Farmers’ protest 2.0: On the difficult road to MSP

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 15 MINS READ

A farmer sits on a drum in front of police barricades, at a protest site at the Shambhu border, en route to New Delhi, on February 23.

A farmer sits on a drum in front of police barricades, at a protest site at the Shambhu border, en route to New Delhi, on February 23. | Photo Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The movement for a legally backed MSP has the potential to give the opposition a second wind before the Lok Sabha election.

On February 21, thick smoke from the Haryana Police’s relentless tear-gas shelling on protesting farmers darkened the incandescent skies above the Shambhu and Khanauri checkpoints at the Punjab-Haryana border. It also underlined the ominous political shadow over the country, where the government’s proclivity for retaliating ruthlessly against public mobilisation once again brought out its autocratic nature.

Seen against this backdrop, the impressive assembly of thousands of farmers who set off for New Delhi on February 13 to demand fixed crop prices is not just a disadvantaged section’s assertiveness towards the realisation of an economic goalpost but draws from a far more consequential objective embedded in it: the audacious repudiation of the controlling instincts of a strong-arm executive by confronting it head-on.

The movement’s demonstration of a revival of dissent has the potential to create a broad-based political and social coalition of pressure groups across India. It is this essence of the farmers’ movement and its implications for the polity and for society in the short, medium, and long terms that explains the panicked reaction in the BJP and its desperate bid to not just contain it at all costs but also discredit it.

Also Read | Minimum Support Price: A question of how, not why

So far, the authorities have blocked the farmers’ efforts to approach the political nerve centre of New Delhi with heavy barricades at all the entry points to the capital. Undeterred, the protesters have camped at two protest sites, in Khanauri and Shambhu, separated by a few yards of dirt road from where the police are stationed. Trenches of concertina wire and shipping containers make the stretch impenetrable. The slightest attempt to cross over invokes police action, as it did during the February 21 crackdown.

Farmers and police face off at a barricade at the Shambhu border, on February 21.

Farmers and police face off at a barricade at the Shambhu border, on February 21. | Photo Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Several protesters spoke of the police high-handedness on that day. According to them, drones were used to drop tear gas shells. As they ran for cover, the police stormed their columns, unleashed their batons with a vengeance and sprayed toxic gases. Bakhshish, a volunteer of the Lifecare Foundation, which is providing emergency services at the Shambhu border, said even medical caregivers were not spared. As the full scale of the police brutality unravelled that day, a 21-year-old farmer, Shubhkaran Singh, succumbed to a fatal head injury. On February 27, police authorities in Haryana’s Ambala district announced that they had initiated a process to cancel the passports of “those involved in disturbing the law and order during the farmer agitation”.

Faced with ‘savage fierceness’

“They [Haryana Police] are treating us with the savage fierceness that a marauding enemy would attract,” said Gurchain Singh, a farmer-protester, sitting inside a tarpaulin tent on a dusty lot not far from the scene of agitation at the Shambhu border. As discussions on the movement’s objectives and the state’s attitudes towards the protesters, particularly its effort to cast them as Khalistanis, reached a fever pitch, there were varied reactions from the crowd, which comprised mostly Sikhs. The common thread was a categorical rejection of a “Hindu rashtra”. “We are not Khalistanis, but they [government] must explain how they justify their concept of a Hindu theocratic order while vilifying those who ask for a Sikh state?” asked Fateh Singh, one of the protesters.

Hundreds of tractors carrying billboards of union leaders and Sikh gurus flank either side of the earthen stretch. Some of the tractors have been converted into temporary kitchens. A few men sit on top of the truck beds nimbly chopping crates of vegetables. Others cook rice and dal in large iron pans balanced on portable gas stoves.

Since the farmers’ agitation began in early February, community service has, as always, sustained it. Spirited volunteers, often boys in their teens, clad in colourful Punjabi attire, throng the site, briskly serving food and beverages. But the police vindictiveness continues to astound. On February 25, Pritpal Singh, a farmer doing “langar seva” (community service) at Khanauri, was allegedly dragged from his tractor trolley by policemen and thrashed, newspaper reports said.

