Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday the Centre’s offer to protesting farmers of keeping three agri laws in abeyance for 18 months “still stands” as he told an all-party meeting that his government was “committed to reaching a solution through dialogue”, a remark that appeared to reach out to thousands of protesters who have hunkered down at the Capital’s borders.
The Prime Minister, however, stood firm against the violence at the Red Fort and other areas of Delhi during a tractor parade by farmers and said the “law will take its own course.”
On Republic Day, farmer groups broke through barricades, clashed with the Delhi Police and stormed the Red Fort, hoisting the Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikhs, on its ramparts.
Addressing the all-party meet ahead of the Union Budget, PM Modi said the government was only a “phone call away” for talks with farmers who have been involved in a two-month-long agitation over the three farm laws.
Facing 18 opposition parties adamant on the repeal of the farm laws, the Prime Minister reminded them that smaller parties suffer the most if the House doesn’t run and told representatives of the smaller parties that “you must tell all parties, including the BJP and NDA partners, that the House should run so that we get a chance to speak”.
Eighteen opposition parties boycotted President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to both houses of Parliament on Friday, the inaugural day of the Budget Session, to protest against the farm laws. The session will run from January 29 to April 8 with a recess from February 15 to March 7. The budget is to be presented in Parliament by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1. Many opposition parties including the Congress are set to continue their protests in Parliament.
As one leader after another spoke about the farm issue, the Prime Minister, who chaired the virtual meeting, referred to Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar’s remarks after the 11th meeting between the government and the farm bodies that he was just a phone call away and will come whenever the farmer leaders want to discuss keeping the laws in abeyance.
“The same offer of the Indian government still stands. If you know any protester, tell them that the offer is still there and I am sure everyone here wants a solution through dialogue. The government is continuing efforts to find a solution through dialogue,” the PM told the leaders.
The PM also condemned the vandalism of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in California, US.
“Nearly everyone spoke about the incidents on January 26. The law will take its own course. But on January 30, some people vandalised Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in the US. Everyone must think about what are we giving to the country by creating this atmosphere of hatred?” he added.
Modi also welcomed any criticism of public policies as they generate fresh ideas, and maintained that in a Post-Covid-19 world, India can’t afford to lose its opportunities.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said that had the three farm bills been sent to a House panel for review, “the protests happening today throughout the country, particularly in northern India and areas surrounding Delhi, would not have happened”. He “strongly condemned” the “unfortunate” and “shameful incident” at the Red Fort and demanded that the culprits be punished.
However, he also hit out at the government and said: “It seems that the government, instead of catching the real culprits, is trying to implicate the farmers’ leaders. I don’t think that any sensible farmer leader was party to that incident at the Red fort.”
Azad warned that “if innocent farmer leaders are framed, then this agitation will grow exponentially,” asking the government not to “make the mistake of framing the innocent farmer leaders, and it should not be a prestige issue as farmers are our annadaata, our own people”. He also demanded that a discussion be held on the status of the economy, the fall in GDP and growing unemployment. He also said that the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir must be restored as the situation there is was grave.
The Centre has pushed a set of agricultural laws to ease restrictions in farm trade, allow traders to stockpile large quantities of food stocks for future sales and lay down a national framework for contract farming based on written agreements. Farmers say the laws will erode their bargaining power and leave them at the mercy of big corporations.
All-party meetings such as the one on Saturday are held to discuss legislative agenda for a Parliament session, with leaders of various parties flagging important issues.
Trinamool Congress leader Sudip Bandopadhyay said the opposition parties’ boycott of the President’s address was a “strong message for the Centre to withdraw the farm laws as majoritarianism cannot let farmers suffer”. He demanded an all-party meeting on the farm issue and asked for a threadbare debate on unemployment.
The Biju Janata Dal’s Pinaki Misra, who was present at the meeting, said Odisha chief minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik specifically requested the Union government to have the women’s reservation bill passed in this Budget Session.
The Shiv Sena, meanwhile, said it wanted free vaccines for the entire poor population in Maharashtra. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), too, demanded free vaccines, and a debate on Sri Lankan Tamils, while the YSRCP asked for special category status for Andhra Pradesh.