Farmers' Movement

How the battle was won: Farmers' protests force the Narendra Modi-led government to repeal controversial farm laws

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait and other leaders at the Kisan Mahapanchayat organised by the SamyuktA Kisan Morcha at Ecogarden in Lucknow on November 22. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Constitution Day programme in New Delhi on November 26. Photo: PTI

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha meeting, to commemorate the first anniversary of the farmers protest, at the Singhu border of Delhi on November 26. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Farmers gather at the Pakora Chowk near Tikri on the outskirts of Delhi on November 26 to mark the first anniversary of their protest. (Below) Farmers at a rally in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi on November 26. Photo: ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/REUTERS

Farmers at a rally in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi on November 26 to celebrate one year of the farmers movement. Photo: MANISH SWARUP/AP

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. Photo: PTI

At a protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border crossing at Singhu on November 19, farmers rejoice at the scrapping of the controversial farm laws. Photo: Bloomberg

The year-long struggle of the farmers and its electoral implications force the government to climb down on the three farm laws after all its tactics failed to break the unprecedented solidarity of the protesters cutting across class and caste divides.

On November 19 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation that he had decided to repeal the three contentious farm laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act; and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020—it appeared as if the government was genuinely contrite and, therefore, made this decision. That the announcement was made on November 26, a week before the farmers’ protest was to complete a year, was not fortuitous. Electoral compulsions were more likely to have dictated this unexpected magnanimity from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Although apolitical, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), which had spearheaded the agitation, made it amply clear to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that it cannot take for granted the goodwill and support of the farmers in the Assembly elections due early next year. As many as 11 opposition parties had thrown their weight behind the SKM and registered their opposition to the farm laws. Therefore, it was anticipated that the government might consider rolling back the farm laws on the eve of the Assembly elections. Considering the manner in which the farm laws were enacted in the first place, this was a major victory for the agitating farmers. On September 20, 2020, the opposition parties were visibly annoyed when the farm Bills were passed with a voice vote ignoring the resolutions moved by their members. No one anticipated at that point that the obduracy of the government would face stiff resistance from farmers leading to a prolonged agitation.

The Prime Minister argued that he had decided to repeal the laws because his government had failed to convince a section of the farmers, implying that the laws in themselves were not harmful but that the government had faltered on effectively communicating their merits to the farmers. He said that his government had made continued and sincere efforts to explain to the farmers (the merits of the laws) with complete humility and with pure intentions. “Hum vinamrata se khuley mann se samjhaate rahe” (we engaged with the farmers with an amicable and open mind), he said in his short and brief address on television. The government, he said, had even promised to suspend the laws for two years. He urged the protesters to return to their “homes and their fields” conveying the impression that the main issue had been resolved and there was nothing else left to protest against.

Fruitless talks

The Prime Minister could not have been more wrong on this point. In the first place, the 11 rounds of talks with the farmers were hardly amicable. The government hardened its position at the last round of talks on January 22 and declined to fix another date for talks. It offered to suspend the laws for one and a half years on the condition that the SKM should give up its main demand of repeal of the laws and discuss the proposal for their suspension. This meeting lasted five hours. A stalemate persisted as the government was unwilling to agree to the repeal demand but offered to set up a committee to discuss the issue instead. Apart from the main demand, the SKM reiterated its demand for a legal framework guaranteeing minimum support price (MSP) for all produce. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar suggested to the media that there were some motivated forces that wanted the agitation to continue. He did not specify what those forces were though in the course of the last one year, farmers were branded as anti-nationals, Khalistanis, Maoists, and so on.

Also read: One year on, the farmers’ protest holds its ground

The government had never been conciliatory about repealing the laws. It was more keen on tweaking certain clauses, which was not acceptable to the SKM. It repeatedly urged the SKM to suggest amendments to indicate that it was amenable to reason. All through the 11 rounds of talks, the government had made clear that the laws would not be repealed and that if the SKM came up with some proposals they might be considered. The government had clearly underestimated the resolve of the SKM and failed to understand that the farmers saw the laws as death warrants. At no stage did it make any commitment on providing a legal framework for the MSP and procurement. Instead, it chose to engage with some farmer groups that were in support of the laws in order to make a claim that the entire farming community of the country was not averse to the farm laws.