Gurchain Singh referred to Sikhism’s emphasis on brotherhood and resilience to underscore the protesters’ commitment to wage a long-drawn battle despite an oppressive government machinery intensifying its tactics to break their will. The air of defiance in him reverberates among the onlookers, including many septuagenarian men who are zealously participating in the agitation, undeterred by the death count that has begun to mount. On February 27, Karnail Singh, 62, from Patiala, was the sixth farmer to die.

At the core of the protests is the demand for a law to guarantee minimum support prices (MSPs) for produce. Every year, the government announces support prices for more than 20 crops to protect growers against any steep fall in prices, but implementation remains a challenge. State agencies buy only rice and wheat at the support level, benefiting just 7 per cent of farmers who grow those crops.

Farmers run for cover as tear gas is fired by the police, at the Shambhu border on February 21.

Farmers run for cover as tear gas is fired by the police, at the Shambhu border on February 21. | Photo Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The protesters want the government to make support prices legally binding and include all farm produce in its purview. Their other demands include pension for farmers and farm labourers, farm debt waivers, and compensation to the families of farmers who died in the 2020-21 agitation.

Government PR machine slams MSP

Although the government maintains that it is happy to talk to the farmers’ representatives, its well-oiled public relations machinery simultaneously works overtime to cast the demand for MSP as economically unviable. On the day the protests began, a prominent English daily published a story quoting government sources that pegged the cost of implementing MSP at a staggering Rs.20 lakh crore.

But opposition parties are reminding the people that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascension to the country’s top post in 2014 was, among other factors, powered by his pledge to farmers that he would ensure 50 per cent profit over the input cost, besides doubling their income by 2022.

The Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said at a recent press conference in New Delhi: “Modi submitted a report to the Manmohan Singh government in 2011 as the chairperson of a working group (in his capacity as Gujarat Chief Minister) recommending a law for MSP. He repeated at several rallies in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary election that input cost plus 50 per cent profit (based on the Swaminathan Commission recommendations) will be given for all crops. But nothing has been delivered even as we are in 2024.”

Also Read | Editor’s Note: India’s war against its own farmers

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is attempting to win over the backward castes in the coming general election, dismissed concerns about a budgetary strain. Quoting figures from CRISIL, he argued on X that there would have been an additional burden of Rs.21,000 crore on the government to implement the MSP in 2022-23, which is only 0.4 per cent of the total Budget.

The government has held four rounds of talks with farmers’ leaders, on February 8, 12, 15, and 18, all of which ended in stalemate. The government proposed to purchase entire quantities of pulses, maize, and cotton over the next five years at MSP, but the farmers said they would not settle for trifles. Punjab Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee leader Sarwan Singh Pandher told the media on February 29 that “New Delhi’s intentions are not good”. Pandher and Jagjit Singh Dallewal, who heads the Dallewal faction of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), are spearheading the agitation under the banner of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Non-Political).

  • On February 21st, tear gas was used against protesting farmers at the Punjab-Haryana border, highlighting the ongoing political tension in the country.
  • Farmers are demanding a law guaranteeing minimum support prices for their produce, but talks with the government have stalled.
  • The Modi government has attempted to discredit the protests by labelling them as economically unsound and painting the farmers as extremists.

Farm laws redux

While it is uncertain whether the farmer’s agitation will be able to expand its tent against the rise of Hindu nationalism and Modi’s undiminished appeal as a leader, the bustling scenes at the Punjab-Haryana border are reminiscent of the protests in 2020 when three controversial laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act—led to farmers marching to the Delhi border. That protest was led by the BKU and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of around 40 farm unions.

The Modi government defended the laws, describing them as an elixir that would loosen the rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce, facilitating farmers’ interface with an unfettered free market. But farmers feared corporate giants would push prices even lower by imposing unfavourable deals. They braved extreme summer and winter temperatures, and a global pandemic, to stay on the streets for over a year, forcing Modi into an uncharacteristic retreat in November 2021 when his government repealed the three laws. Although several unions wanted to continue the agitation until legal guarantees for MSP were announced, the broader SKM leadership decided against it. The SKM (Non-Political) is a residual coalition of it.

