Farmers' Movement

Bonding for battle: Punjab, Haryana farmers seek to build on new sense of solidarity

Print edition : December 17, 2021

At a tribute to the farmers who lost their lives in protest against the Central government’s farm laws, on the outskirts of Amritsar, Punjab, on November 26, 2021. Photo: AFP

A group of farmers from Badhni Kalan village in Punjab get ready to leave for the Delhi agitation venue, in January 2021. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The success of the year-long campaign has infused a new awakening and a sense of solidarity among farmers in Punjab and Haryana, who are determined to build on their solidarity to fight for other demands.

The Narendra Modi government’s climb-down on the farm laws has cut little ice with a majority of the agitating farmers, who remain committed to continuing their protests. From an interaction with a group of farmers of Punjab and Haryana, it was clear that they were firm that the time had come to end their decades-old—or rather centuries-old—marginalisation.

The November 20 roll-back of the laws, announced by a government that enjoys not only brute political majority but also unyielding control of the narrative, may be the first sign of the heralding of an era in which the agrarian community would be in a position to assert itself. As one farmer told this reporter: “We are the 70 per cent of this country.”

The farmers’ agitation over the past year was a journey made against howling campaigns of vilification in which both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and large sections of the mass media were complicit. The vast majority of the country’s middle-class sections, especially those living in cities, oscillated between a veneer of neutrality and outright rejection of the protesters.

This was also a campaign that saw farmers brave extreme temperatures and optimise resources, and sacrifice several lives.

Also read: ‘A victory for democracy’

The fact that a seemingly all-powerful government was forced to yield to their demand has triggered in the farmers a sense of their being the “majority”, and a strong determination to not acquiesce to the diktats of a corporatised economy. This progressive new outlook regarding their own identity was evident, and it may have encouraged the farmers to take on the government on the important question of guaranteeing minimum support price (MSP) for crops, which has not been done by any government so far, despite election promises by politicians of all hues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Several conversations with farmers who were present at the protest sites over the past year resulted in three major takeaways.

First, there was a strong and widespread belief that the Narendra Modi government was devoted to serving the corporates’ interest and greed and that this was more likely to happen at their own expense. This has drastically changed attitudes and perceptions about the Prime Minister’s painstakingly-carved image as a leader who identifies himself with the poor and the downtrodden.

Second, there is an element of caste and class consciousness, with some farmers not hesitating to articulate the view that “upper-caste hierarchies” thrived for centuries by denying them a political voice and thwarting any upgradation of their socioeconomic conditions. This is something that possibly also stemmed from the BJP’s upper-caste support base’s ready endorsement of the vilification of farmers in the past 12 months.

Also read: Peasant women from Punjab and Haryana stand shoulder to shoulder

Third, the fact that the year-long arduous campaign was sustained largely by community-based solidarities that the farmers were able to build has sparked the idea of using it as a model in their fight against dominant socioeconomic hierarchical structures.

Farmers speak out

Baljeet Singh of Badhni village in Punjab’s Moga district displayed this new-found “awakening” of the farmers with regard to their identity. Speaking to Frontline, he asked: “Are only the elites citizens of India? How can any country progress if 70 per cent of its populace is suppressed? The farmers are not outsiders. We are part of India and India’s interests are intricately linked to ours.”

Like other members of the agrarian community, he rebuffed the largely upper-caste, urban Indians’ trenchant nationalism that is often laced with communal rhetoric. Stating that only the ‘baniyas’ (traders) in the villages of Punjab and Haryana were still staunch BJP supporters, Baljeet Singh claimed that there were socioeconomic underpinnings in their allegiance.

He said: “For decades we were forced to sell our produce below the support prices. The losses we incurred invariably filled the pockets of the traders. These unjust economic models designed to fulfilling a particular community’s interests preferentially translated into political allegiances, and then the din of nationalism was used to shroud it....How many of these so-called nationalists or their forefathers spilled blood for India’s Independence?”

Also read: How the battle was won

Baljeet Singh and his associates are determined to continue the protests until the demand for guaranteed MSP is met. “Is there any business in India that would willingly incur losses? Will it survive? Minimum support price is a legitimate demand that we have been making for decades.”

Budh Singh, another farmer, said that no matter the economic and social costs of their agitation, the farmers will not give up until the government commits itself on the question of legally guaranteed MSP. He said that with the elections approaching in five States, including Punjab, the government has begun to sense the political influence of the farmers’ movement and its potential to cobble together social coalitions against it.

