Farmers’ movement: A new confidence

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait (centre) addressing the Kisan Mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar on September 5. Photo: Money SHARMA/AFP

Police using water cannons to disperse protesting farmers in Karnal, Haryana, on September 7. Photo: PTI

Rakesh Tikait and other protesters at Ghazipur on September 11 after a downpour. Photo: PTI

Farmers at a sit-in outside the Mini Secretariat in Karnal, Haryana, on September 8. Photo: PTI

The huge success of the Kisan Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar comes as a second wind to the farmers’ movement and expands its reach 10 months after the siege started on Delhi’s borders.

AS unprecedented rain lashed the National Capital Region in the second week of September, at Ghazipur on the Uttar Pradesh-Delhi border, the farmers too were unrelenting in their protest come hell or high water. Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait squatted in knee-deep water along with some of his colleagues to convey the message that farmers were still holding their ground at the protest sites, registering their discontent against the three 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.

The imagery made for great optics, like the visuals nine months ago of a teary-eyed Rakesh Tikait digging in his heels when a posse of the Uttar Pradesh police tried unsuccessfully to evict the protesters from Ghazipur on January 28. The events of that wintry night gave a boost to the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the broad front representing farmers’ organisations and unions, which had suffered a temporary setback following the negative optics related to the kisan parade held on January 26.

The protest that began on November 25 last year, led by farmers from Punjab and Haryana with the clarion call of “Dilli Chalo”, has now become an all-India phenomenon, threatening to impact Assembly elections in some States next year. To the credit of the SKM, the movement led by it, with its epicentre at the borders of the national capital, has held on with renewed momentum, despite occasional setbacks, including the vagaries of the weather, police action and attempts to create communal fissures. The participation of a large number of women who continue to sit at the protests has given a huge fillip to the movement. On September 27, the SKM plans to hold a Bharat Bandh to mark the completion of 10 months of the farmers’ ‘siege’ of Delhi.

The collective resolve to take the movement forward was exemplified in the recently held massive Kisan Mahapanchayat at the Government Inter College grounds in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. On September 5, lakhs of farmers converged from all parts of the country with the single-minded purpose of rejecting the three farm laws and building up opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in States where it is in power. The September 5 meeting was preceded by a national convention held by the SKM on August 26-27 at Singhu, bordering Delhi and Haryana. A first of its kind, it was attended by representatives from 22 States. It was here that a decision was taken to hold the Kisan Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar. The symbolism of organising it in Muzaffarnagar was not lost on anyone. This was the district that in 2013 witnessed communal riots that caused a split in the agricultural community and allowed the BJP to reap rich dividends in the national elections of 2014 and 2019 and in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

On September 5, Rakesh Tikait, who was among the main coordinators at the Mahapanchayat, sent a clear signal of farmers’ unity and rejection of communal polarisation with his cries of Allah Hu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev. There was a sense of repentance, too, for the communal cleft caused in the aftermath of the violence in which a large number of minority community members were killed and displaced. A farmer leader told Frontline that “Babaji”, Rakesh Tikait’s father, Mahendra Singh Tikait, used to similarly call for unity of farmers at public meetings.

Also read: Resolute farmers protest through winters at Delhi's borders

The overflowing college grounds were a morale booster for the farmers. In his address, Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the BKU (Punjab-Rajewal), an important constituent of the SKM, cited local lore to suggest those who filled up the rally grounds at Muzaffarnagar were likely to emerge the winners in the next election. This was a political message to the BJP. The SKM had already chartered a programme of “Mission U.P.-Uttarakhand” with the aim of campaigning against the BJP in these two States in the Assembly elections scheduled for next year. “Muzaffarnagar itself might just prove to be a Waterloo for the BJP in the 2022 elections,” said Inderjit Singh, Haryana vice-president of the All India Kisan Sabha.

