One year on, the farmers’ protest holds its ground

Print edition : December 03, 2021

A rail roko by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha in Bahadurgarh, Haryana on October 18. Farmerss blocked the railway tracks demanding the dismissal and arrest of Union Minister Ajay Mishra in connection with the October 3 violence in Lakhimpur Kheri. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Women farmers commemorate “International Working Women’s Day” at Tikri border in Delhi on March 8. The breaking of gender barriers has been one of the biggest achievements of the farmers’ protest, and women of all age groups have actively participated in all Samyukta Kisan Morcha programmes. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The agitation demanding the repeal of three contentious farm laws, which began at Delhi’s borders on November 26, 2020, is not only the longest peasant struggle in the history of India but also a secular, democratic, pan-India movement that has managed to hold its ground for an entire year.

On November 26, the farmers’ protest against three farm laws—Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020—will complete one full year. For the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the broad front leading the protest from the borders of Delhi, it marks a major milestone. The SKM itself comprises around 500 peasant and farmer organisations across the country.

There has been no other peaceful movement of a pan-India nature with a strong secular and democratic character in recent times that managed to hold its ground for a year. Farmer leaders said that there is no evidence of a similar movement either in pre- or post-independent India. The five protest sites on national highways at Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Palwal and Shahjahanpur have become synonymous with the farmers’ movement. The movement has drawn visitors and sympathisers from all over the country and abroad. It would not be incorrect to say that the protest would not have sustained itelf without a fair degree of support from the local populace. It also has the support of all the opposition parties, which is a unique feature in itself.

The siege of Delhi that began with a Dilli Chalo campaign last November against the three farm laws, the Electricity (Amendment Bill) and the Ordinance on Air Quality Management in the Delhi-National Capital Region has had its share of vicissitudes and ups and downs. The protest was never intended to be a siege in the first place. All that the farmer and peasant organisations wanted to do was to march to Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds where large-scale protests are normally held but they were not allowed to do so. The decision for a “Dilli Chalo march” was taken in view of a widespread and cumulative resentment against the three farm laws.

Also read: At ground zero: Determined farmers protest at the Delhi borders

The protests began first in Punjab from June 2020 onwards, spearheaded by various factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Soon, it spread to neighbouring Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, with the BKU and the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) spearheading the protest there. Farmers in Uttarakhand and later eastern Uttar Pradesh joined in. Madhya Pradesh followed suit. In Maharashtra, where the AIKS had conducted successful struggles in 2018 and 2019, including the long march of one lakh farmers from Nasik to Mumbai, the farm laws posed a fresh challenge which the farmers were ready to take on. Farmer and peasant organisations affiliated to parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena also lent their support.

United and democratic movement

This is the longest peasant struggle in the history of India, said Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the AIKS. It symbolises one of the most united and democratic of movements. On core issues, 500 organisations came together. A general body meeting (GBM) was held on October 27, 2020, at Gurdwara Rakabkanj for two days. Every movement develops fissures, but it did not happen in this case. Any struggle or movement also risks turning violent. Yet, despite the size and duration of the movement, there was no violence. Hannan Mollah said: “We faced a series of attacks right from the beginning. They labelled us as Khalistanis, Pakistanis, communists, Maoists, Pakistanis, Chinese. Nothing was left to the imagination. The Annadaatas, or the feeders of the nation, were called everything under the sun. Not only the country but the whole world knows that this was just propaganda.”

On January 26, the SKM decided that it would take out a kisan parade to mark their protest. Tractors with colourful bunting were prepared. The routes were discussed with the Delhi Police and mutually agreed upon. Yet, a contingent of farmers was mysteriously allowed to reach Red Fort where some of them hoisted a flag of a religious denomination. This was the trigger. The nationalist media, along with the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership, lost little time in decrying the incident and hinting that the farmers were anti-national. It was a setback to the protest as it conveyed an impression that the farmers’ movement was unruly and prone to violence. The leadership also got temporarily demoralised as they were unsure of what this would lead to. The event became the pretext to evict farmers from the sites of protest, a move that backfired badly. When a huge posse of policemen descended on the protesters, threatening to evict them, BKU leader Rakesh Tikait tearfully appealed to farmers in western Uttar Pradesh to join in large numbers at the Ghazipur protest site. The tide turned as hordes of farmers along with their families responded to Tikait’s call and arrived at the Ghazipur site while the Punjab unions sent food and human reinforcements from Singhu and Tikri to “strengthen” the Ghazipur border.

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

Hannan Mollah said: “We faced several conspiracies too. One was the event of January 26 which farmers had nothing to do with. The gentleman who hoisted a religious flag on the Red Fort was found photographed with top BJP leaders of the country. The person who was responsible for killing a Nihang at Singhu border was found photographed with a senior minister.”