Sense of brotherhood

Budh Singh said: “The farmers’ movement has spurred an intra-community bonding and sense of brotherhood that was seldom seen before. In the past one year, villagers have march to the Delhi border and joined the protests by taking turns. It was important for us to not let the harvest suffer. So, one group of farmers would join the protests in Delhi while others remained in the villages to look after the crops. And then these groups would exchange roles.” He added: “Of course, we suffered losses, and to work with reduced manpower was a challenge. But whenever someone was away, his neighbours or friends looked after his crops well.”

Budh Singh also underlined the pivotal role played by women in sustaining the movement. He said: “From providing catering services at the site of the protest to shedding traditional roles in the household and overseeing business transactions, women were equal partners in the year-long movement.”

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

The general impression from interactions with different farmers was that the “sense of belonging to one’s community” had seldom been so strong.

And that has been the case throughout the past year. For example, in Punjab’s Badhni Kalan village, where various grains and vegetables are cultivated in over 6,900 acres (2,760 hectares), a well-oiled system was put in place (“Brothers in arms”, Frontline, January 15).

Solidarity & coordination

Village elders Iqbal Singh and Deba Singh then said that the arrangement of standing in for those who had gone to Delhi and fulfilling their farming roles had become a well-oiled system, with regular checks and balances in place. Apart from cultivation, the farmers also shared the responsibility of looking after of cattle.

Also read: Farmers' struggle in India offers a lesson in resilience

Iqbal Singh and another villager elder, Hariraj, played a major role in coordinating farming and other agriculture-related activities. Iqbal Singh said he was personally looking after 70 heads cattle of farmers who had gone to Delhi. He said that the village had initiated a system of rotation of farmers “whereby those who stayed for more than 10 days at the Delhi agitation point would return to the village and a fresh team of protesters would go from the village to Delhi in their place”.

Apart from those who do the 10-day stint at the agitation points, small groups normally consisting of 50 to 100 people, including women, make short trips to the agitation points, which are approximately 400 kilometres from the village.

Many observers attributed this brotherhood to the common resolve to fight injustice. Colonel (retired) Baljeet Singh Dhariwal, a native of Badhni Kalan, told Frontline: “A sense of righteousness is the core on which this unity is built. That, coupled with the sense of betrayal and hurt caused by the Central government’s actions, has created a robust determination to fight. That is what we are witnessing in large parts of Punjab.”

Dhariwal also said that previous interventions of farmers’ unions at the local level had contributed in a big way to building this unity.

Baljeet Singh said that when the farmers realised the need for back-up of resources, local self-help groups came up and provided monetary assistance to the farmers’ families that had either suffered heavy losses or lost a family member during the protests.

He said: “We knew from the beginning that if we have to sustain the movement, there has to be an economic assistance system in place. Mostly we are doing this at the village-to-village level. There are philanthropic organisations and other non-governmental organisations that helped initially, but for a movement to go on for long, it has to be self-dependent. Recently, there was a collection drive in our village to support expenses incurred in travelling to the protest sites and also on catering services. People participated willingly, and this has been the case since last year.”

Also read: ‘Historic first victory in unprecedented struggle’

Overall, there is an overwhelming sense that the government is on the backfoot. The agrarian community, which has realised that its united opposition to the Centre has the potential to create a large-scale solidarity of backward castes across India, and thus emerge as a decisive factor in electoral politics, now feels encouraged to demand permanent solutions on important issues such as guaranteed support prices. (Perhaps the BJP also realised this and it probably influenced the party’s decision to repeal the farm laws.)

Electoral implications

Although the farmers themselves were not sure who would eventually win in Punjab, there seemed to be some support for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a credible option. Apparently, AAP volunteers have been present on the ground and their show of solidarity has been noticed in several quarters. Baljeet Singh said: “Congress is okay. It advocated our cause throughout the past one year, but AAP is also emerging as an alternative.”

The past year has seen an unending cycle of deaths and heavy losses in their lives, but nothing could deter the farmers from holding their ground and coming out with unique community-based support systems to sustain an agitation which they knew, from the beginning, would invite a large-scale backlash from the BJP’s propaganda machinery and face the wrath of overall police high-handedness.

(With inputs from Venkitesh Ramakrishnan.)

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