Attempts were also made to create divisions in the ranks of the SKM. Some of the motley groups that were outside the SKM even approached the Supreme Court. One thing was amply clear. The laws were passed by Parliament and they could be repealed by Parliament alone. The government or any other body did not have the powers to “suspend” laws that had been passed by Parliament, which got presidential assent as well. In this situation, the SKM knew that the government’s offer to suspend the laws was meaningless. The stalemate was absolute.

Unmet demands

That is why the government’s climbdown was no mean achievement for the the farmers and agricultural workers who, under the leadership of the SKM, an umbrella body of 500 organisations, struggled patiently for a year at the five borders of Delhi. After all, they were mentally and morally prepared for another year of struggle.

However, the rollback was only a partial success for the other demands of the SKM remain unmet. From day one, it has also been demanding legally guaranteed MSP and withdrawal of the Electricity (Amendment) Bill and the punitive features of the Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Act. The Prime Minister, a farmer leader noted, had not really done any favour to the farmers by repealing the farm laws. He said that the government had imposed these laws on the farmers on its own and had withdrawn them in a similar fashion. The SKM had never asked for those farm laws. Neither had it approached any court for the resolution of the issue. Had the Supreme Court stayed the laws until the resolution of the issue, it would have been another matter but it gave only an interim stay. The Supreme Court had set up a four-member committee in January 2021 to study the farm laws. One of the members of the committee, Bhupinder Singh Mann, a farmer leader from Punjab, resigned within days of its formation. That committee submitted its report to the court in March 2021. One of its members, Anil Ghanwat of the Shetkari Sanghatna, went on record saying that the farm laws were in the interests of the farmers for they needed access to markets as well as technology. The committee received depositions from 83 organisations. The SKM was not one of them.

Also read: The duplicity of the farm laws

On its part, the SKM, which represented the largest coalition of farmers and peasant organisations, went to court only when it was compelled to following a Supreme Court notice to the unions following the Haryana government’s plea that the protesters had blocked roads. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the State government, reminded the apex court about the January 26 events at the Red Fort, an event which had been often used by the detractors of the SKM to belittle and defame the peaceful farmer protests. The advocates appearing for the SKM told the court that the roads had been deliberately blocked by the police in order to turn public sentiment against the farmers. It is well known that the farmers wanted to take their Dilli Chalo march on November 26, 2020 to the Ram Lila grounds in central Delhi but were prevented from entering Delhi with barricades and cement blocks.

Letter to Prime Minister

Responding to the Prime Minister’s November 19 announcement, the SKM said that even though he had unilaterally announced the repeal of the farm laws, the SKM was glad about the decision. In a letter, they urged him to resume talks and restart the dialogue process. They reminded him that repeal of the three laws was not the only demand and listed their additional demands. The SKM note reminded the Prime Minister that a committee under his chairmanship in 2011 (when he was Gujarat Chief Minister) had made the very same recommendations on the MSP to the government that the SKM was making. It also reminded him that although the government had promised to withdraw the Electricity Amendment Bill, it was listed for passage in the forthcoming session of Parliament. While some provisions in the Air Quality Management Act had been removed, the possibility of penal action remained after the inclusion of certain sections.

The SKM note demanded the withdrawal of several hundreds of cases against farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh and elsewhere. It also demanded the arrest of Ajay Mishra Teni, Minister of State for Home, for his involvement in the Lakhimpur Kheri murder case, compensation for and rehabilitation of the families of about 700 farmers who had lost their lives in the course of the movement. The deaths had been mostly due to the adverse and extremes of weather conditions endured by the protesters at the protest sites.

A day after the SKM described the move to repeal the farm laws as inadequate and said that it would continue with the agitation, a chorus rose from the lobbies supporting the farm laws, advising the government to draw a line. They reminded the government that the cost of providing MSPs to all agricultural produce would derail the budget and would irreparably affect economic growth. They also suggested that the government should go ahead with farm reforms including “zero budget farming”. Inderjit Singh, vice president of the Haryana unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said that this simply meant that the government should not invest in agriculture. Farmers, he said, did not produce with a profit motive alone. If they were producing for the country, he said, it was obligatory on the state to support them. He said the three laws had not addressed the reasons for the agricultural crisis.

Also read: BJP turns Lakhimpur Kheri into new Hindutva battleground

It was well known that due to an adverse imbalance in input and output agriculture had become unviable, resulting in indebtedness and farmer suicides. The argument that a guaranteed MSP for crops would drain the budget and the economy was flawed. The rural economy, which was the mainstay for most people in the country, he said, would grow if purchasing power in the hands of peasants and agricultural labour grew. If this section did not have any savings, how will the purchasing power increase?

