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Farmers’ movement gathers steam in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh

Come February 26, the farmers’ protest at the borders of Delhi would have completed 90 days with no real breakthrough in talks with regard to their basic demands: the repeal of the three contentious farm laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—and a guarantee of a legal framework for the minimum support price (MSP). More than 200 farmers have reportedly died so far from natural and other causes. Youngsters who have tweeted their support for the cause face cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Section 124 A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In addition to this, a good number of farmers continue to be incarcerated for their alleged role in the January 26 events at the Red Fort on charges ranging from dacoity to attempt to murder.

Amidst all these, the protests have spread to other parts of the country and are assuming new forms. Support is pouring in from more quarters, including from the khaps (caste councils) of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The attendance at mahapanchayats led by sections of the Jat leadership in these regions has apparently sent the government into a tizzy. On February 17, Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan, Member of Parliament from Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, who had not uttered a word for the better part of the agitation, convened a meeting of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders of the region. Its objective was to create a counter-narrative to divert public attention from the farmers’ protest, popular support to which has the potential to influence the Assembly elections of 2022. The meeting was also held to discuss the new phenomenon of mobilisation by khaps in a big way. It was decided to craft a detailed outreach programme to explain the benefits of the farm laws to farmers. However, the response to an earlier outreach programme the party had conducted was not all that encouraging.

Sanjeev Balyan, known for his penchant for controversial remarks, had on January 28 said that anti-social elements had hijacked the farmers’ movement. At that time he advised the agitating farmers to go home. Clearly, there were not many takers for his counsel; on the contrary, Jats of western Uttar Pradesh renewed their support for the protest after an emotional appeal by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait.

Also read: Farmers’ agitation with its setbacks and surges

On February 17, at a mahapanchayat at Garhi Sampla village, in Rohtak district, Haryana, attended by a large number of people, leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), which represents more than 500 big and small farmer organisations in the country, invoked the memory of Chaudhary Chhotu Ram, a Cabinet Minister of the Provincial Assembly in undivided Punjab which then comprised Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. The choice of the venue was symbolic: Garhi Sampla is the birthplace of Chhotu Ram, the Jat leader whose appeal cut across castes and religions. He was instrumental in getting the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act enacted in 1939. Chhotu Ram, who was knighted by the British, championed the rights of peasants who were burdened by debts to moneylenders. Usurers often confiscated the lands of those who could not clear their debts. Chhotu Ram’s contribution is acknowledged even across the border, among the peasantry in the parts of Punjab falling in Pakistan.

At the February 17 meeting, Rakesh Tikait and other SKM leaders such as Balbir Singh Rajewal (BKU-Rajewal), Gurnam Singh Chaduni (BKU-Haryana) and Inderjit Singh of the All India Kisan Sabha spoke of the secular character of the farmers’ movement and about Chhotu Ram’s own contribution in uniting the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh peasantry against usurious moneylenders in the region. Significantly, parallels were also drawn between the state of the peasants during British rule and at present in the wake of the new farm laws; and the situation that prevailed in pre-Independence days and now when the mandi system is sought to be dismantled under the new farm laws.

Ironically, not long ago, in October 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a statue of the legendary leader at this very same place and compared him to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Chhotu Ram’s grandson, Union Minister Birender Singh, was present on that occasion. Birender Singh, who is no longer a Minister, has voiced his criticism of the farm laws within the BJP.

Speakers at the Garhi Sampla meeting pulled up Haryana Agriculture Minister J.P. Dalal for his distasteful comments on the farmers who had died. At a press conference, he said that the farmers would have died anyway had they stayed put at home.

Also read: Farmers dig their heels in at Delhi border protest sites

“There is only one class—the farmer,” said Rakesh Tikait at the Rohtak mahapanchayat, underscoring the need for unity among peasants. In an earthy humour typical of him, he said there was no need to be hostile to the media which, he said, too were bearing the brunt of the government’s policies. He declared that there would be similar mahapanchayats in Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

The support from khaps has undoubtedly infused a new energy into the farmers’ movement, which had threatened to come asunder following the events on January 26. In many meetings, women attended in large numbers, blurring the intrinsically patriarchal character of khaps and their somewhat problematic history in civil matters. The events at the Red Fort are now unanimously viewed as a “conspiracy” hatched by the government to defame the movement.

