Movements

Bharat bandh hailed as historic

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Members of Bhartiya Kisan Union Ugrahan stage a “rail roko” at Daun Kalan village near Patiala, Punjab on September 27. Photo: PTI

A protest rally in Bengaluru as part of Bharat Bandh on September 27. Photo: MURALI KUMAR. K

Farmers blocking the Delhi-Meerut expressway at Ghazipur border on September 27. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

The September 27 Bharat bandh, called by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha to mark ten months of the agitation demanding repeal of the three contentious farm laws, was unprecedented in the support it received from over 12 opposition parties and the participation of women across the country.

When representatives of farmers’ unions, under the aegis of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), met at Singhu on the Delhi-Haryana border in August to give a call for a “Bharat bandh” (nationwide strike) on September 27, they were rooting for a symbolic protest. After all, it was on September 27 last year that the contentious 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] had been given the President’s assent. The day also marked a full 10 months of the agitation which had been launched on November 26, 2020, at the borders of Delhi for the repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee for the minimum support price (MSP).

The pan-India protest was not limited to the farmers and the peasant community alone. It acquired a broad character, drawing not only political parties but also their mass organisations. The Bharat bandh had the backing of more than 12 opposition parties, including the four Left parties—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party—the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Akali Dal, the YSR Congress Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Swaraj India.

It also received the unqualified support of 10 central trade unions (barring those aligned to the ideological affiliates of the Bharatiya Janata Party), agricultural workers’ unions, women’s organisations, lawyers’ unions, Bar associations, bank unions, transport workers’ unions, insurance employees, teachers’ unions, writers’ and artists’ associations and student organisations. According to the SKM, the bandh, which was from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., received good support from 23 States. Train services that were affected in about 50 locations resumed normalcy after 4 p.m.

Notably, the protest was peaceful across the country, even though sections of the media, especially the electronic media, focussed on the traffic jams they caused, especially in the National Capital Region (NCR). Reports on the traffic jam that extended beyond two kilometres on the Gurgaon-Delhi border in Haryana and the four- to five-kilometre-long traffic jam on the Mumbai-Thane-Nasik-Agra route were flashed on television channels throughout the day in order to highlight the difficulties of commuters. A few television channels labelled the bandh a political ploy ahead of next year’s elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. However, they had to cut short the traffic jam visuals as they felt obliged to relay news of the Prime Minister’s impromptu visit to the Central Vista construction site on September 26.

Peaceful protest

The peaceful picketing of rail lines, toll booths, highways and transport routes was unprecedented. The organisers had made a conscious effort to ensure that the protest would be disciplined as they could ill afford negative publicity. Earlier this year, during the “kisan parade” that had been planned as part of the farmers’ Republic Day protest on January 26, a section of farmers deviated from the designated route and marched to Red Fort. For several days afterwards, sections of the media relentlessly replayed the visuals of a religious flag being unfurled at the Red Fort. Many farmers were rounded up and arrested, while the real culprits behind the flag incident were apprehended only much later.
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The SKM, the front that spearheads the protest, stated that no “untoward” incident had been reported from anywhere during the Bharat bandh and that the public had supported the call spontaneously. In Punjab alone, there were at least 500 locations where people stepped out to support the bandh. Shopkeepers in several States downed their shutters. According to the SKM, the bandh received full support in Kerala, Punjab, parts of Southern Assam, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, while it drew a good response in various parts of West Bengal, Manipur, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Odisha. In Jammu district, CPI(M) leader M.Y. Tarigami sat on a dharna along with several activists. In central Delhi, the central trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, staged protests.

At Ghazipur, on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, the Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait was seen chopping potatoes and rolling out pooris for the protesting farmers. “It is my duty to feed the farmers,” he said. Tikait told mediapersons that the bandh reflected the anxieties of people of all sections of society, and not just farmers. He said that a solution could only be arrived at through a process of dialogue and not through the “barrel of a gun”.

The Left parties jointly issued a statement exhorting the public to support the bandh. The statement read: “The Modi government continues to remain obdurate and is refusing to engage with the struggling farmers through talks. The Left parties, while condemning the obstinacy of the Modi government, demand that the agri-laws be repealed immediately, guaranteed MSP be implemented, scrapping of the National Monetisation Pipeline and the scrapping of the labour codes.”

The widespread support of political parties to the bandh was also unprecedented. Even though the farmers’ protests began in north and central India, large contingents from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala soon joined in at the protest sites on the borders of Delhi and at the kisan panchayats held across north India. Supporters from the southern States not only participated in the protests in north India but also helped mobilise support within their own States.

