‘There is nothing called non-political’: Hannan Mollah

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Hannan Mollah, Vice-President, All India Kisan Sabha

Hannan Mollah, Vice-President, All India Kisan Sabha | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The AIKS vice president explains why the Samyukta Kisan Morcha did not support the breakaway faction’s “Dilli Chalo” call.

Right from its inception in 2020, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha and its constituents identified eight-time Lok Sabha MP Hannan Mollah as a crucial player in the farmer movement that lasted more than a year. As an office-bearer of the All India Kisan Sabha, India’s largest peasant and farmer organisation, he was among those whose leadership and organisational skills ensured that the protests remained on course. More than 700 farmers died in the year-long protest. The SKM succeeded in getting the three controversial farm laws repealed. It also got the government to set up a committee that was meant to discuss ways of legalising Minimum Support Price and guaranteeing assured procurement. The government reneged. It did not call the SKM for talks.

In February 2024, a breakaway faction of the SKM that described itself as “apolitical” gave a call for a march to Delhi. While the marchers were not allowed to cross the border, the government sent its representatives to Chandigarh for talks. This, Hannan Mollah says, was baffling as the SKM itself had given a call for a Grameen Bandh on February 16. Its charter of demands included all pending issues. The SKM was now criticised for not supporting the breakaway faction’s call to march to Delhi. The SKM has called a Mahapanchayat on March 14 in Delhi. Hannan Mollah explains in an interview why the SKM took the position that it did. Excerpts:

How do you view the present phase of the farmer agitation? When some farmer unions gave a “Dilli Chalo” call, there was confusion whether it had the backing of the SKM.

When the government refused to implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, 500 organisations from all over India met at Gurudwara Rakabganj in October 2020. There it was decided that this would be an issue-based movement and individual flags would not be raised. We also agreed on a few things. The withdrawal of the three farm laws was the immediate issue. The other most important demand was a legal guarantee of the Minimum Support Price based on the Swaminathan Commission recommendations. The prices of inputs were going up. It was for the government to ensure that input prices were controlled. Agriculture is not like any other industry. Other products have a Maximum Retail Price or MRP. No one should pay more than that. We were asking only for an MSP and assured procurement.

A call to Delhi was given for November 26 in 2020. The government said it would not let us enter. The national highways were dug up. Farmers were tear-gassed. They even cut electricity and water supply in the areas where the farmers were sitting on protest. When the barricades were put up, we said that we were not going to clash with the police. We knew we had to maintain peace. Our leadership was in full control. The government called us Pakistani, Khalistani, Maowaadi, and so on. They also thought they would tire us out. The meetings with the government were inconclusive till the very end. Meanwhile support poured in for us. Workers, peasants, agricultural workers, women, intellectuals joined. The rest is history. Th e SKM’s year-long sit-in was peaceful and disciplined.

We condemned the repression unleashed by the Haryana Police on the farmer groups from Punjab. This year we had in any case given a call for a Grameen Bandh on February 16 but some of these groups went ahead and gave a Dilli Chalo call for February 13.

Also Read | Farmers’ protest 2.0: On the difficult road to MSP

There was a feeling that little had progressed since the last siege of Delhi in November 2020 and that a section of farmers was justified in launching a march. It was also felt that the larger body should have backed this agitation.  

Our first demand was always the legal framework for an MSP. It was not new. This is a 20-year-old demand. The BJP on multiple occasions, and in its election manifesto, said it would implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations. In public meetings, Narendra Modi himself had said that if elected, his government would implement the C2 plus 50 per cent formula.

When the government announced its intent to withdraw the laws, we went back to our dharna. After 11 days, the government called us for a meeting where the other demands were discussed. First, the implementation of the C2 plus 50 per cent formula; loan waivers; withdrawal of cases imposed for stubble burning, withdrawal of Electricity (Amendment) Act, compensation to families of farmers who had died, and withdrawal of 40,000 cases filed against farmers. These were the six main demands. A seventh was the dismissal of Ajay Mishra Teni, Minister of State for Home, for his role in the deaths of four farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri.