The 2021 climbdown was the lone occasion in Modi’s decade-long, iron-fist regime when he betrayed anxiety about his public image. Earlier, when his government abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019 or effected the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) the following winter, he did not fear the backlash. In fact, these decisions helped him whip up Hindu nationalist sentiment and expand his appeal in his voter base.

Even as the Uttar Pradesh Police under BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath gunned down 22 Muslim protesters during the anti-CAA demonstrations in December 2019 in the communally sensitive State, Modi’s polarising discourse was able to cast any questioning of his regime’s agenda as anti-India rhetoric, forcing most of the opposition to either avoid discussing his unilateral action in Kashmir and vis-a-vis the citizenship law or even, at worst, to reconcile with them.

Farmers listen to speeches from their leaders at the Shambhu border.

Farmers listen to speeches from their leaders at the Shambhu border. | Photo Credit: PTI

The effects of other political parties feeling obliged to accept these communal fault lines will be felt sooner or later. In their bestselling book How Democracies Die, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky have focussed on two norms that sustain a democracy: toleration of political rivals and forbearance when one holds power. They describe toleration as “accepting that political opponents have legitimacy”, and forbearance as “not using your political power to its maximum extent, even if you have the ability to do so”.

In Modi’s India, not unlike the Donald Trump years in the US which triggered Ziblatt and Levitsky’s reflections, there is a steady erosion of both norms. In December 2023, 146 members of Parliament were suspended from the winter session for demanding a statement from Home Minister Amit Shah on a security breach inside Parliament. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in February 2023 was convicted by a local court in Gujarat (he has since been granted bail), in a defamation case that was widely believed to be politically motivated. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party has been served seven summons by the Enforcement Directorate in a Delhi excise policy case, which experts say is also a political witch-hunt.

Various pro-democracy activists and political workers cutting across party lines attribute this bolstering of executive power to wide-ranging factors, from the emotional core of Modi’s appeal as a Hindu nationalist ideologue, to the subversion of constitutional institutions under his watch, to the opposition’s failure to offer an alternative vision for the country that can ignite the grievances against the government’s deficiencies and failures and their impact on the economy and the people (the unemployment rate rose to 10.05 per cent in October 2023, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy showed).

Inability to sustain a mass movement

But at the core is the inability of political and social actors to organise and sustain a mass movement. The reasons, they say, is brute policing, the judiciary’s wavering commitment to its duties, and the general emergence of a mental barrier among vast sections of people who have come to regard the authoritarian makeover of the state as irreversible. The regime apparently thrives on the annihilation of hope.

It is in this complex political and social context that the import of the farmers’ movement has to be evaluated. Their wrath erodes both the myth of an insurmountable state and the fabled growth story that the Modi regime and its “lapdog” media have invented. The farmers’ insistence on permanent solutions to their economic ills threatens to inflate expectations in the rural pockets of India, to which the Modi government has endeared itself by wide-scale distribution of economic incentives, even as incomes remain stagnant.

Farmers pay tribute to Shubhkaran Singh, a 21-year-old who died during protests, after his mortal remains arrived at the Khanauri border, in Sangrur, on February 29.

Farmers pay tribute to Shubhkaran Singh, a 21-year-old who died during protests, after his mortal remains arrived at the Khanauri border, in Sangrur, on February 29. | Photo Credit: PTI

According to government statistics, the average income in 2018-19 for farming households was Rs.10,218 rupees a month. This was Rs.316 less than the nation’s average salary the same year. The ongoing protest adds important new dimensions to identity politics, in which assertions for social justice among marginalised sections can potentially lead to a decline in Hindutva’s appeal and thereby its capacity to bind disparate Hindu voters into a monolith by perpetuating communal divisions in society.

