100 days of the farmers’ protest: Forging new solidarities across castes and communities

While farmer leaders strive to take the movement across the rural hinterlands, the protest has also been amplified on social media via young journalists.

Published : Mar 13, 2021 06:00 IST

Farmers gather at an expressway near Kundli border in Haryana, on March 6 to mark the 100th day of the ongoing protest against the farm laws.

Farmers gather at an expressway near Kundli border in Haryana, on March 6 to mark the 100th day of the ongoing protest against the farm laws.

The ongoing farmers’ protest at the borders of Delhi against the three farm laws—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—shows little signs of abating. On March 6, the peaceful sit-in by thousands of farmers, including women, at the Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Shahjahanpur and Palwal protest points completed 100 days. If anything, the agitation has only evolved and spread out beyond Delhi, and new solidarities across castes and communities have emerged that could affect the equations of political parties in States that face Assembly elections shortly. 

The issues are not just about the farm laws any more, but about inequities in the concentration of wealth, sectarian politics, farmer suicides, income disparities, corporate monopolies, the role of women in agriculture and declining nutritional levels in children. The issues do not concern only farmers but every section of society as well. This is a dharma yudh (moral battle of good versus evil), the farmer union leaders say, exhorting every section of society for support. 

Sustaining a movement over two seasons, a bitter winter and a scorching summer, is not easy. The farmer protesters realise that there is some media fatigue, too, which the Narendra Modi government hopes to capitalise on. “Wear them out” seems to be the strategy. The farmers’ protest has been more or less blacked out by most of the mainstream media, including the print media, but has support from an entire generation of YouTube citizen journalists, mostly youngsters who make short videos of the leaders, protesters and speeches that are then circulated widely on the Internet. Each speech gathers thousands of likes and views, keeping the momentum of the movement alive. The online news media also continue to keep the issue alive. 

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

Support continues to pour in in myriad forms to keep the protest going at the borders and in the rural hinterland as well. Farmer leaders rubbish claims that the movement has weakened. They say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried unsuccessfully to communalise the incidents of January 26. The present phase is even more spread out, they say. A section of the government-friendly media deliberately circulated visuals of thinning crowds at the protest sites. Farmers whom Frontline spoke to said this was factually incorrect. If at all farmers had left, they had done so temporarily, to attend to their crops that were due for harvesting. Rajan Jawala, a farmer from Shamli district who made frequent visits to the Ghazipur site, said, “I left, too, as the sugarcane had ripened, but I returned soon after. We are offering sugarcane juice to the farmers at the protest sites.” He said there were “replacement” units comprising groups of farmers to take the place of those who had returned to the villages to attend to their crops. The tents pitched at all the protest sites were in situ, undisturbed. 

Farmer leaders also realised that the movement needed to be taken to the rural hinterland and the widest possible unity mobilised among the rural population, both landed and landless and across gender, in order the sustain the protests at the borders. The Central trade unions, too, decided to pitch in with the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the joint front of 41 farmer unions that is coordinating the all-India protests, in a more concerted way. 

Protests in the rural hinterland

On February 22, a mammoth rally was held at Barnala, Punjab, where more than a lakh farmers and agricultural workers congregated against the farm laws. The Barnala meeting was organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) (Ekta-Ugrahan), which has the largest following among farmers, along with the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union. This show of strength was essentially to bolster the morale of the farmers protesting at the borders.

In almost every State, mahapanchayats were held, and drew huge crowds. The farmer leadership realised that even though the khaps (caste councils) had organised protest meetings, it was better that the protests had an amorphous character rather than a caste-specific one. The khaps were, after all, associated with the Jat community, and mobilising the non-Jats was equally important. The slogan of “ Kisan mazdoor ekta zindabad ” (Long live farmer-worker unity), which had become the rallying slogan at every protest meeting, had been crafted consciously by the farmer leadership. This was also necessary to keep away any potential divisive narrative. At every meeting, the BKU leader Rakesh Tikait underscored how the BJP had tried to create a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs. He also referred to the communal rift in Western Uttar Pradesh in 2013 that had led to the “separation” of the Jats from their “Muslim brothers”. The BJP leadership is no longer regarded with deference in these areas. 