The six demands were part of a written agreement with the Agriculture Minister. Three years passed, but the government did not proceed an inch to implement the points it agreed to with us. We had a huge rally in the Ram Lila grounds in March last year and reminded the government of the agreement. We organised 72-hour sit-ins in front of offices of Governors. On January 26, 2023, we had a tractor rally all over the country. Our last action was the February 16, 2024, Grameen Bandh and the tractor rally on February 26, both of which were peaceful.

The central trade unions supported us for the February 16 call. We had not added any new demands. The ball was always in the government’s court. Our mode of protest has always been disciplined, democratic and peaceful. All our decisions are arrived at democratically. We have a national committee and every three months we have a general body meeting. The SKM is a living movement. That was why we drew the support of a wide section of the public.

Protesting farmer families at the Tikri border in New Delhi in December 2020.

Protesting farmer families at the Tikri border in New Delhi in December 2020. | Photo Credit: PTI

Do you feel that the farmers’ movement has split with the government playing divide and rule?

After our year-long sit-in, two leaders left the SKM, one of whom had close relations with the RSS. We had no objection. The surprising thing was that the government was ready to enter into negotiations with the sectoral groups represented by these two leaders and sideline the bigger all-India body represented by the SKM. There were 40 of us representing all India farmer and peasant bodies in all the 11 rounds of talks we had with the government in 2020-21. And then, for three years, it never called us for talks whereas it sent three Ministers to Chandigarh to talk to the splinter groups. We warned those unions about the trap set by the government. That is why, after agreeing to the terms set by the government, they declined the offer soon after. The fundamental issues were not addressed. The media also ignored our peaceful modes of protests.

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

Those who are leading the present phase also call themselves SKM but add “non-political” in parentheses. 

There is nothing called “non-political”. This is hoodwinking the people. How can we fight a political entity represented by the government in a non-political way? Our demand is our politics; not “party” politics. The SKM is not a political outfit. Yes, it is a fact that we distanced ourselves from the “Dilli Chalo” call as we had already planned, collectively, to organise an all-India Grameen Bandh. But we support the right of anyone to protest. We were clear that if the government attacked the farmers, we would condemn it. The government offered to procure five crops at MSP for the next five years; the splinter group agreed at first and then backtracked. We went public with our criticism of the government’s offer and called it a betrayal. I think the unions realised it was a mistake.

During the first phase of the agitation, one organisation that is leading the current phase of protests pitched its tent separately from that of the unified body. When the tractor rally of January 26, 2021, took place, one section represented by the same organisation broke away and went towards Red Fort. This was not part of the plan and it gave an opportunity to the government to crack down on us. It was another matter that the unified movement held firm and sustained the sit-ins at the borders for another 11 months.

So, it is interesting that those who did those things are the main negotiators with the government. However, we condemn the repression by the government in unequivocal terms. The farmer unions also should not give an opportunity for the government to attack them.

The government’s approach is to destroy farm-based agriculture and promote corporate agriculture. The three Acts were withdrawn but the essence is retained in the Budget. Nearly 83 per cent of the budget for agriculture is for individual-based schemes. Forty per cent of farmers are tenants and do not get these individual benefits. Eighty-two per cent of the expenditure on farming is borne by farmers themselves. The government claims it is saving agriculture.

Corporate investment in agriculture is 3 per cent. With such a small contribution, the corporate sector wants to control cultivation, production, transportation, processing, import, export, marketing and supply. An agricultural policy should have farmers at the centre. The kisan is on the periphery at the moment in every sense.

More than six lakh farmers have committed suicide, with one lakh between 2014 and 2022. Since 2018, more than 22,000 agricultural workers have taken their lives. This is all from the NCRB reports. The argument that prices will go up if MSP is given for all 23 crops is a fallacy. The government spends 1.75 lakh crore to import palm oil. Our farmers can produce the same. Similarly, the piecemeal increment in the fair and remunerative price for sugarcane is not a solution. Farmers across the country are suffering. There is no holistic approach nor intention to address the real crisis.

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