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Farmers’ struggle in India offers a lesson in resilience

They have been branded leftists and separatists and called all sorts of names. They have been mocked at, accused of being misled by political parties, stopped at various points on the road to prevent them from moving towards Delhi, harassed and ridiculed for being leaderless, and termed reckless for taking on the government’s might. Their unity has been questioned and attempts have been made to break it repeatedly, by the government and a section of the media. But the small and medium Indian farmers have shown a kind of resilience unprecedented in recent history. “We are not going anywhere,” says a farmer at the Singhu border, one of the main protest sites on National Highway One which links Delhi and Punjab, determined to stay put. At the other protest sites—Tikri and Palwal on the Delhi-Haryana border, Shahjahanpur on the Haryana-Rajasthan border, and Ghazipur and Chilla on the Uttar Pradesh-Delhi border—more and more farmers pour in to join the protesters in solidarity every day. Everywhere one heard the common refrain: repeal the three farm laws, withdraw the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, and give a legal framework for minimum support price (MSP) and procurement.

Even the dipping temperatures have not diminished their resolve. At Singhu, every day farmers’ leaders jointly take stock of all the developments to decide the future course of action, including sending responses to the government. There is no confusion despite efforts by a section of the media to portray the farmers as obdurate and the government as generous, considerate and willing to listen to their demands. Some media have particularly focussed on farmers’ “vehicles” and the langars or community kitchens with stocks of food in a bid to paint the protests as being done by big landed farmers to safeguard their own interests. They has also been showing “success stories” of farmers stating how they benefited by selling their produce outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis.

Also read: Farmers’ protests in India turn into a tidal wave of anger

But some of this propaganda seems to have backfired. For instance, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, tweeted about how under the Common Services Centre Scheme (CSCS), an initiative of his Ministry to offer e-governance services in rural areas, cauliflower growers had received good prices. He specifically tweeted about a farmer having sold cauliflower for Rs.10 a kg using the digital platform when the local mandi offered just Re.1 a kg.

However, Naresh Kumar, the farmer from Alipur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district about whom the Minister tweeted, said that the CSCS people had come to his village and procured five quintals of cauliflower at Rs.10 a kg, but he still had 500 quintals of the produce left. “They don’t even pick up their phone when I call,” he said in a video he shared with the media.

Youth participation

A striking feature of the protest is the participation of youths. From organising medical camps to working in community kitchens, helping distribute fruits, making an inventory of daily requirements and so on, they are everywhere. In order to counter the negative image given out by the media some of them even took the initiative of launching a newsletter called Trolley Times, a bi-weekly in Hindi and Gurmukhi priced at Rs.5, which details the challenges faced by farmers and documents the stories of protesters and features the media reportage of the protests from across the world. An IT platform, Kisan Ekta Morcha, they have launched has more than one lakh followers on Facebook and an even larger number on Twitter and YouTube.

Book stalls at the Ghazipur, Singhu and Tikri protest sites are another aspect that gain attention. At Singhu, a trolley owner has displayed books, including John Reed’s iconic Ten Days that Shook the World, a saga of the Russian Revolution as seen through the author’s eyes. Said Sukhvinder Singh from Manuka village, Hanumangarh, Punjab, who is also a short film-maker: “Farmers are not illiterate. There are some who have read all the big philosophers and can hold forth on the French Revolution.” He complained that the Haryana Police were harassing farmers from Rajasthan who were moving from Tikri to the Shahjahanpur border.

A deep sense of hurt prevails among the protesters in the manner in which the government and the media have projected them. Said Ram Singh, the sarpanch of Jhabua village in Rewari district, Haryana: “When Sardars and Jats were fighting at Kargil, they lauded us. Today they call us separatists.” At Singhu, youngsters held up posters which said, “We are not terrorists and druggies but farmers.”

Also read: At ground zero: Determined farmers protest at the Delhi borders

Musical expressions also bring them together. Songs of struggle and unity and those that celebrate the spirit of the youth posted on YouTube with titles such as “Jawaani Zindabad” and “Ailaan” (Declaration) by Kanwar Grewal or Delhi ke Bhulekhe (the false beliefs of Delhi) by Satta Vairowalia have become hugely popular. The videos are interspersed with advice to protesters to stay on course and to protest peacefully.

