN-News18, “These are terrible times to hold such protests as we fight Covid. However, each state must do its best to support farmers. Because of the proactive steps taken by chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy there is no such crisis in our state Andhra Pradesh.”
Sources within the opposition said not everybody is on the same page. Some leaders including those from the principal opposition party Congress are of the opinion that this is bad optics. They say that this is the time to protect everyone from Covid and not expose them. Some of them, who didn’t wish to be named, told CNN-News18 that this was a worrying situation and when these protesters would go back to their homes they may end up infecting entire villages and there would be no accounting for the death figures there.
Senior Rajya Sabha lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Bhupendra Yadav, who is also general secretary incharge of the party’s farmer wing, weighed in on the issue. “It is unfortunate and highly irresponsible for opposition parties to coax the farmers to carry on with their protest and goad them into a nationwide agitation on May 26 amid a raging pandemic. There has been an unprecedented bumper wheat procurement in Punjab, which reflects the Narendra Modi-led Centre’s intent to stand and support Indian farmers. The government has been in talks with the farmers and has agreed to even hold off the implementation of farm laws for now,” he said. “It is unbelievable that the opposition parties are ready to risk the lives of protesting farmers only to meet their political ends. There are reports showing how the protesters are taking back the virus to their villages and this does not bode well for India’s fight against corona. Politics cannot be played at the cost of human life. This protest must be called off and it is incumbent upon the opposition to not mislead farmers any longer. There will be more occasions for politics.”
Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat also launched a scathing attack on the opposition. “This is the time to save lives, but it seems politics dominates the agenda for the opposition,” he said. “On the one hand when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to create opportunities for people in these tough times, it seems these parties only see a political opportunity to grab in these grim times.”