There was even a need to go beyond the M.S. Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations on MSP, he said. The fifth report of the National Commission of Farmers under the chairmanship of Swaminathan had recommended that MSPs should be 50 per cent more than the weighted average of the cost of production (known as the C2 Plus 50 per cent rate). The input costs, as per the recommendation, included family labour but there was a need to go beyond that. The interest on the capital invested plus rent on the land also needed to be factored in the cost of production. Says Inderjit Singh: “If I lease out someone’s land on rent, this means I am shelling out that much money. The land therefore has that much of value. If I have paid rent, then that should be part of the costs of cultivation. If the government does not implement at the C2 plus 50 per cent rate, then the present method of calculating MSP falls majorly short of covering the costs of cultivation. In some crops, there is a loss of Rs.500 a quintal; in others, Rs.400, and so on. If the MSP announced is Rs.1900 for paddy in Uttar Pradesh or Punjab, it was Rs.2,800 a quintal in Kerala. The State government gives a bonus to producers and yet makes it available consumers at cheaper rates.”

Even if the three laws are repealed, the question of farmer indebtedness and non-viability in agriculture would remain. Had the farm laws been implemented, the imbalance of input and output would have worsened and indebtedness would have continued. Further, the state purchasing produce at MSP and ensuring storage were necessary pre-conditions for the continuance of the public distribution system (PDA) and food security to all. If MSP was seen as a burden, it was wrong, said the AIKS leader. The government has now offered to constitute a committee on the MSP but much depended on the nature of the committee. “Whether it will be a committee, a joint committee or bilateral negotiations depends on the concrete proposals from the government,” he said.

One of the significant features of the farmers’ movement was the coming together of disparate groups which, otherwise, were known more for functioning independently. First, the 32 farmer unions in Punjab, mainly various factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) got their act together when the farm laws were promulgated as ordinances. Similarly, the BKU factions in western Uttar Pradesh coalesced under the leadership of Naresh Tikait and Rakesh Tikait (sons of BKU founder Mahendra Singh Tikait) with the latter assuming a crucial role in the organisation. From being a spokesperson of his organisation, he is now one of the 10 core committee members of the SKM, addressing meetings outside the Hindi belt. The AIKS, with its network and presence at an all-India level, helped in sustaining the movement in other parts of the country, including, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: ‘Negative support’ to Indian farmers: myth or reality?

The Ghazipur protest site on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi was unique in that it was composed of the peasantry from western Uttar Pradesh and Sikhs from the Terai regions of Uttar Pradesh and parts of Uttarakhand. It gave a unique character to the movement. The role of the langars, or community kitchens, in sustaining the movement could not be underestimated. The composition of the protesters at Singhu and Tikri borders was mainly Sikh, which made it easier for certain elements to characterise the protest as Khalistani or funded by non-resident Indians. This tactic could not work at the Ghazipur protest site. The Jats of Uttar Pradesh and the Jats of Punjab worked hand in hand. A massive kisan panchayat in Muzaffarnagar played a great role in healing ties between the Muslim and Jat peasantry, ties that had been torn asunder by the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence.

When one of the Sikh farmer factions withdrew its support to the SKM at the Ghazipur protest site for reasons that were opportunistic, there was a real threat of the protest getting derailed and communalised. “Had our Jat brothers not rallied behind us, things would have taken a different turn. It could have been a 1984 kind of a situation. A section of the media and some BJP leaders were trying it make it a Hindu-Sikh issue,” said a young woman protester. When Rakesh Tikait assumed centre stage at the Ghazipur protest site and made an emotional appeal to the peasantry for human reinforcements, a new solidarity emerged. Then there were others who showed solidarity in their own unique ways. To show his solidarity with the farmers by joining them, R Nagaraj, a young engineer from Karnataka, walked 5,100 kilometres for 185 days to reach Delhi on November 19, the day the declaration to repeal the farm laws was made. According to the AIKS, which felicitated him, his mother passed away while he was on his march. He returned to attend her funeral and then restarted his march to the national capital.

It has been a long journey for the farmers’ movement in the country and the success of the struggle for repeal of the farm laws is a significant milestone. A meeting of the SKM will be held on December 4 to decide the future course of action.

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