Said a young engineer at the protest site at the Ghazipur border: “Our parents are farmers and we see how hard they work. This is a matter of life and death for them.” His friend Rajan Jawala, a farmer leader in his early twenties from Shamli district, shares the video showing a farmer from his village destroying his cauliflower crop as it would not sell for even Re.1. All what the farmers demand are guaranteed procurement at prices that cover the cost of production and allow them to eke a livelihood free of debt and insecurity.

The level of organisation at the protest sites is telling; there are no signs of littering or garbage of any kind. There are few toilets but the neighbouring settlements which include the humblest of dhaba owners and roadside eateries have offered the protesters their modest facilities for accommodation and rest.

The gurudwaras of Delhi have been helping organise community kitchens and there is no shortage of food for anyone. A volunteer told Frontline that this kind of work was regular. During the pandemic-induced lockdown, when lakhs of people in the unorganised sectors were rendered jobless overnight, the gurudwaras had stepped in to feed them. He said this was part of sewa or welfare which they were obliged to do as part of their religious calling.

Policemen at Singhu and Ghazipur were also seen partaking in the langars. At Ghazipur, women from nearby colonies volunteered to help with chopping vegetables at the kitchen. Some of them, including a few elderly women, were from Trilokpuri, an area that was affected during the 1984 riots against Sikhs.

Some cynics pointed to things like SUVs owned by farmers, a stray counter or two offering foot massages, or protesters eating pizzas, to hint that it was the rich farmers who were leading the protest. To such comments, Ranbir Singh from Mansa district, Punjab, retorts that “no one would like to sit under the open skies in the freezing cold unless compelled to”. At one of the media briefings, a farmer quipped that the protesters were not eating pizzas but pinnis (a sweet made of wheat, sugar, ghee and dry fruit).

“Even so, what’s wrong if we ate pizzas? We work hard therefore we eat,” said Vikram Yadav, a farmer protesting at the Shahjahanpur border. “The flour in the pizzas are made with the wheat that we produce. They say we have expensive phones. It is with our hard-earned money that we buy them.”

Also read: Inderjit Singh: ‘Modi regime the most anti-farmer government we have seen’

The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has mobilised farmers here the most. There are smaller organisations such as the Gramin Kisan Mazdoor Samiti too. With the khaps (caste panchayats) of Haryana also backing the protests, the numbers at the Shajahanpur border are expected to swell. Amra Ram, former president of the AIKS who has led many farmers’ struggles in Rajasthan, is hopeful of the outcome. “There is no shortage of food. People are helping out in large numbers. We are eating foodstuff that we would normally not get at home,” he told Frontline.

Indefatigable spirit

The spirit of the farmers is indefatigable. Dharampal Seal, a septuagenarian, has seen many struggles in his life. Despite his age, he did not flinch one bit when a teargas shell came his way as the Haryana Police tied to push back the protesters at the Punjab-Haryana border. He used a flag stick to flick it aside. He said: “We have seen tougher times. The laws are not anything new. It is a culmination of the Dunkel negotiations that began in the 1990s to undermine our food self-sufficiency and food security by cutting down on agricultural subsidies. The then government of P. V. Narasimha Rao accepted those negotiations. Lakhs of farmers under the leadership of the AIKS and agricultural workers’ organisations protested in Delhi.”

He was referring to the Dunkel Agreement on tariffs and trade which was a predecessor to the World Trade Organisation. Ironically, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in the opposition, joined hands with the Left and other parties to demand a Joint Parliamentary Committee to discuss the Dunkel proposals and its impact on agriculture.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), which has its presence all over Punjab, has mobilised the largest number of farmers and trolleys from that State. Its decision to celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10 by putting up posters of all those accused and put in jail under draconian Central laws drew unwanted attention and gave a handle to sections in the media and the government to defame the protests. Dharampal Seal said that the farmers had the right to celebrate Human Rights Day in any way they wanted to and no one had any business to call them anti-national. He said: “We also believe that students and intellectuals who are being harassed and are behind bars should be released. But our first demand today is the repeal of the farm laws. We are aware that for the fight to win, farmers’ issues will have to take precedence.”