In the first week of February, Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan, who was elected from Muzaffarnagar in 2019, had to beat a hasty retreat from Bhainswal village in Shamli district, Uttar Pradesh, where he had gone along with another leader, Suresh Rana, to “educate” the farmers about the farm laws as part of the BJP’s outreach programme. Sanjeev Balyan, who is also an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots case, had reportedly been directed by the BJP central leadership to persuade the khaps and the Jat community to return to the party’s fold. The “farmer outreach” became more of an out-of-reach challenge for the BJP’s Jat leadership. On the other hand, Rakesh Tikait, his brother BKU (UP) president Naresh Tikait, and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal drew huge crowds at their public meetings.

Keeping the protest alive

Every day, the farmer leaders issued videos explaining the importance of the protests and the schedule of meetings. Often, the youth volunteers took over the stage; on some days, the women managed the show. There were no apparent social or religious divides nor overt religious references. In fact, the farmer leaders emphasised the importance of unity, reaching out to Dalits and minorities. Identifying poonjiwaad (capitalism) as the main enemy in their speeches, farmers invoked the names of B.R. Ambedkar; Sant Ravidas, the bhakti movement poet-mystic; Sir Chhotu Ram, the legendary messiah of peasants; and Sardar Ajeet Singh, uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who led the famous Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement against the British. Typically, the meetings were peppered with references to the freedom movement, comparing the atrocities of the British raj with the present regime. 

For instance, at a “farmer, worker, trader” convention at Majra Pyau in Hisar district, Haryana, a speaker referred to a police attack on Gurnam Singh Chaduni, president of the BKU, Haryana, comparing it with the police lathicharge on freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. Addressing the meeting, Chaduni declared: “Why should we fight? What has been snatched away from us? What is our struggle? What are the options that we have but to struggle?” He said that the freedom struggle had been fought by ordinary people, not bypoonjipatis (capitalists): “Desh aap ne azaad karwaya (you are the ones who liberated the country).” He added: “For 60 years they [the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] didn’t unfurl the national flag on their office, and they teach us what is patriotism. …Tell me if any poonjipati has committed suicide. What was the use of the freedom struggle?Ek ghante 90 crore ki aamdani hai jisse poore kisanon ka karza maaf ho sakta hai (In one hour, the capitalists earn Rs.90 crore, which is equal to the entire farmer debt in the country). And it is this capitalist class that owes huge debts to banks.” He also mentioned that there was a “gap” that needed to be addressed—that farmers (landowners) had to get “our Dalit brothers” to join. He said that the Dalits wanted to join the protests but the onus was on the upper castes to get them. “We have to go to them,” he stressed.  

Also read: Farmers dig their heels in at protest sites on Delhi’s borders 

The Hisar public meeting ended with a reminder to the public that the fight was between “the janta and the corporates”. In village after village, at every mahapanchayat, people were told that the protests at the borders had to be sustained by a roster system. Villagers were told to “make committees in every village and set up a system of participation by rotation”.

All farmer leaders stress that the farmers have no quarrel with the police or the local administration, but that they would not allow BJP leaders or any of their supporters to campaign among farmers. Chaduni reminded the crowds at the Hisar meeting: “They beat us, put up barricades. We broke five barricades to reach Delhi. There are 35 cases against the farmer leaders, including cases under IPC 307. Those who do not allow us to do rallies or spray water cannons on us and file cases—should we allow them to enter the villages? Any brother who has not stood with us and contests elections, do not vote for him.” He added that brotherhood was important and that the Dalit brethren were needed in the movement. He concluded with: “Sadbhavana banane ki zaroorat hai [There is a need to create goodwill]. We appeal to them to have a photo of Sir Chhotu Ram in their homes and to the upper castes to place Babasaheb Ambedkar’s photo in theirs.” Similarly, at a mahapanchayat meeting in Rudrapur, Uttarakhand, where the entire leadership of the SKM was present, all the farmer leaders reminded their audience that it was a dharma yudh.