In Telangana, the Congress, the Left parties and the Telugu Desam held protests supporting the call. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted his support to the “non-violent” satyagraha of farmers. In an unprecedented move, leaders such as Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati issued statements in support of the bandh.

In Bihar, the constituents of the Mahagathbandhan held a meeting at the behest of the RJD and decided unanimously to participate in the bandh. In Punjab, despite the factional fights within the Congress, the newly appointed Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, declared his support to the bandh. In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government and the Social Democratic Party of India backed the call for bandh. The LDF convener A. Vijayaraghavan stated that five lakh people would participate, and that more than 100 unions of various fronts had backed the LDF’s call to support the bandh. The Congress-led United Democratic Front too backed the nationwide strike.

The BJP termed the bandh “anti-people”. Even in BJP-ruled States such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tripura, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, rallies were held and protests organised in support of the bandh. All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) office bearers Ashok Dhawale and Hannan Mollah stated that there were demonstrations in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency, as well as in Morena in Madhya Pradesh, represented by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar.

In western Uttar Pradesh, local youth leaders affiliated to the BKU held protests in villages and cities. “The success of the Muzaffarnagar kisan panchayat emboldened us. In several parts of western U.P., we were able to stage protests,” said Rajan Jawala, a young farmer-activist from Shamli district. Workers from almost all the opposition parties participated along with the farmers, peasants and agricultural workers’ unions. The message of broad political unity of the opposition on the farm laws was a major takeaway of the September 27 bandh. While the SKM had held similar bandhs before, it had not elicited the complete and open support of opposition parties. In a statement, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav said the Union government had “lost the moral right to govern”. Mayawati tweeted that the BSP supported the ten-month-long agitation.

A notable feature was the participation of women in large numbers at all the picket sites. They were seen squatting on railway tracks, highways, toll booths and taking part in rallies. According to Jagmati Sangwan, vice-president of the Haryana unit of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the participation of women throughout the last 10 months and on the day of the bandh has been exceptional. Jagmati Sangwan was among those who addressed farmers at the Muzaffarnagar panchayat on September 5.

Women’s participation

The breaking of gender barriers has been one of the biggest achievements of the farmers’ protests. She said: “What is notable is that in all the SKM programmes, women of all age groups have participated. During the bandh, there was hardly any front where women were not present.

They not only participated in the picketing but took the lead in organising protests in many places. For example, in Rohtak, we took joint delegations of men and women to appeal to college teachers and transport unions as well to support the bandh and we received an overwhelming response. In an office at the mechanical auto market, a woman volunteer waited for us along with her male colleagues, unfazed by the fact that she was the only woman present. For many of us involved in mass work, all this is very encouraging. The women farmers from Punjab who sit day and night at the borders of Delhi are a huge inspiration to all of us. In Haryana, when a Minister made obscene gestures at women supporting the protests, he was forced to apologise.”

It is significant that despite the farmer unions’ openness for dialogue, the Central government has been reluctant to resume talks with them. The obduracy of the Union government has only strengthened the resolve of the farmers to demand the complete repeal of the three farm laws and the Electricity Amendment Bill that was also passed by Parliament. Despite 11 rounds of talks, there has been little headway as the government has refused to budge on the main demand of repealing the laws. The last round of talks, held on January 22, ended in a stalemate. After the events of January 26, which gave the detractors of the SKM a handle to attack it, the government, too, has not made any overtures in the hope that the movement would peter out. On the contrary, the protests have only intensified despite the multipronged attacks on it. The farmers were dubbed Khalistanis, Naxalites and anti-nationals. Attempts to set local residents against the farmers at the protest sites also failed. On its part, the SKM claimed that more than 600 farmers had died since the protests began last year.
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On the day of the bandh, Narendra Tomar, who spoke at an event organised by the Agricultural College at Gwalior, urged the farmers not to politicise the issue and appealed to them to give up their agitation. Yet he gave little assurance on meeting them even halfway on their demands.

The recent announcements of marginal increments on the MSP of certain crops have also failed to break the ice. For the farmers, these overtures mean little in the absence of any legal guarantee, and neither do they meet the standards of the formula for MSP calculation set forth by the Swaminathan Commission. The stalemate is expected to continue and its repercussions are expected to reverberate in the next round of Assembly elections. One thing is certain—the farmers are in no mood to give up, especially after holding on for almost a year.

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