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Punjab farmers' agitation

Despite the Central government's strong-arm tactics, farmers stand their ground against new farm laws

Print edition : Dec 04, 2020 T+T-
At a road blockade  in protest against the farm reform bills, in Bathinda on November 5.

At a road blockade in protest against the farm reform bills, in Bathinda on November 5.

At a paddy field  on the outskirts of Amritsar on November 4.

At a paddy field on the outskirts of Amritsar on November 4.

Despite economic distress, tragic deaths of fellow fighters and the Central government’s strong-arm tactics such as starving Punjab of train services and resources, farmers are determined to carry on their struggle against the three new farm laws.

“The government is trying to tire us out thinking that we shall surrender. But we will not, although farmers in large numbers are going through one of the toughest periods in their life. Many have succumbed to diseases and some have taken their lives. But what we know for sure is that we cannot allow ourselves to be subjugated by these draconian laws. That would be nothing short of collective death,” one member of a group of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh told mediapersons in New Delhi in the second week of November.

The farmers had gathered in the national capital to chalk out plans to advance their agitation against the three controversial agricultural laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Far Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—passed by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre.

The farmers said they would make use of the Govardhan Puja after Deepavali to continue with one of the agitation’s unique components -- converting religious festivals into agitational platforms. This would be followed up by “direct action at Delhi” on November 26 and 27 for a rally titled ‘Delhi Chalo’. More than 450 farmers’ organisations from across the country have come together to organise this rally under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.

Speaking about the concept of ‘Delhi Chalo’, farmer leader Jagmohan Singh Patiala told Frontline that this would not be just a two-day programme. He said: “November 26 and 27 are the dates identified for farmers’ organisations and unions to reach Delhi from all parts of India. There is no date for them to go back from Delhi. We are going to sit on a ‘pakka morcha’ (indefinite agitation) at the Ram Leela grounds till our demands are met.” Buta Singh Burajgill, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda), added that although only 450 unions had expressed their intention to participate in ‘Delhi Chalo’, many more farmers are likely to join from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh. Also read: 3 States pass amended farm bills in their Assemblies

In the meantime, the Union government called the farmers’ unions for yet another discussion. It was scheduled for November 13. As many as 29 farmers’ unions of north India were planning to meet on November 12 at Chandigarh in preparation for the discussion.

Buta Singh Burajgill said: “We will choose our spokespersons and finalise our agenda at the Chandigarh meeting. We are determined to push for the complete withdrawal of the draconian Acts.” Other leaders added that the movement was moving ahead in spite of several challenges and severe economic and social tribulations faced by the farmers individually and collectively.

Developments on the ground clearly show that as far as the farmers are concerned, neither the Centre’s persistent refusal to look into their demands nor the collateral damage to Punjab’s economy was sufficient for them to take a step backwards. This battle of attrition has already claimed the lives of a dozen farmers: a 70-year-old diabetic man collapsed on the stage while addressing farmers in Barnala; another farmer, a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Kadian), succumbed in hospital following a heart attack suffered during a protest; and in Muktsar, a farmer consumed poison and ended his life. But the war goes on.

The sad demise of their fellow soldiers in the fight against the new agrarian laws has not weakened the resolve of the farmers. Jagjeet Singh Dalewal, general secretary of the Indian Farmers’ Union (Sidhupur), said: “Farmers have died. Some suffered heart attacks while sitting on protest, some died at home. During the day the farmer is with his fellow protesters. At night he is alone. He deliberates over it, and feels the government is opposed to his very existence. He sees it as a betrayal. More farmers will end their life in the coming days simply because they feel that with the new agricultural laws, their means of livelihood are threatened.” He added: “There has been only an announcement of a meagre compensation by the Punjab government for the dead farmers, and none from the Centre. When the Centre is not even willing to acknowledge the death due to the new laws, where is the question of giving compensation for them?”

The looming economic crisis, with a shortage of coal, fuel and even skilled workers for hosiery units, has not been reason enough for either party to blink on the issue of the new laws. Trains are still not running in the State and thousands of cotton mill workers are stranded in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Also read: How the new Farm Acts put farmers' freedoms at stake

On November 5, some 500 kisan unions mustered impressive numbers in a show of strength in simultaneous protests across the country. The protest drew a million farmers to the road. Not only were all major roads closed in Punjab; even Delhi, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh felt the ripple effects. National Highway 24 was impacted as was the famed Yamuna expressway, with farmers laying siege to the area, blockading all vehicular traffic. Mandis did not function and farmers took time out from harvesting paddy to hit the road in a formidable show of strength. There is more to come.

