Tamil Nadu farmers have got attention, but will they get results?

Tamil Nadu farmers Protest
Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
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An agitation being staged in the national capital that does not concern the rest of the nation is unlikely to spark a large-scale movement.

The last time Delhi witnessed a memorable farmers’ protest was in 1988, when Mahendra Singh Tikait, a Jat farmer leader from Uttar Pradesh, laid siege to the capital with a charter of demands. With him, nearly five lakh farmers with their tractors, cattle and cooking utensils took over the Boat Club lawns – the original protest venue in Delhi, on Rajpath – till the Rajiv Gandhi government finally relented to their demands, which included an increase in the price of sugarcane and some waivers. It was after Tikait’s sit-in that the protest venue was shifted to Jantar Mantar so agitators could be kept at a safe distance from government buildings.

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The farmers from Tamil Nadu who have been protesting in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for a month now are a small number in comparison – there are barely more than 100 of them. But, the protest has, to an extent, engaged the attention of the national media.

Staging a protest

“If they put us on the train back to Tamil Nadu, we will pull the chain. If they beat us, we will jump off the train,” chanted P Ayyakannu, leader of the protest. “We will stay here till our demands are met or we die.”

This is the man who devises the theatricality that has marked this protest since it began on March 14. The 72-year-old farmer and lawyer from Tiruchi is a protest veteran, and has been campaigning for farmers’ rights in Tamil Nadu for nearly 20 years.

Ayyakannu came to Delhi last year to discuss the crippling drought in his state, which had not received much rainfall from either the July-September Southwest monsoon or the retreating Northwest monsoon in October. He said that the last time, the government gave them assurances and then sent them back. So in March, they came prepared with props, skulls and mice and snakes, and have been pulling off one desperate act after another, almost daily. The group is determined to get the government to meet their various demands, which include a Rs 40,000 central drought relief fund and pensions for old farmers who can no longer tend to their fields.

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They’ve performed angapradakshinam – rolling prostrate on the street at Jantar Mantar – staged suicides, conducted mock funerals, shaved off half their moustaches and beards, stripped in front of the Prime Minister’s office, eaten dal and rice off the road, stood with mice in their mouths and have hung skulls around their necks, which they claim belong to farmers in their state who committed suicide because of mounting debt.

In its essence, the “skull protest”, as the media has nicknamed it, is the longest continuous demonstration in recent times and is an expression of the oldest form of protest in India – the nonviolent protest.

Organised under the protection of police and the consent of the state, it is contained and unlikely to descend into chaos, unlike some of the recent agitations in the country, such as the one in Chennai’s Marina Beach in January against the ban on Jallikattu and the quota stirs by Jats, Patidars and Marathas over the last two years, which started off as peaceful protests but soon turned violent. The only violence that has been seen at Jantar Mantar has been self-inflicted.
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