‘The Prime Minister is anti-farmer’

The most significant outcome of this mobilisation has been the wholehearted support to the SKM. At the Rohtak meeting, it was resolved to back the SKM’s joint programmes. Explaining why it was necessary for khaps to enter the picture, Sombir Rathi, a former professor at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, and the newly anointed president of the influential Rathi Khap (a gotra, or sub-caste, among Jats), said: “We felt that khaps needed to support the protest as the welfare of farmers was involved. How could we stay away when the farm laws were affecting farmers? All khaps are supporting the protest and if some of them don’t they will be isolated. We entered late on the scene because we hoped the Prime Minister would call the farmers after he said that he was only a phone call away. But the farmers have been insulted. It is like the Emergency. The media are only reporting what the government says. Anyone who opposes the Prime Minister or speaks in favour of the protest is termed anti-national. The Prime Minister is anti-farmer. Look at what happened to Disha Ravi, Nikita Jacob. The law of sedition has never been misused this much. Whatever the Prime Minister decides is sedition. Today it is not just a Haryana- or a Punjab-related issue. The MSP system affects all farmers and everyone will benefit, including consumers. Today crops are sold and bought at arbitrary rates. All that will stop with a legal framework for the MSP.”

Also read: Skirmishes with police mar an otherwise peaceful kisan parade

Asked whether khaps represented only Jats or whether other non-Jat peasant communities supported the initiative, he said: “Even the Scheduled Caste communities are part of the khap. They are not outside it. The khap represents all of them, Brahmins, the Scheduled Castes and others. Our Sikh brothers began the agitation early on, and we were a little late in joining them. But now all of us are together in it. Everyone is contributing to the extent possible to keep the agitation going.”

Sombir Rathi was careful to point out that not just the BJP but the Congress too had done little for farmers. He told Frontline: “The BJP is taking forward what the Congress set in place. The Congress began privatisation, and the BJP is now privatising everything, the Railways, airports and even the insurance sector. The BJP represents capitalist forces. It is strange that the Prime Minister did not even once come forward to talk to the farmers.”

On the conflict between constitutional rights and the conservatism of khaps, he said customs and practices were followed everywhere but khaps were not against the right to marriage of individuals. “We are not against choice of marriages. Lekin duniya mein sirf do varg hainameer aur gareeb. Jab se duniya ka srishti hua hai, poonjiwaad and samaajwad ke beech ladai hui hai [There are only two classes in the world, the rich and the poor; ever since the formation of society, there has been a struggle between capitalism and socialism],” said the retired professor in a philosophical vein.

Toolkit issue

The events of January 26 gave those supporting the farm laws a handle to label the protesters as anti-nationals and saboteurs. Even as the Prime Minister coined terms such as andolanjeevi (people who make a livelihood out of protests) and parjeevi (parasites) to describe the protesters and their supporters, a “toolkit” (a ready reckoner on how to intensify the campaign) shared by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, on social media came in handy for the critics. Twitter removed her tweet following objections. There were even demands to summon Greta Thunberg to India to face legal proceedings for tweeting the “toolkit”. After senior BJP Ministers mulled at length over the implication of “foreign interference” and the External Affairs Ministry frowned upon what it construed as interference, the Delhi Police arrested a young Bengaluru-based climate change activist, Disha Ravi, on February 13. She heads the Indian chapter of Fridays for Future, a climate group started in 2018 by Greta Thunberg. Disha Ravi’s crime was that she had helped “edit” the toolkit and was in touch over social media with Greta Thunberg. The Delhi Police described Disha Ravi as a “key conspirator” in the preparation and dissemination of the document that was indicative of a “copycat execution of a conspiracy behind the January 26 violence”. She had, according to the police, started a WhatsApp group and collaborated with the pro-Khalistani group Poetic Justice Foundation to “spread disaffection against the Indian state”.

Meanwhile, a Delhi court issued non-bailable warrants for the arrest of Nikita Jacob, a Mumbai-based lawyer, and an activist, Shantanu Muluk, in Aurangabad in connection with the toolkit case. Nikita Jacob secured transit anticipatory bail and Shantanu Muluk was granted pre-arrest bail by court. All three, Disha Ravi, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, have been charged with IPC Sections 124 (a) (sedition), 153 (a) (promoting enmity between different sections of the community) and 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy).

Meanwhile, Haryana’s Health Minister Anil Vij tweeted that if seeds of anti-nationalism were sown in anybody’s thought process, such people should be destroyed. Disha Ravi’s arrest in particular and the subsequent police remand by a magistrate, without she being given an opportunity to seek legal counsel, evoked strong reactions from sections of the legal fraternity. Deepak Gupta, a former Supreme Court judge, told the media that there was nothing seditious about the contents of the toolkit, at least the one that he had seen on social media. It appeared as if the authorities wanted to make an example of all those young protesters who were speaking their minds on the injustices of the day.

