Farmers' agitation: The setback and then the surge

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, addressing farmers at Ghazipur on January 28. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

A handfu l of men hoisting the Nishan Sahib flag on a minaret of Red Fort on January 26. This captured the media’s attention, but it was not representative of the mood of the largely peaceful tractor rally by farmers on that day. Photo: Dinesh Joshi/AP

Barricades at Singhu. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

After the unsavoury events of Republic Day, the farmers’ agitation has bounced back with renewed strength led by Rakesh Tikait of the BKU beating all odds and a government going out of its way to suppress the movement.

The ongoing farmers’ agitation on the outskirts of Delhi and elsewhere against the three controversial farm laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—is now more than two months old and has withstood many challenges. But after the kisan parade of January 26 and the events of that day, the hostilities took a completely different turn.

The farmer unions had jointly decided on a peaceful parade with tractors on Republic Day, and it was made clear that there was no intent to sabotage the Republic Day parade on Rajpath. In consultation with the Delhi Police, each protest site was given a specific route which was to ensure that the tractors would return to the points they had started from. The farmer unions issued a list of dos and don’ts to their constituents with the explicit instruction not to deviate from the routes, to maintain adequate distancing between tractors, to fly the national flag atop each tractor and to maintain discipline.

The logistics of organising the parade were enormous, requiring coordination at all levels between the farmers and the Delhi Police. The police were in overall charge of steering the parade because the majority of the participants were unfamiliar with the routes.

Several farmers had decorated their tractors for the rally, some in the form of tableaus similar to the ones seen on Rajpath.

The events that unfolded in the course of the day are not clear; they are even a matter of mystery. Close to two lakh tractors moved out on the roads from all the five protest points—Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Palwal and Shahjahanpur, located on the Delhi-Haryana, Delhi-Uttar Pradesh and Haryana-Rajasthan borders. By noon, there were reports that some tractors had reached central Delhi and Red Fort, and there were skirmishes with the police on some routes. Tear gas shells were fired and barricades breached. One young farmer died when his tractor toppled over. The flag of a religious denomination was hoisted on an empty flag pole at Red Fort.

Also read: Skirmishes with police at some places mar an otherwise peaceful kisan parade in Delhi

All this was enough for the media and government spokespersons to cry foul. A communal tint was given to the protests with allegations of the Red Fort being desecrated and the national flag being insulted, though it was clear that the Tricolour was not touched. The tractor parade was largely peaceful. The flag-hoisting by a few individuals was a minor part of the parade. One of the persons involved in the incident was Deep Sidhu, a Punjabi actor who, along with a few others, declared on January 25 that farmers would march to Red Fort. None of the farmer unions was party to the plan. Represented by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the farmer unions maintained that they had nothing to do with the events at Red Fort. If at all some farmers had found their way to Red Fort, it was not with the intention of making trouble, they said. Curiously, there were police barricades even on the designated routes, which confused the farmers, unfamiliar as they were with Delhi’s roads.

Suspicions of conspiracy

The farmer unions have demanded a judicial inquiry into what happened that day. There are suspicions of a conspiracy aimed at defaming the movement. A good section of farmers believes that the untoward incidents gave the law enforcement agencies a handle to clamp down on the protest. They also provided a pretext for so-called “local people” to stage protests and accuse the farmers of causing inconvenience to the public. The script is not different from the way the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were handled.

On January 27, the atmosphere at the Ghazipur protest site was heavy with despondency. Thousands of farmers who had come for the parade went back home. The media’s barrage, especially the electronic media, which called the parade a “raid” weighed on the minds of the farmers. Farmers Frontline spoke to were in complete shock that they should be called anti-national. That the accusations could take a communal colour and divide the secular unity of the farmers became apparent to the farmer unions, who cautioned their constituents to be wary of this discourse.

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

The same day, V.M. Singh, president of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, an organisation based in Uttarakhand, withdrew from the protests, citing the “violence” on January 26. He held Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), responsible for the deviation from assigned routes by farmers from Ghazipur. Tikait denied the charge. If at all farmers had strayed from the routes, he and other farmer unions reasoned, it was because they were unfamiliar with the capital city. They pointed out that it was the responsibility of the Delhi Police to prepare for the influx of tractors after having given permission for the rally.