The farmers’ movement got support from all the 10 Central trade unions, including during the three Bharat bandhs. Workers and peasants fought unitedly for the repeal of the farm laws since their adversary was the same, a government that was pro-corporate sector. There were other meeting points too. The industrial class and unorganised sector workers have been opposed to the labour codes and the farmers against the farm laws. In both instances, it was felt, favours to the corporate sector and big industry was involved. Hannan Mollah said: “The movement received support from Pravasi Indians and four to five heads of state. Some of them discussed it in their Parliaments, but our government could not do so.”

‘Government declares war on us’

“When we declared we’d come to Delhi, the government declared war on us,” said Hannan Mollah. The SKM had decided it would march to Ram Lila grounds but would not confront the government. “But the government didn’t allow us. It blocked the entry points to Delhi and attacked us with water cannons, lathis and even dug up the national highway so that tractors wouldn’t be able to go through,” he said. Images of farmers removing huge cement blocks with makeshift tools and tractors were aired on television. It was an unequal battle, with the SKM at a huge disadvantage. It faced three hostile governments—the BJP-led State governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and the Central government—determined not to let them reach Delhi. “We decided wherever they stopped us, we’d sit there,” he said. Pitching their tents was not easy. The farmers endured close to zero degrees in winter, 45 degrees centigrade in summer and almost 22 days of rain during the monsoon. Nearly 650 to 700 farmers have died since the agitation began. But, Mollah said, not a word was uttered in Parliament by the treasury benches.

Yet, in order to sustain the momentum the protest had to evolve. There were three Bharat bandhs, two rail roko campaigns and several district and block-level programmes throughout the year. Hannan Mollah said: “We had no example to go by on how to conduct and sustain this movement. We had to innovate to maintain the tempo. That is why it is historic. This movement also challenged the identity politics pushed by the BJP-RSS. In 2013, the worst communal riots took place in Muzaffarnagar. Sixty-seven people were killed. Jats and Muslims were pitted against each other. They became enemies. In this movement we have seen an unprecedented coming together of both communities. At the largest ever rally held in Muzaffarnagar, in October, they admitted that they were victims of a conspiracy. They said they’d never allow such riots to take place and reasserted their identities as farmers and peasants and not as Hindu or Muslim. A democratic secular identity emerged from this movement which was historic.”

Also read: Hannan Mollah: ‘The poor farmers know they have no other option but to peacefully protest as long as they can’

The SKM was formed on October 27. Yet prior to that, another broad front called the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) had been at the forefront, flagging issues of loan waivers, indebtedness among farmers, and so on. The killing of six farmers in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, in 2017 spurred the formation of the AIKSCC. That year, farmers’ organisations met in Delhi at a national convention and decided that individual struggles would not lead to any results and that a more coordinated effort was needed. In June 2017, the AIKSCC was formed. Some 250 organisations joined in. From organising joint protests in Delhi, including a farmers’ parliament, it moved a private members’ Bill too for legislating the minimum support price (MSP), farm support and agricultural loans. When the three ordinances that went on to become the farm laws were passed in June 2020, the AIKSCC conducted protests even as the 32-odd farmer organisations in Punjab began their own independent agitation.

It was a meeting of two broad fronts, said Hannan Mollah. “The demands were the same; the adversary was also common. It was meaningless to do it separately. It was felt a joint programme would make it stronger. On October 27, we took the initiative to organise a meeting in Delhi at Gurdwara Rakabganj. The Punjab unions joined in. It was here that we decided that a common platform needed to be there. That was the birth of the SKM,” he said. The government meanwhile projected that it was only a north India-based movement, confined to a few States and led by big landed farmers. Mollah said that the decisions of the SKM were also implemented by States other than those whose farmers were leading the protest at the borders of Delhi. Farmers had realised everywhere that they were not getting the MSP for their crops. “The expression of their protest has been different but they are part of the SKM,” he said. It was no longer a “north India” protest.

Apolitical structure

The SKM does not invite political leaders on its stage. Neither has it endorsed any political party. Its organisational structure is also unique. It does not have posts like president, general secretary, and so on. All decisions are taken by a core group of ten members, discussed further in a general body meeting and then conveyed for execution. Maintaining political equidistance, it has declared that it will not campaign for any particular party in the forthcoming Assembly elections but will exhort its members not to vote for the BJP, who it says is the main culprit behind the kaaley kanoon or “black laws”.