This threatens to upset the electoral arithmetic of the BJP, which has widened its electoral map by adding disparate caste groups from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), with no historical linkages with the party, to its support base of forward castes. Various players within the opposition, particularly the Congress, are aware of this fault line and have tailored their election campaign to give prominence to the interests of the OBCs. Rahul Gandhi has promised the OBCs that his party, if voted to power, will look at ways to increase their reservation in government jobs and education.

A sea of farmers camping on the streets for weeks and months ahead of the general election, which is likely to be held in May, wittingly or unwittingly aids the opposition’s gamble by giving their social justice plank a more concrete form and shape, and underlining its urgency by highlighting economic hardship and inequality. To ride this wave of discontent, Rahul Gandhi is set to hold “khat panchayats” (meetings with farmers on traditional wooden beds called khats) in the first week of March in Madhya Pradesh, a region with a large agrarian population.

Modi’s immediate priority is to stop the agitation from spilling over from Punjab into other regions, as it did in 2020-21, when farmers of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh joined in and increased its radius and power. The issues at hand are not exclusive to Punjab. During the Madhya Pradesh election in November 2023, peasants in the State had voiced similar grievances to this reporter, pointing out that the government’s MSPs were an eyewash in the absence of legal guarantees.

“In 2020-21, jowar [sorghum] crops were weighed at the government mandis for procurement, but 2,500 farmers in Budhni are yet to be paid,” a peasant from Budhni, which the State’s then Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP represented, had said. Not surprisingly, the original faction of the SKM, which did not join the ongoing agitation led by the SKM (Non-Political), has now announced it will hold a “kisan mahapanchayat” (farmers’ assembly) at the Ramlila ground in New Delhi on March 14.

Painted as Khalistan sympathisers

Before that takes place, the government is putting its act together. It knows that excessive use of force on peaceful protesters can harm the Prime Minister’s painstakingly carved image as a leader who identifies with the poor and the downtrodden. It has, therefore, resorted to race-baiting and trying to limn the image of the protesters as Khalistan sympathisers, its favourite manoeuvre to preclude any fair and dispassionate assessment of the protests on the grounds of merit.

Also Read | Farmers’ protest: It’s a battle against servitude

During the previous protests, this gambit was taken up by a large section of television news channels, which went on to magnify stray secessionist slogans raised by fringe elements. The attempt was to create a sense of threat and generate wide-scale public scepticism regarding the agitation’s legitimacy.

Once again, several machinations are being worked on the Khanauri border. An army of rogue elements, who eyewitnesses claim are either police personnel in plainclothes or civilians supported by the police, regularly provokes and goads the protestors, including by using religious slogans, in a bid to trigger angry reactions from the younger of the largely Sikh protesters and thus paint them as Khalistanis.

Women farmers shout slogans during a demonstration in Amritsar on February 29 to seek justice for Shubhkaran Singh, a farmer who lost his life during the farmers’ protest.

Women farmers shout slogans during a demonstration in Amritsar on February 29 to seek justice for Shubhkaran Singh, a farmer who lost his life during the farmers’ protest. | Photo Credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP

Abhimanyu Kohar, youth president of the BKU, said: “They [suspected policemen] were trying to inflame the protesters, who were from the Sikh community, using ‘Jai Sri Ram’ chants. Some of them hurled abuses at the protesters. Some others made indecent gestures.” On the day the agitation began, Kohar received a communiqué from X that his account was being withheld (X recently stated that it was under executive orders from the Indian government to shut down specific accounts and posts). Harshdeep Singh Gill, a protester from Hisar in Haryana, said: “They want a handful of restless youths to raise pro-Khalistan slogans so that they can demonise the entire community.” Last year, Punjab simmered in the Amritpal Singh row, the Khalistani separatist, since arrested.

This constant reference to identity is creating deep apprehensions in the community, which comes through in a changing lexicon and body language, now tinged with bitterness. Several people interviewed by this reporter at the protest sites stressed that they were “only 2 per cent” of India’s population. Some remarked that the Modi regime is more hostile to them than it is to Muslims. Some asked a pointed question: “Are we not Indian citizens?” If these motley emotions explode, it will be easy for the government to denounce the whole community, but the toll on democracy will be staggering.

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