The events of January 26 proved a turning point for the agitation in more ways than one. The District Magistrate gave orders for the vacation of the protest site at Ghazipur. On January 26 night, electricity was disconnected, and the next day, the district administration’s water tankers did not arrive. By noon on January 28, a build-up of security forces was seen. The makeshift tents of farmers were removed and barricades placed. There were reports that farmer leaders would court arrest, and news arrived that the protest site at Palwal in Haryana had been dismantled.

Rakesh Tikait’s master stroke

On the flyover at Ghazipur, Rakesh Tikait and Tejinder Virk of the Terai Sikh Mahasabha took control of the stage. With V.M. Singh gone, they were entirely in charge of the Ghazipur protest site. By afternoon on January 28, paramilitary forces had surrounded the main podium. By evening, it was clear that something was going to happen. The electronic media were present in full strength. Rakesh Tikait addressed the farmers, speaking to them continuously. Everyone was mentally prepared for the worst. He declared that he was courting arrest and that the protest would continue. But within minutes, he changed tack when he learned that a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator had arrived with his supporters at the Ghazipur site demanding that the farmers be removed from there.

This motley group, as Frontline witnessed, did not number more than 50. Some bystanders joined in the sloganeering as the police watched. Rakesh Tikait hollered, with his voice turning hoarse, that it was the BJP’s conspiracy to finish him off. He said he was ready to court arrest but that it was a different matter if the police were accompanied by “goons” of a political party. He accused the BJP of treachery and recalled how the Jats of western Uttar Pradesh had supported the party in both the parliamentary and Assembly elections. “Itna badaa dhoka, itni badee gaddari [Such cheating, such betrayal],” he said.

His tearful pleas went viral, and within hours he infused new energy into the movement that had seemed to fizzle out in the face of the “nationalistic” onslaught by the media and the government. The farm laws, which had been pushed out of the public discourse amid the nationalistic hyperbole, were back in discussion. The Punjab unions displayed remarkable maturity as they persistently warned their constituents not to fall prey to communal rhetoric.

Also read: Rakesh Tikait accuses BJP of betrayal even as government tries to reclaim protest sites

Rakesh Tikait dug in his heels. By late night of January 28 and the next morning, farmers began pouring in from all parts of western Uttar Pradesh to the Ghazipur protest site. The tents that had been removed by the paramilitary were back in place. Barring a few police personnel, only farmers (men and women) and their tractor trolleys could be seen. Meanwhile, BKU president Naresh Tikait, Rakesh Tikait’s brother, convened a mahapanchayat at Sisauli village in Muzaffarnagar, rallying the Jat community behind the farmers. In Badaut, where the police had lathi-charged farmers, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh sent messages of support to Rakesh Tikait. Within days, the Ghazipur protest site was swarming with farmers who said that Rakesh Tikait’s “tears would be accounted for”.

Mahapanchayats were held in Haryana, which has a significant Jat presence. The most recent one was in Jind on February 3, where Rakesh Tikait was felicitated. He declared that there was an attempt to give a communal colour to the protests and a conspiracy was under way to cause discord among farmers. He warned the government that Jats would not think twice about demanding a “gaddi waapsi” (recall of government) if the laws were not repealed.

The movement remained strong and focussed on the main demand—the repeal of the three laws and a legal framework for minimum support price (MSP). But difficulties remained. As many as 121 farmers who had attended the kisan parade were missing; more than two dozen were in jail.

The Police version

The Delhi Police issued an appeal to all members of the public, including mediapersons, to share information and footage regarding the violence on Republic Day. They created a special email id, The police claimed that over 300 men in uniform had been injured but did not release any figures on the injuries sustained by farmers. The medical examination of several farmers by a team of doctors who had accompanied the parade revealed head and scalp injuries and fractures. Harjit Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, said: “Policemen have been injured as well and we offered to treat them too, but no one came forward. Farmers came to us with bruises and swellings on their legs and arms. They had been beaten, they said. Our doctors were also lathicharged. We have medical camps at the protest sites which are open to all, including the police.”

The mob at Singhu

On January 27 and 29, around the same time that “locals” descended at the Ghazipur protest site, similar “protests” were happening at Singhu. Frontline spoke to people who witnessed the melee. They said that a group of about hundred people entered the area near the stage of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC), shouting slogans and throwing stones. Dhan Kaur, a middle-aged woman from Amritsar, said: “I was at the langar with 20-25 women. They threw stones at us and at the tandoor. We got hurt. The police did not do anything. No one helps us anyway. They destroyed our washing machines and other things. This struggle is for rozi roti [livelihood]. We have no other issue. We won’t go home but will bear the bullets on our chest. We prefer to die.”