Joginder Singh Ugrahan, who spearheads the largest contingent of peasants, agricultural workers and women at the Tikri border, said that the peaceful nature and the unity of so many sections of society is one of the unique features of the movement. “It has become a symbol for the struggles of all oppressed sections. It is not a farmers’ movement alone. It has become a people’s movement,” he said. The repression by the government and resistance to it was the second unique feature. “The government didn’t leave any stone unturned in failing the movement. But none of its plans worked. Caste and communal fissures were sought to be planted. They also tried to lure farmers by claims of a higher MSP which also failed,” he said.

Also read: Joginder Singh Ugrahan: 'It’s the government that is stubborn'

The government has to date not uttered a word for the farmers who died. Leave alone compensation, he said, not a word of sympathy was uttered. Instead the government had harassed people who helped set up langars (community kitchens), he said, referring to the cancellation of long-term visas of some Persons of Indian Origin as well their Overseas Citizens of India cards. “We used to only hear that the BJP was like this but after the Lakhimpur Kheri [Uttar Pradesh] incident, we know this government and its leaders are capable of anything,” he said. No action, he said, was taken against the statements of the Haryana Chief Minister who was on record exhorting people to respond in tit-for-tat fashion or for that matter of Ajay Kumar Mishra, Union Minister of State for Home, who had issued threatening statements a few days prior to the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.

Farmers not averse to dialogue

For ten long months, the SKM has had no meeting with the government even though it has expressed its desire for a dialogue to resolve the imbroglio. Hannan Mollah said: “We were for negotiations from day one. The government only does propaganda to show that it is sympathetic. But has shown little interest in talking to us. It wants to defeat the movement by prolonging it. When everything failed, they have now begun to resort to physical annihilation,” he said referring to the killings in Lakhimpur Kheri, Karnal in Haryana and Darang in Assam. On October 3, a day after Gandhi Jayanti, four protesting farmers and a journalist were mowed down by a convoy that belonged to Ajay Kumar Mishra in Lakhimpur Kheri.

Meanwhile, the crisis for the farmers and the agrarian community continues. Recently, a section of the media was agog with data on declining farmer suicides released by the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. It said that there were 302 suicides in 2019 and 257 in 2020. Sukhpal Singh, Principal Economist at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, debunked this. He said it was an underestimation. His own study, with combined efforts from three universities in Punjab, for an earlier period, did not show any such trend. The situation had, if anything, only worsened.

Also read: ‘If APMC mandis go, MSP will vanish’: Sukhpal Singh

According to the NCRB itself, each day, 28 people dependent on farming died by suicide but it did not give the reasons for the suicides. While the 2015 NCRB report, he said, had mentioned reasons for the farm suicides, the recent one did not do so. The PAU-led study was based on the census of six districts of Ludhiana, Moga, Bhatinda, Sangrur, Barnala and Mansa. He said that as per the NCRB report, between 2014 and 2018, there were 1,082 suicides of farmers and agricultural labourers in Punjab. The PAU door-to-door study had found that the number of suicides in the six districts studied was three and a half time higher (3,740) than the all-India figure given by the NCRB for the same period. There were 12,729 villages in Punjab and the PAU study was based on 2,518 villages. “Had we done the study for the whole of Punjab, the figures would have been much higher,” he said. Sukhpal Singh said: “Declining farm productivity is one of the prime reasons for the suicides of farmers and agricultural labourers. The widening gap between income and expenditure due to the rising costs of cultivation and comparatively lower crop prices are pushing farming families towards economic distress. Many small and marginal farmers have quit farming. Each day 2,500 farmers are being pushed out of farming,” he said. The NCRB data, he said, were based on police records, which were not representative of the actual numbers. To avoid legal complications, cremations were performed without post-mortem.

Marching on

To observe one year of their agitation, the SKM has given a call to strengthen all five sites of protest and to hold big gatherings in all State capitals. The trade unions also have decided to observe the first anniversary of their Bharat bandh on that day. On November 29, the farmers have planned a march to Parliament. The struggle for a legal guarantee of procurement and to give a legal framework to the MSP continues. The farmers know that the two are inseparable. Legalising the MSP would mean nothing if there was no guaranteed procurement. Their struggle, one could say, is for “Bread and Roses”, a song that exemplified the struggle of women textile workers in Massachusetts, United States, more than a century ago, wherein they appealed for fair wages and better working conditions. The workers, they sang, must have bread but roses too.

Also read: Farmers’ movement: A new confidence

The farmers’ protest will undoubtedly have an impact in the forthcoming round of Assembly elections next year. It is possible the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government might do some damage control before that, although politically, things might have reached a point of no return owing to its own intransigence. The farmers, on their part, are in no mood to give up, having come this far and having lost several of their compatriots. Which way all this will turn out is anybody’s guess.