The persistent protests since the last week of September are beginning to cause collateral damage to the economy of Punjab. There are long periods of load-shedding every day across the State, which has brought mills and factories to a screeching halt.

Also, fuel is not reaching the sensitive territory of Ladakh as a result of the prolonged rail roko protest. But Buta Singh Burajgill said: “We stopped our protest on railway tracks from October 21. We did not want [to cause] any loss to Punjab. So, the farmers left the tracks and continued sitting on a dharna outside the railway stations. For three days, from Ocober 21 to 24, the trains ran as usual. Then, on October 24, without any prior anouncement, the Centre withdrew the services.”

On October 24, a private union of farmers, which is not part of the 31 farmers’ unions, decided to sit in a dharna at the gate of a thermal plant in protest against electricity shortage in the State. Buta Singh Burajgill said: “The Centre is using it as an excuse to not run trains anywhere in Punjab. Now, even that organisation has moved its members (away from the thermal power plant). What we are witnessing today is an economic blockade of Punjab by the Government of India.”

Pushed to the wall, and now deprived of fertilizers and pesticides for their crops owing to the absence of trains, the farmers have decided to make do without them and are thinking on the lines of surrendering a crop or two. One of them said: “We created food surplus for the nation. Let it be food deficit again.” Also read: Uttar Pradesh farmers protest against new laws

Incidentally, the farmers have kept politicians of all hues away from their strictly non-political protests. All the agitations have been under the banner of 31 kisan unions, not any political party.

However, despite the persistent protests, there is no ray of hope anywhere. When Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh reportedly tried to meet the President of India, he failed to get an appointment. Even though he denied that the planned meeting was about the new laws, the farmers have been dismayed by the President’s refusal to meet him. One of them said: “If the President of India refuses to meet the Chief Minister of a State, what does one say? Is he the President of India or of a political party? Or does the government not consider Punjab a part of India?”

A delegation of members of Parliament from Punjab met Home Minister Amit Shah to apprise him of the law and order situation in the State. They told him that the protests had been entirely peaceful and that no untoward incident had been reported from anywhere. In the presence of Piyush Goyal, Minister of Railways, they urged Amit Shah to restore the normal functioning of the Railways in the State. Piyush Goyal said that he had “requested the State government to clear the entire railway network from blockages so that we can run all trains, to and through Punjab, without interruption”.

His precondition, however, upset the rank and file of the farmers’ unions. A member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee said: “No farmer has been occupying a single railway track anywhere in the State since October 24. What does the honourable Minister mean by asking the State government to clear the tracks?” Also read: Farmers' resistance to new farm laws hardens

According to Buta Singh Burajgill, the Government of India was doing an economic boycott of Punjab. He said: “Its oppressive tactics are an attempt to muzzle the farmers of Punjab. The government thinks its tactics of suppression will force the farmers to accept the new laws. The farmers have taken it up as a challenge. It is no longer about the farmers of the State alone.”

He added: “In many countries, memorandums have been submitted to Indian consulates. The government has released a photograph of farmers occupying a rail track in Amritsar, but it is a file photo. Nobody is there anymore. Also, if one were to believe the Centre’s claim that Amritsar railway tracks are still occupied, what is preventing it from sending fuel to our jawans in Ladakh? The trains for Himachal and Ladakh turn from Jalandhar itself. It is a totally different route. The reality is:, the Central government wants to ruin Punjab.”

With a great trust deficit between the farmers and the Centre, things do not look bright for the protesters, more so because the farmers do not seem confident of judicial redress of their grievances. Jagjeet Singh Dalewal said: “At a time when the farmers’ land is being snatched away, where is the Supreme Court? Where do we go for redress? When President Ram Nath Kovind did not listen to our grievances, when he did not meet the C.M. on the subject of new laws, what signal do the agitating farmers get? We can only draw one conclusion. Now, for farmers and the people of Punjab, all roads are closed, no avenues for negotiations.”

He added: “In the days to come, things are not likely to get better. Farmers have lost faith in this government. The Central government is not even willing to talk to the State government. The Centre’s actions tell us that it wants to break Punjab, it deliberately wants things to deteriorate. However, we are not moving back. The farmer thinks he has to die in any case, owing to the economic blockade or the new laws. But the government must remember, if one farmer dies, thousands of other farmers are ready to stand in protest.” Also read: Farmers protest new laws unconventionally during Dussehra

It may be time to harvest paddy, but clearly the Central government did not realise what it was sowing when it passed the agrarian reform laws.