Also read: Rakesh Tikait says government betrayed him

Prem Singh Bhangu, convener of the legal team set up by the farmers’ unions and president of the All India Kisan Federation, told Frontline that the arrests of farmers and their supporters represented “intimidation tactics”. He said 122 farmers had been booked under various clauses in connection with the events of January 26 and January 29 (when a violent mob gathered at Singhu on the Delhi-Haryana border demanding that the protesters be removed) and were lodged at Tihar Jail, Delhi. Of them, only 16 had been granted bail; the bail applications of 17 others have been listed for February 18. “One hundred and six are in jail at present. Twenty-one persons were booked for unlawful assembly, obstructing a public servant from discharging his/her duty, and the rest have been charged with attempt to murder,” he said.

The police, he said, were rounding up people from all places. “There are cases of attempt to murder and dacoity against the 36 farmer leaders who are spearheading the SKM. I am also one of them who has been named,” said Prem Singh Bhangu, a practising lawyer in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

He said the police were also harassing farmers who had returned to their villages by issuing them notices under Section 160 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), calling them to join the investigations. Said Prem Singh: “This is to implicate them falsely in cases. We have told those farmers receiving notices not to respond to them. Of a total of 44 FIRs [first information reports], 14 are against anonymous persons. The FIRs don’t have any names, just suspected and unidentified people. We feel that if the farmers respond to those notices they will be named in those FIRs. We get calls almost every day from farmers who receive such notices asking us what they should do. The police are acting at the behest of the Central government. It is like a psychological warfare by the government in order to scare farmers from joining the protests. It is all part of their plan to finish off the agitation.”

He said some farmers were tortured in police custody. According to him, 11 young farmers, all from Moga district in Punjab, on their way to Tikri were taken to a police station when they asked for directions. “All of them were booked for attempt to murder. These are the kind of excesses being committed,” he said.

Referring to the events of January 26, Prem Singh said the police had deliberately obstructed even those routes that had been mutually agreed upon between the farmers’ unions and the police. “They put up barricades even on the approved routes, which resulted in people deviating from those routes. The routes leading to the Red Fort were opened and unobstructed. Several anti-social elements were already present at Red Fort, which points out to a pre-planned conspiracy. Why were the routes on the Outer Ring Road leading to the Red Fort opened up at all? This was a plan to create a communal divide between Sikhs and Hindus. That is why we have demanded a judicial inquiry into the events that occurred at the Red Fort,” he said.

Also read: Farmers say no talks until harassment ends

On the toolkit controversy, he said that the arrests were undemocratic. Said Prem Singh: “They are apprehending and identifying people who are supporting the farmers’ movement. Earlier also the National Investigation Agency [NIA] issued notices to farmer leaders and those who were helping with food, transport and medicines at the protest site, alleging that they were being funded from abroad. The notices asked them to join the investigation and explain the source of the funding. On December 15, 2020, FIRs were lodged against known Khalistanis. Under that FIR, notices were issued to our leaders and supporters just to spread terror. The charge was that we were creating a Khalistan here with those funds. The people who have been booked for the toolkit are being unnecessarily harassed for supporting the farmers’ protest.” In a related development, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked Twitter to suspend several accounts under 69 A of the Information Technology Act. Needless to add, most of the Twitter handles were of those supporting the farmers’ cause. According to the government, their tweets were “part of a motivated campaign to abuse, inflame and create tension in society on unsubstantiated grounds”.

Twitter accounts suspended

Twitter suspended 500 accounts, including those of a news magazine and activists and outfits supporting the protest. It later restored 250 accounts, following which the government served Twitter with a non-compliance notice. On its part, Twitter argued that it was complying very much with Indian law and was not going to take any action against accounts of news media entities, journalists, activists and politicians. If it were to do so, it would violate the fundamental rights of expression under Indian law, it said. The farmers’ protest has taken a new form, with the campaign taking a more concrete shape and its focus shifting to greater participation within States. There is also the realisation that a wider mobilisation, including of agricultural labourers, might be necessary to strengthen the movement. For this very reason on February 17, a joint panchayat of various khaps at Rohtak resolved to make the protests broad-based. It even constituted a legal team to provide aid to farmers who had been charged under various cases. In yet another significant move, a plan to constitute a committee to mediate with the government was dropped; instead, a coordination centre between the SKM and khaps was set up at Rohtak.

The Central government seems to have almost given up the idea of having any more consultations with farmers. More than a month has passed since the last meeting of January 22, which ended badly even though farmer unions have consistently expressed a willingness to attend talks. But the government’s law and order agencies have been keeping a tight watch on all forms of support—material and otherwise—to the farmers’ protest with the assumption that all such support is aimed at destabilising the government. The latest directive to YouTube to remove the popular songs of the Sufi singer Kanwar Grewal reeks of this paranoia. And booking youngsters and women has become the latest leaf in the government’s law and order playbook.

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