The Uttar Pradesh government’s latest attempts to intimidate farmers of western Uttar Pradesh have been temporarily halted by the intervention of the Allahabad High Court. In a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by the social activist and independent researcher Arundhati Dhuru, the Lucknow Bench of the High Court pulled up the State authorities and asked them to explain “under what circumstances” the sub divisional magistrates (SDMs) had issued notices to farmers with tractors and asked them to furnish “exorbitant amount of personal bond and two sureties”.
During January 19-22 this year, thousands of farmers across various districts of Uttar Pradesh were served notices by the respective SDMs under Section 111 of the Criminal Procedural Code (CrPC), stating that they could not take out their tractors or use them until the farmers’ agitation was over. Farmers of Sitapur district were forced to fill out personal bonds of amounts ranging from Rs.10,000 to Rs.10,00,000 and sureties for a period of two months, with an undertaking that they would not participate in the farmers’ agitation. The police and the district administration in Sitapur harassed the farmers by other means, too.
They were told that the police suspected that they might get involved in the ongoing farmers’ protest and at any time commit breach of public peace and tranquility, and that these measures had become necessary to ensure peace. Farmers who owned tractors were directed to not use or take their tractors out on the roads. In many districts, including in Sitapur, police personnel were positioned outside the houses of prominent farmers and social activists and their movements were restricted. If they tried to venture out of their homes, they were threatened with implication in false cases and jail terms.
Given the misuse of the police by the State authorities, Arundhati Dhuru, who has worked as an adviser to the Uttar Pradesh government and the Commissioners’ office on appointment by the Supreme Court in the “right to food” case, filed a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution seeking a stay on all such notices issued to thousands of farmers. The petition challenged the State government’s arbitrary orders which, it said, infringed the fundamental rights under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
The petition stated that corruption among police personnel and officers had become rampant in this regard. “Money is often taken from poor, uneducated farmers with the promise that these officers will remove the said farmers’ name from the notices issued,” submitted her counsel Ishan Baghel and Veena Rajes.
In a blow to the State government, on January 25, a division bench of Justices Ramesh Sinha and Rajeev Singh passed an order on the PIL, asking the State authorities to explain on what basis they had demanded such “exorbitant” sums from farmers.
This is not the first time the State government has demanded huge sums from farmers participating in the protests. Activists hope that the High Court order will deter the State government from misusing the law to target protesters, who are viewed as dissenters.
In December 2020, six farmers’ leaders in Sambhal city were issued notices to submit personal bonds of Rs.50 lakh each on charges of instigating farmers in the surrounding villages. They were Bharatiya Kisan Union (Asli) Sambhal district president Rajpal Singh, Jaiveer Singh, Brahmachari Yadav, Satendra Yadav, Raudas and Veer Singh. They were also asked to submit two sureties for the same amount. Reportedly, the police had accused them of spreading misinformation among farmers about the three farm laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—that could possibly endanger peace in the area. When they objected, the police reduced the amount to Rs.50,000 each.
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Responding to this, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav tweeted #Nahi_Chahiye_Bhajapa (No more BJP): “Even though the Supreme Court has given legal acknowledgement to peaceful protests by farmers, the BJP government in UP is lodging FIRs [first information reports] to realise Rs.50 lakh from them. There has never been an anti-people government like the BJP.” The Sambhal district administration later cancelled the notices.
Activists point out that the Yogi Adityanath government has been using sections of the CrPC to silence voices of dissent. In December 2019, when the country witnessed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath threatened badla (revenge) against those who participated in the protests.
Soon after, the Sambhal district administration issued notices to around 70 people and forced them to sign bonds of Rs.50 lakh each. These bonds were called good behaviour bonds wherein the person had to undertake that he would not participate in any disruptive behaviour. Most of those who received these notices were Muslims in the area who had not necessarily participated in the protests. It is not clearly known how many such notices were sent but reportedly 2,000 people were served the notice in Aligarh and 100 people in Lucknow. More often than not, the people who received these notices were poor and unable to pay such exorbitant sums.
Not to be cowed down
Despite such intimidation, farmers continued to protest against the the three farm laws and demanded their complete repeal. Farmers fear that the new laws would lead to the abolishment of the minimum support price (MSP) guaranteed by the government on select crops and would leave them at the mercy of big corporates. The petition in the High Court noted that despite repeated requests by different farmer lobbies, political parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Centre had not repealed the farm laws, which forced farmers from different States, including from Uttar Pradesh, to resort to peaceful protests. The petition said: “It is pertinent to mention that it has been more than two months since farmers from various States, including Uttar Pradesh, are protesting at the borders of Delhi, requesting for their grievances to be heard. And despite numerous rounds of talks between the Central government and the farmers’ unions issues are inconclusive.”
In December 2020, following a petition filed in the Supreme Court challenging the three farm laws, the court stayed the implementation of the laws and set up a four-member committee to make recommendations on the pieces of legislation. In its order on December 12, 2020, the Supreme Court appreciated the fact that the farmers had so far carried on the agitation peacefully and without causing any untoward incident.
On Republic Day, the farmers proposed to hold a tractor rally, and the apex court refused to pass any order on the plea seeking injunction against the rally saying that it was a matter for the police to decide, following which the Centre withdrew its plea. While the farmers’ unions proceeded on the agreed route for the parade, a group of farmers broke away and entered Red Fort. The event ended with the Nishan Sahib (religious flag of Sikhs) being unfurled on one of the empty poles in Red Fort. This threw the mainstream media into a tizzy which condemned the entire farmers’ movement. Even as the farmers’ unions disowned the protesters who entered Red Fort, the Uttar Pradesh government upped its ante on the farmers seated at the Ghazipur border.
But in a high midnight drama, the State government lost the plot against the protesting farmers. Events of the intervening night of January 28 proved the State government incompetent at handling the protesters. Little did Yogi Adityanath know that deploying massive police force, cutting off water and power supply at the Ghazipur border and creating apprehensions of mass arrests would backfire on the government.
The pattern of intimidation that worked against the anti-CAA protesters failed to intimidate the Jat and Gujjar farmers of western Uttar Pradesh. As the administration stepped up the pressure on the farmers to vacate the site, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait, son of the legendary farmers’ leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, proved to be a master political strategist. A few tears shed by him mobilised thousands of farmers from across western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to march back to the Delhi borders in support. By morning, the Ghazipur protest site, which had a few hundred protesters after the Republic Day parade in Delhi, became a gathering of thousands of farmers. Outnumbered and outwitted, the police were constrained to retreat. The farmers’ protest that had wavered after the Red Fort incident got a boost after Yogi’s blunder and Tikait’s master stroke.