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Amra Ram, vice-president of the Rajasthan unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), told Frontline : “There was some despondency after the January 26 events. But people realised that there was a conspiracy to defame the farmers. After the Ghazipur events happened, and there was an attempt to forcibly remove the protesters, including Rakesh Tikait, from there, things changed. In fact, there has been an expansion of support after January 26. The mahapanchayats are drawing huge crowds, and in Uttar Pradesh, we’ve managed to reach as far as Ballia in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. The crowds everywhere are beyond the expectations of those organising the mahapanchayats. In Rajasthan alone, we’ve had a dozen mahapanchayats with huge participation.” 

Amra Ram was returning to the Shahjahanpur border after one such meeting at Nagaur, Rajasthan. He said that in the eastern parts of Rajasthan, otherwise known for conflicts between the two dominant communities of the Gujjars and the Meenas, the resistance against the farm laws had brought these communities together. He said: “They came to the Shahjahanpur border to support the farmers’ protest with food and other material. It is as if the differences never existed.”

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

Meo Muslim farmers from the Mewat region (comprising parts of Rajasthan, U.P and Haryana) supplied milk for tea for the farmers sitting on protest at both Shahjahanpur and Ghazipur. Amra Ram said: “They collect milk from each household. It’s a continuous supply. All communities are helping, that is what is keeping the agitation alive.” In Junehra village, Kaman tehsil on the Rajasthan-Haryana border in Bharatpur, farmers cleared the standing wheat crop to make space for 25,000 persons. There were huge protests in Madhya Pradesh too, a BJP-ruled State. Amra Ram said Rakesh Tikait was in great demand as he had become the face of the agitation , especially after January 26. It was, after all, Tikait’s tears that changed the equation overnight in favour of the farmers’ movement that had threatened to come asunder following the events of January 26 and the bombardment of negative publicity in the media, courtesy the government-friendly media. 

Leaders of the BJP, however, continued to refer to the farmers’ protest in narrow caste terms. Amra Ram, a four-time former legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “It is part of their divisive agenda. If there is a protest in East Rajasthan, it would be referred to as a Meena ka andolan. If it is in the Shekhawati belt, it would be referred to as a Jaton ka andolan. But we say everywhere that it is a kisan andolan.”

Support from the South

At Singhu border, which has been fortified by both the Delhi and Haryana police with multi-level barricades in order to make accessing the protest site difficult, Frontline met Shareef, an activist of the Democratic Youth Federation who had come from Telangana by train along with three others. Shareef said: “We wanted to tell the farmers that they are not alone and it is not only a North India issue. In Telangana, there were huge protests against the farm laws and a lot of state repression too.” Shareef and his friends visited all four borders, expressed solidarity with the farmers and spent a total of eight days at all the four major protest sites. At Singhu, where they landed first, they said the police were not wearing any masks and told them to walk two kilometres to reach the main stage of the SKM. Shareef said: “We were happy to reach here finally but we saw how the police had made it difficult for people to reach the area. The farmers were not obstructing any traffic; the police were.” 

At the Shahjahanpur border, support has poured in from farmers from Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Women tribal farmers from Maharashtra travelled over a 1,000 kilometres to join the protest at Shahjahanpur on the Haryana-Rajasthan border. One of them, a popular leader, succumbed to the bitter winter.

Also read: The duplicity of the farm laws, or how they do not help farmers

Cases continue to be filed against farmers. Close to 100 farmers are still in jail for their alleged involvement in the January 26 events. In Meham district, Haryana, when farmers protested against the entry of a BJP Rajya Sabha member who had come to inaugurate a school, a case was filed against the sarpanch of Farmana village and 200 others.

The last meeting the farmers had with the government on January 22, ended in an impasse. Even though the Prime Minister stated that he was only a phone call away and ready for talks, the Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar has made it clear that talks would be held only if farmers agreed to the government’s proposal of suspending the farm laws for 18 months. If, however, “tiring out” the farmers is the strategy of this government, it does not seem to be working.

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