Sahib Singh from Amritsar, on guard duty from his organisation, said: “They first came on January 27, but they were smaller in number. Then they came on January 29 in larger numbers. The police gave them full protection. The goons threw stones at the langar. One person who went to stop them was beaten by the police. You must have seen videos of the police boot on his face. They tear-gassed us, not the goons. The police gave the workers of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] protective jackets.”

Also read: Farmers say no talks until harassment stops

A young man called Ranjit Singh allegedly attacked a policeman with a kirpan. Both the police and the mob that attacked the camps of the KMSC assaulted the 22-yer-old man. Farmers insisted that Ranjit Singh had taken out his kirpan in self-defence when stones were thrown at the women in the langar.

An employee in the Panchayat Department from Sonepat district rubbished the claim that “local residents” protested against farmers: “There was not a single local person from the villages. Our gotra [clan] dominates here. I guarantee on behalf of 16 villages in the area that there was no local villager involved in the attack. Sometimes the youth can get carried away. I imagine that is what happened. And it suited the government. Imagine, there were almost 10 lakh people on the road that day. We were trying to ensure that the atmosphere remained conducive and anti-social elements were not given a chance to spoil the amity. For 12 kilometres at a stretch on this road, there were rows and rows of tractors, and farmers were talking rationally about the laws.”

Major Singh Punnawal, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Punjab, said the police had refused to allow the parade on the outer ring road. He said: “The Samyukta Kisan Morcha [SKM] had asked for those routes. We met the police five times but they did not relent. So the SKM agreed to the routes given by the police though they were all on the outer Delhi side. Yet, the police agreed to give the outer ring road routes to another organisation. Then on January 25, two persons, Deep Sidhu and Lakha Sidhana [reputedly a gangster], captured the main podium and announced that they would march straight ahead. When we heard this, we evicted them from the stage.

“So, though 10 a.m. was the designated time to start the parade, one contingent left early. The police had opened the routes at 7:30 a.m. itself. If the police had given permission to some people to go on the outer ring road, they should have made arrangements. So, basically the government succeeded in its ploy of ‘divide and rule’ by allowing some tractors to reach Red Fort. We learnt that there were already many people at Red Fort. So, where did they come from? Why they were allowed to gather there is a mystery. They called us Khalistanis, Maoists, naxalites, and then the Haryana government tried to rake up the Sutlej Yamuna Link waters issue. But even that failed to create a divide between Punjab and Haryana farmers. After the events of January 26, we were also a little disappointed, but the movement has gathered greater scale and momentum.”

Also read: Major Singh Punnawale: ‘We never asked for these laws’

Women from some villages of Haryana, who were present at the Singhu protest site, said they had no problems with the farmers’ protest. “We are all together in this, Haryana and Punjab,” said Indra from Sisana village.

Barricaded and isolated

After the shock of January 26, farmers were in for a new surprise in the form of multiple barricades—concrete cement blocks, concertina wires, sharp spikes, and so on—at the protest sites.

In more than two dozen districts of Haryana, Internet services were suspended. Twitter accounts of those supporting the protests were suspended. Internet shutdowns are making things difficult for mediapersons staying in the areas and reporting on a daily basis. The Prime Minister said in his Mann Ki Baat programme that the government was only a “phone call” away, but it did not appear to be so for people at the protest sites.

At Singhu, this correspondent had to walk for more than a kilometre and take a battery-operated rickshaw from Singhu village to reach the site and then hitch a bike ride with a helpful villager through an abandoned industrial area on a kutcha route to reach the first barricade point. Gulab Singh, a resident of Panipat district, said: “The idea is to make it difficult for the media to reach us and for the local residents, who have to walk long distances from Delhi to Panipat.”

Also read: Protesting farmers stay firm

An unresponsive government, a hostile media, ice-cold temperatures, Internet shutdowns, disconnection of electricity and water supply, attempts to “clear” the protest sites with the help of “locals” and, above all, a conspiracy to label the agitation anti-national—these are some of the hurdles the protesting farmers have had to endure. More than 170 farmers have died, including two women from Maharashtra.

The Dilli Chalo protests began on November 26. The protests might linger for some time, and if Rakesh Tikait is to be believed, it may even stretch until October. For the farmers, it is survival that is at stake. For the government, it is clearly something else.

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