On March 26, the all-India farmers’ protest against three contentious farm laws of the National Democratic Alliance government completed four months. The sit-in protest at the five borders of Delhi—Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Shahjahanpur and Palwal—which began in winter and continued through the bitter cold, now faces a fresh challenge in the capital’s scorching summer temperatures. But the farmers, who have steadfastly opposed the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, are unfazed and have begun preparations for the summer heat as well.
Despite being ignored by the government, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the broad front which spearheads the protest and represents more than 500 farm organisations, has chartered a complete course of action for the months ahead. On March 26, the SKM called for a 12-hour Bharat bandh. The bandh was by and large peaceful, even though in some States, the police arrested and detained farmer activists. In Ahmedabad, the Gujarat police detained Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Yudhvir Singh while he was addressing a press conference about the bandh. According to the SKM, preventive detentions and arrests of farmer leaders were made in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Karnataka, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. According to the farmers’ unions, the bandh was very effective in several districts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Haryana and Punjab. In Andhra Pradesh, the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party supported the call.
The SKM has now announced a slew of programmes for April and May, including protests at Food Corporation of India godowns and a march to Parliament from all the border points. On March 31, the protests at the border points completed 125 days.
The sit-ins at the five border points of Delhi began on November 26, 2020, and were allowed undisturbed amid the multiple layers of barricading by the police. The protests were kept alive in myriad forms, ranging from celebrations on March 8 (International Working Women’s Day) to paying tributes to martyrs on March 23, commemorated as Shaheed Diwas. They have gone on for so long for a variety of reasons, particularly the resentment at the police action on January 26 and the ill-conceived actions of the Modi government. A good number of farmers still continue to be in jail.
On March 19, the Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana enacted the Haryana Recovery of Damages to Property During Disturbance to Public Order Bill 2021. The law, similar to the one enacted by the U.P government, provides for a Claims Tribunal and purports to recover damages caused during riots, agitations and protests. It states that “any person leading, organising, planning, exhorting, instigating, participating or committing such incidents that lead to damages” will be made to pay compensation. The opposition in the Haryana Assembly argued that there were already laws in the Indian Penal Code to recover damages to property and for rioting.
Also read: Farmers protests complete 100 days
The farmers’ unions took all this in their stride and were by now adept at converting every setback into an advantage. One such opportunity, soon after the January 26 events, came through a nondescript player of the movement, Rakesh Tikait of the BKU, at the Ghazipur protest site on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. On January 28, when a heavily armed police contingent, capitalising on the deflated morale of the protesters, tried to arrest farmer leaders and vacate the Ghazipur site, Rakesh Tikait went live on national television in a teary-eyed emotional speech that turned the entire nationalistic narrative on its head, revealing the farmers to be victims of a conspiracy hatched by the government. It resulted in a massive mobilisation of the peasantry from western U.P, Punjab and Haryana and infused a new energy that took the Central government completely by surprise.
Overnight, Rakesh Tikait became a hero and was in huge demand for all public meetings. The movement regained its lost sheen. The khaps and Jat caste councils got into action, convening huge mahapanchayats in villages in Haryana and U.P. Meetings were scheduled all over the country, including in southern States. Adopting a broader nomenclature, “khap panchayats” later gave way to the more accepted “kisan mahapanchayats”.
Rakesh Tikait, BKU Haryana leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni and others went to West Bengal and held a meeting in Nandigram, exhorting people not to vote for the BJP. While their appeals may have had limited reach, the message went out loud and clear that the BJP was anti-farmer. It was therefore no surprise that in all the election campaigns of the BJP in the five State Assembly elections, there has hardly been any mention of the farm laws.
The nationalistic hysteria that emanated post the tractor rally of January 26 gradually lost steam despite attempts by the BJP and its band of faithfuls in the media to keep the issue alive. On March 27, under the aegis of the All India Kisan Sabha, a 20,000-strong convention of farmers and fisherfolk was held at a coastal village in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, which condemned the Adani group’s proposal to set up a port, citing environmental grounds.
