The chaos and mindless violence unleashed on the national capital by a section of protesting farmers on Republic Day were abhorrent. It is plausible that agents provocateurs infiltrated the farmers’ march but that does not absolve the leaders of responsibility. The chances of fatigued agitators breaking loose were high as were the possibilities of vested interests triggering violence. The leaders of the agitation should have taken note of the divergence in the rank and the rejection by certain recalcitrant groups of the routes for the march they had agreed with the Delhi police. True, no popular mobilisation can be held hostage to the threat of violent deviation by a handful, but there is judgement to be made at each turn. The leadership, itself an association of disparate individuals and organisations, should have been more realistic about its capacity to manage such a gathering. In the end, unruly elements took over the streets of Delhi. They broke barricades, thrashed, and tried to mow down police personnel. The police resorted to lathi charge and used tear gas, but, given the circumstances, showed restraint. More than 300 personnel were injured , at least 40 of them seriously. All this, and the march itself, was avoidable.
The Delhi police must investigate and hold to account individuals and groups responsible for the violence. Farmer leaders have the unenviable task of cooperating with the police in the investigation. False friends and real enemies of the agitators have painted them with a communal brush. Bringing the culprits to book is essential not only to salvage the reputation of an agitation that had remained largely peaceful for nearly two months but also to nip in the bud a dangerous communal slant before it slips out of control. The Centre has said it would continue to engage the protesters in negotiations. The offer of the government to keep in abeyance for up to 18 months the three controversial farm laws that are at the heart of the current face-off remains an opportunity for the leaders to seek a negotiated settlement. The agitators want the laws to go lock, stock, and barrel but their maximalist approach is unhelpful. They must discontinue the protest for now and disperse, while reserving the option of restarting it later. They should consider options short of a complete repeal of the laws. The Centre must consider more concessions, including the suspension of the laws until a broader agreement can be arrived at. It must make more efforts to allay the fears of those most affected by these reforms. The Centre’s imperious refusal to engage with political parties and State governments on critical questions of agriculture reforms has come back to haunt it. The resolution to this impasse can come only by involving them all.