The farmers’ movement was not a political one to begin with. The Central government’s sustained indifference to the farmers’ demands and its obduracy in pushing through the farm laws (first through an ordinance and then through Parliament) and police action against farmers on several occasions convinced the most neutral farmer that the government was in the pocket of the corporate class in whose interest the farm laws were designed.

The huge numbers for the Muzaffarnagar rally were the output not of a single day’s mobilisation but of concerted efforts by farmers across the country. There were not just farmers from Uttar Pradesh. Hundreds arrived from Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana. They had apparently come to the city in large numbers two days prior to the meeting. The college grounds, according to a participant, were occupied by people in the intervening night of September 4-5; those who arrived on the scheduled day could hardly get a glimpse of the stage. The organisers had made arrangements for as many as 5,000 food stalls for the participants. The presence of women at the Mahapanchayat, the kind of meeting that is usually an all-male preserve, was a striking departure from tradition. These were women who had asserted their identity as farmers in the course of the agitation and participated in the sit-ins at the borders of Delhi, unmindful of the prolonged discomfort over the last 10 months. It was only natural that they should also address the Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat.

Carnage at Karnal

In at least three states, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the BJP found itself at the receiving end of farmers’ ire on more than one occasion. Police brutality has been among the primary reasons for the growing hostility.

On August 28, a group of farmers in Haryana’s Karnal district decided to march towards the Bastara toll plaza on the national highway where peaceful picketing was already on. (More than two dozen private toll plazas have been “freed” in Haryana alone by farmers in the course of the 10-month-long agitation.) On the same day, in Karnal, the BJP’s State leadership had planned a meeting. The farmers planned to register their protest with black flags against the BJP leaders scheduled to attend that meeting. The government was in no mood to let the farmers have their way. The Sub Divisional Magistrate of Karnal, Ayush Sinha, gave verbal orders to the police to “break the heads” of farmers who were trying to break the cordon on the Railway Road and advancing towards the toll plaza. A video of his instructions went viral. The police carried out his orders dutifully and charged at the advancing protesters, injuring close to two dozen people. One farmer in his forties, Sushil Kajal,, died of his injuries. Another farmer, Gurjant Singh, lost an eye because of the beating. One participant said: “The farmers were unarmed and were peacefully protesting. They were chased and beaten. Those who were not wearing turbans got the worst brunt of the lathis on their heads.”

The government portrayed it as a routine law-and-order situation, underestimating the resentment among farmers. The Home Minister refused to suspend the official who had given the order for police action without an inquiry and also refused to set in motion the process for an inquiry. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar observed that the official’s “language” was inappropriate but did nothing about it. Angry farmers then laid siege to the mini secretariat at Karnal, the administrative headquarters, demanding the official’s suspension and a judicial inquiry.

Also read: How the farmers' protests have forged new solidarities

On August 30, a Kisan panchayat was held at Gharaunda in Karnal and it was decided to picket the Mini Secretariat on September 7. The entire SKM central leadership landed at Karnal and threw its weight behind the picketing for almost a week. The government was compelled to agree to its demands. The official was sent on forced leave, the government set up a judicial inquiry under a retired High Court judge and agreed to give employment to two members from the slain farmer Sushil Kajal’s family. The Karnal episode, despite the violence suffered by the farmers, was a huge fillip to the farmers’ movement, coming as it did in the wake of the successful Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar.

NSO survey

The farmers’ movement, contrary to a perception created by sections of the media, does not comprise big landed farmers alone. The bulk is made up of small peasants and tenant farmers. The National Statistical Office (NSO) recently released the Situational Assessment Survey (SAS) of Agricultural Households and the All India Debt Investment Survey. Some of the key findings of the reports underscore the crisis faced by Indian farmers and point to why the resistance to the farm laws has intensified instead of petering out. The SAS shows landlessness has increased among rural households. The proportion of households that do not own any agricultural land increased from 34.5 per cent in 2012-13 to about 42 per cent in 2018-19.