Ravneet Kaur, a law graduate, told Frontline: “Had our Hindu brothers not stuck their necks out, the government would have demolished the Ghazipur, Singhu and Tikri protest sites and labelled us Khalistanis”. The “Hindu brothers” she referred to were the Jats of western U.P. The protest at Ghazipur comprised Sikh farmers from Uttarakhand and parts of U.P. Ravneet Kaur conducted the proceedings of International Working Women’s Day on March 8 from the stage at Ghazipur. The SKM had earlier decided that women would preside over the occasion as a symbolic tribute to the significant participation of women in the farmers’ protests.
Also read: Farmers protest a resilient movement
Ravneet Kaur and her husband Manjit Singh, an IT professional, joined the farmers’ protest at the Ghazipur site in December 2020. They had led a comfortable life in Bangalore but Ravneet Kaur said it was “difficult to continue living with a business-as-usual approach” when farmers were sitting on protest in Delhi, dying due to the severe cold. Ravneet Kaur and another volunteer, Sunita Bajwa, are in charge of the “women’s block” at Ghazipur. She said: “When I came here in December, there was no women’s block. We decided to set up one. I told the committee here to organise sanitary pads. They accepted our needs and now we have around 200 women who live on the site. It is not like home but then we have to manage and stick on.” With the heat setting in, the organisers have replaced the heavy tarpaulins with cloth and lighter material. Fans, coolers and mosquito nets have been installed in all the protest sites. Manjit Singh said: “Our responsibilities have grown now.”
Since January 22, the day of the eleventh and last round of formal talks between the Central government representatives and the SKM, there has been little initiative by the government to break the logjam. On the contrary, the government went on an offensive, declaring its intent to hold meetings and outreach programmes explaining the benefit of the laws, that were received with much hostility in the States where they were convened. In Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, representatives of the BJP faced angry protests when they attempted to hold meetings to publicise the farm laws. Angry farmers disallowed the entry of BJP leaders, including elected Members of Parliament in U.P such as Union Minister for Agriculture Sanjeev Balyan.
Charan Singh “Thekedaar”, a brick kiln owner and farmer from Lisadh village of Shamli district in Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline: “They incited us against the minorities in 2013. They created conflict between brothers. They disturbed the social balance. We suffered huge losses. They [Muslim labourers] used to do all our work. For us, it’s as if a hand has been broken. It was no fault of theirs. They were poor labourers. Now we get labour from outside the village and have to pay Rs. 600 instead of 300 as labour charges.”
He said that there were 3,000 Muslims in Lisadh prior to the riots in 2013; now only one family was left. He added: “We voted for the BJP in large numbers. They should take back the farm laws otherwise the small farmer will perish. We are not as rigid as the government is. If our land is taken away from us, we won’t be able to get fodder for our livestock. Where are the jobs even if our youngsters get educated?”
Lisadh was one of the worst affected villages in the 2013 riots. Charan Singh said BJP leaders were not welcome in the village any more.
Also read: Protesting farmers stay firm
The international attention on the protests has also not been liked by the government. The protest “toolkit” tweeted by celebrity environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the subsequent arrest of climate activists in India put the spotlight on the government as being extremely intolerant of criticism. The last straw on its back was when the United Kingdom Parliament decided to debate the protests along with press freedom in India. A dozen MPs cutting across parties had raised the issue of the “use of force” against the protesters. The High Commission of India in London called it a “one-sided discussion” which had many “false assertions”.
In for the long haul
The current challenge for the farmers is to keep the momentum and morale high. Rajvir Yadav, a BKU office bearer from U.P., told Frontline at Ghazipur that they were prepared for this. He explained: “We knew this was going to be a long haul, that this government would try to break us, tire us out, defame us. This government is of a different mindset altogether. So we were prepared. We fail to understand why they are so stubborn. Can any BJP leader say that they won elections without the support of the BKU? The government is under corporate pressure. They agreed to put the laws on hold for some months. Why would they say that if they felt there was something wrong with the laws? There is some power that is running the government with a remote. They cannot mortgage our lives. We are not against the government but against the policies. We supported this party before, helped them form government on three occasions. And today they are doing this to us.”
Ajit Singh, another veteran leader from Shahjahanpur, said that the more the government stretched the issue, the higher the likelihood of its digging its own grave. He declared: “This is the second struggle for independence. It will go on till the laws are not withdrawn.”