Far from the gaze of the mainstream media, a mass movement is under way in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Facing what they perceive to be an existential challenge in the wake of the three new agriculture laws the Centre has passed—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act—farmers in the three north Indian States are holding panchayats against them, burning effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and imposing a blockade of major roads and railway tracks. Spreading their rugs on rail tracks and pitching their tents in town squares, farmers have virtually laid siege to the areas they have chosen for their agitation. They are getting support from labour unions, students, traders and grass-roots politicians.
On Dasara day, which fell on October 25 this year, imitating the practice of burning effigies of Ravana, Meghnad and Kumbhakarna, who symbolise evil, farmers in the three States burnt nearly 2,000 effigies of Modi along with that of industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. The latter duo have become symbols of corporate houses out to usurp farmers’ land; Modi is regarded as their representative.
Punjab, the hub of the mass movement, saw this form of protest in more than 1,100 places. Said Kulwant Singh Sandhu, general secretary, Jamhuri Kisan Sabha: “Modi is the modern-day Ravana for us. Not only Modi but also Adani and Ambani are like Meghnad and Kumbhakarna.”
According to Dr Darshan Pal, convener of 31 farmers’ organisations, even before Dasara thousands of villages had burnt effigies of the Prime Minister as part of their agitation against the farm laws. As many as 13,000 gram panchayats have passed resolutions against the new laws.
Many farmers expressed their disdain for the Central government’s decision to amend the agrarian laws by using photographs of Modi as scarecrows in their fields. Some of them put up photographs of Adani and Ambani too as scarecrows.
Across Punjab, Reliance marts and stores have had to shut down and hundreds of Reliance Jio SIM cards have been either discarded or burnt in a heap. Said Buta Singh Burajgill, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, Dakaunda village, Punjab: “The government is acting like a puppet of Adani-Ambani. It is out to defame and humiliate the farmers of the State.” In places such as Mansa, Ludhiana and Sangrur, farmers surrounded malls and fuelling stations run by Reliance.
Asked Burajgill: “Where is the question of the agitation going down? It is only gathering steam. We are soon gathering in Chandigarh for an all-India sabha. If a law can be made, it can be unmade too.”
Punjab Assembly passes special laws
Farmers’ leaders claim that the movement has forced political parties to act. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who himself participated in a tractor rally against the new laws, convened a session of the State Assembly in which members unanimously passed Bills to bypass the Central laws.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators stayed away from the session. But MLAs of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which broke away from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre over the farm laws, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supported the new legislation. The Punjab goverment’s Bills provide for a minimum of three years’ imprisonment and a fine for the sale or purchase of crops below the minimum support price (MSP).
Said Kulwant Singh Sandhu: “We are satisfied with the Bill the Assembly has passed, but it needs to be signed by the Governor. Will he sign? I doubt it. Anyway, we are somewhat satisfied that it will boost our agitation. Up to some extent the condition of anybody buying below the MSP facing imprisonment of three years is a welcome step. We want to tell the Central government that all farmers are united, all Punjabis are united. The Bills in the Punjab Assembly were unanimously passed because the political leaders realised the gravity of the crisis.”
Burajgill said this was for the first time that a special session of the Assembly was convened on the demand of the common man. He said: “That is an achievement by itself. Despite its limitations, we are happy with the Bill the Assembly has cleared. The Governor may not sign it at once. He may send it back. But how many times can he do so? There are laws for it. He will have to sign it.”
However, would the absence of BJP members in the Assembly proceedings mean that the Central leadership remains unmoved? Said Sandhu: “The BJP has only two legislators in the Vidhan Sabha. They cannot enter the rural areas. When BJP leaders have to host a press conference, they do not have the courage to host a physical conference. They do a video conference. They cannot enter their constituencies. In fact, we pressured the Akali Dal too to part ways with the BJP. We believe the Akali Dal is responsible for the agriculture laws being passed by the Centre. The BJP claims Akali Dal leaders were entrusted with the task of bringing the farmers around. But the farmers did not listen to them. Under their pressure, SAD leaders had to resign.”
Effectively, farmers have been deciding the course of the agitation in Punjab, forcing political leaders to toe their line. Said Sandhu: “This is a peasant movement. It is the time for harvesting paddy and sowing wheat. More than 50 per cent of the sowing is done. The agitation goes on at the same time. Farmers have been like a sleeping tiger. It is difficult to awaken the tiger. But once awakened, it is extremely difficult to put the tiger back to sleep. Today, farmers are alive and aware. The kisan will not take a step back. Their roar will awaken the political shahenshahs [emperors] in Delhi.”
But he said despite their decision to ease the blockade in order to let goods trains run, the government has stopped running goods trains. “The government wants us to allow the running of passenger trains too. It is meant to put pressure on the Punjab government,” said Sandhu.
Burajgill is of the opinion that “Modi wants to vitiate the atmosphere in Punjab. Even when the rail tracks have been opened, Modi has not allowed the trains to ply. It is the time to sow wheat, harvest rice; the farmer will do it all, but will not bow to the new laws.”
Anger against media
Farmers’ leaders are also unhappy that the national media have failed to cover the mass movement.
Said Burajgill: “The electronic media are concerned about a film star’s suicide or the Bihar election surveys. When do they ever have time for grass-roots reporting? Local newspapers are writing about it. Some in Haryana too are writing about it. But that is all. However, if one sees supposedly national news channels or newspapers, one does not know what is happening in India.”
Agreeing with his sentiment, Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, told Frontline that farmers’ unions, grass-roots social activists and even senior opposition politicians in Uttar Pradesh had been experiencing this utter disregard shown by large sections of the media towards people’s issues.
“This apathy and indifference of the mainstream media to people’s issues is like another social pandemic vitiating the body of our democratic republic,” Akhilesh Yadav pointed out.
Meanwhile, lending credence to the claims of farmers’ union leaders, leading political parties in Punjab, such as the Congress and the Akali Dal, have undertaken bike and tractor rallies against the new laws. The SAD, which was initially in support of the agrarian laws, was forced to withdraw from the NDA because of pressure from workers at the grass-roots who understood the pulse of farmers. Now the party is in the forefront of various farmer rallies and is trying to keep pace with the Congress, which is finding favour with the protesting farmers.
Said Gurnam Singh, a farmer from Mansa: “The Chief Minister has spoken out against the new laws. He has met farmers regularly. He has passed new Bills in the Assembly. Congress leaders have been on the road leading rallies. If the Chief Minister can get the Bills signed by the Governor, he will earn himself a place in history.”
Indications are that the farmers’ unions of Uttar Pradesh too are planning to organise agitations using religious symbols like the burning of effigies during Dasara. A number of union leaders told Frontline that the upcoming festival of Govardhan Puja (the ritual to protect and enhance the cow population in a locality), which was traditionally celebrated in north India a day after Deepavali, would be the next occasion to organise an agitation.
Clearly, this festive season is marked by expressions of farmers’ anger towards the Union government and crony capitalists.