Vikas Rawal, agricultural economist and Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the SAS report showed there had been an increase in tenancy. He said: “In 2002-03, leased-in land accounted for 6.5 per cent of operated area. In 2012-13, this had gone up to 11 per cent. The latest survey shows it to have gone up further, to 13 per cent. More than 50 per cent of the land is leased on fixed-rent contracts, with the fixed money contracts being the largest single type of tenancy contracts. Land is typically taken on such contracts by big-resource-rich farmers. While data need to be analysed in more detail, the figures suggest a further marginalisation of the rural poor by the resource-rich farmers in the tenancy market.”

The data also pointed to very low incomes from farming. The average monthly income (from all sources) was found to be Rs.10,218. Of this, Rs.4,063 was from crop production. In real terms, income from crop production has fallen since 2012-13. Vikas Rawal said: “The income from crop production is meagre even though it is computed just over paid out cost. It does not include the cost of family labour and rental value of land and machinery. If all costs are taken into account, the income would become minuscule. There is an increase in wage incomes over 2012-13. But data show very poor reach of government schemes.”

Of all the farmers who enroll for crop insurance, the majority do not even get insurance documents. Only 34 per cent of paddy [kharif] farmers, 36 per cent of wheat producers [rabi] and 50 per cent of cotton farmers who did crop insurance received insurance documents. In case of loanee farmers [that is, those who have bank loans], crop insurance is compulsory. But in their case, crop insurance only goes to the bank to cover the bank loan. Farmers do not receive anything. Bulk of non-loanee farmers who do crop insurance do not receive any benefit.” According to the SAS report, a large percentage of farmers (38 per cent for kharif paddy, 35 per cent for wheat, 45 per cent for kharif cotton) are reported to have faced crop losses during the survey year. Of non-loanee farmers who had insurance and faced crop losses, only a small percentage received any claim (27 per cent for kharif paddy, 25 per cent for wheat, and 11 per cent for kharif cotton).

Broader unity

The movement has grown from strength to strength. The SKM now is being launched in all the States. Inderjit Singh said: “A structure is being created which will be important in sustaining the movement. There are systems in place within the SKM where things are discussed threadbare among the core committee members. It is an all-India movement now, not just confined to a few States in North India. Six hundred farmers from Tamil Nadu from the All India Kisan Sabha joined the protest at Singhu for 10 days. They were followed by another contingent from the State and then from Assam.”

Also read: Farmers freedom at stake

Repeated efforts to create communal divisions have failed miserably. The protest was initially touted as one financed and led by rich landed farmers of Punjab, by Khalistanis, and then it was alleged that it was a conspiracy by opposition parties and by international agencies. Amid all this, there were attempts to drive a communal wedge among farmers. When in June this year, Suraj Pal Amu, leader of the Rajput Karni Sena, made inflammatory speeches at a Hindu Mahapanchayat at Indri in Meo-dominated Mewat, he was rewarded for his efforts and appointed as a spokesperson of the BJP in Haryana. In 2017, he had announced a reward for the “beheading” of the actor Deepika Padukone for her role in the film Padmaavat. In his Mewat speech, he had literally endorsed the lynching of a local Muslim and spewed venom against minorities. Despite videos of his speech being widely available, the police refused to file a first information report. Mindful of the communal cauldron being stirred to divide up the peasantry, the SKM leadership held a public meeting in Nuh district of Mewat cautioning people not to fall prey to inflammatory speeches.

Similarly, traditional hostilities between Punjab and Haryana originating in the reorganisation of States in the 1960s and subsequent water-sharing disputes have ceased. Farmers now refer to the “bhaichaara” or brotherhood between the two States. Spurred by the success of the Muzaffarnagar rally and huge responses in other kisan panchayats, the SKM and the farmers’ movement do not appear to be on the back foot. In fact, the movement has been infused with a renewed energy, similar to the kind witnessed exactly one year ago at the start of the Dilli Chalo campaign.

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