Also read: Political impact of the farmer unions’ Delhi siege and Modi government’s deceitful games

Debunking the myth that the protest was being led by landlords, Dharampal Seal said: “Small farmers are here in large numbers because the stakes are the highest for them. They know that they stand to lose their land if the farm laws are implemented. The percentage of big landed farmers is minuscule all over the country, including in this protest.”

He points to Sukhbir Badal, the leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which had walked out off the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in opposition to the farm laws. “He’s a big landlord. Even he knows that he stands to lose if the big corporates get a foothold through the land laws. His wife, Harsimrat Kaur, was a Minister in the Central government. She resigned. The SAD has opened a front against the BJP in Punjab,” Dharampal Seal said.

Some 40 per cent of the farmers in Punjab own between two and a half to five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land. Of the rest, more than half own only less than 20 acres; only a small percentage qualify to be labelled as big landlords. In the 12,700 villages of Punjab on an average only six to seven families own more than 20 acres.

Dharampal Seal said that agricultural workers had also joined in the protest. “If these private silos come up, the FCI [Food Corporation of India] will stop procuring. If the corporates come, they will have no use of our tractors or the palledaar who does loading and unloading work or spraying of pesticides. They will use helicopters to spray pesticides and mechanise all operations. This will affect the agricultural worker and all manual operations done by them,” he said. “There should be an MSP for all crops like bajra, soyabean, pulses and anyone procuring less than that should be prosecuted against,” he said.

The agriculture sector is still the largest employer in India today. When industry collapsed during the lockdown, agricultural operations continued. When industrial growth plummeted hitting the GDP hard, agricultural growth remained on an even keel. “Yet we don’t get the value for our produce. Take the example of milk. Verka takes out powder, ghee, cream and buttermilk of three kinds from the milk we sell it. We get Rs.25 per litre but the byproducts of that very milk are sold to consumers at a good profit,” he said. Verka is the Punjab State Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation.

1959 Redux

Dharampal Seal recalled a similar protest in 1959 when the Congress’ Pratap Singh Kairon, the Chief Minister of unified Punjab, levied a “betterment tax” on farmers in lieu of irrigation and power facilities. The tax levied was to be used to finance the construction of the Bhakra Nangal project. The Congress-led government at the Centre too failed to assess the pulse of the people. There was widespread resentment among farmers.

The undivided Communist Party took the lead in giving a voice to that brewing resentment. Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who later became the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led that agitation under the aegis of the Kisan Sabha. The all India president of the Kisan Sabha then was A.K. Gopalan, one of the founder members of the CPI(M). All political parties joined the protest. Dharampal Seal recalled that even Congress members joined the protest without the party banner. He said: “Poorey kisano ka bhaanja tha…saari bibiyaan bhi thi…Akali bhi saath aaye (It was a movement led entirely by farmers including many women; the Akalis also joined us). Kairon, like the current BJP leadership, went on a propaganda drive, meeting farmers and convincing them of the benefits of the tax. But he did not succeed.

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

The protest was not without consequences. Three women were martyred, and seven or eight farmers died, while thousands of farmers courted arrest. But the farmers persisted and the Kairon government had to withdraw the tax. “There was no Jathebandi before that. The various units of the Bharatiya Kisan Union came up only in the 1980s. The AIKS was the oldest farmer organisation. It came up in 1936 in Lucknow. Many organisations believe that the AIKS’ presence is crucial to the famers’ protest,” said Dhrampal Seal, adding: “I am close to 70 and this is the first time I have seen such a big protest involving all sections of society. The peaceful protest has not given a single chance for the police to act against us. The Singhu rally is almost 13 kilometres long. The youths are managing it all. They are not getting deflated at all. It is an encouraging sign. If, say, a hundred are heading back to their villages, two hundred more join in.”

With the sowing season for wheat over, more and more farmers are expected to join the protest. With each passing day and as temperatures dip, the throng of farmers at the protest sites only seems to be growing. If the strategy of the government is to tire them out, it does not seem to be working, at least for now.

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