Farmers' protest

Farmers dig their heels in at protest sites on Delhi's borders

Print edition : January 29, 2021

Tractory rally against the Central government’s agricultural laws, on Kundli–Manesar–Palwal (KMP) Expressway at Kundli in Haryana on January 7. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

A farmer leader displays a paper on which it is written in Punjabi ‘We will either die or win’, during the eighth round of talks with the Centre, in New Delhi on January 8. Photo: PTI

Women and children at Tikri protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border on January 9. Photo: PTI

At Singhu on the Delhi-Haryana border on January 5. Bitter cold has not diminished the protesters’ resolve. Photo: MONEY SHARMA/AFP

Despite several odds and the government refusing to budge, the protest against the farm laws is gaining momentum and the resolve among farmers is growing stronger.

“Why don’t you join the langar? Do not leave without having your meal. Ladai saari khaney ki hee to hai (The whole issue is about food and survival),” remarked a septuagenarian farmer presciently at the protest site at Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border as he urged this correspondent to eat even as he waited for his turn to sit at the community meal, or langar, that was being arranged. Hailing from Michaelganj in Lakhimpur Kheri district, Uttarakhand, he, like many others protesting for more than 40 days against the three farm laws which they feel would push farmers to the brink of penury, remains resolute in the fight. Standing nearby were Surender Kaur and Harpal Kaur helping with the cooking. Both women are residents of Delhi. “We heard that farmers are protesting here and we thought we should lend a hand. It is for a good cause and we will receive the Guru’s blessings and bounty,” they said in unison, wrapping up their work for the day at around 8 p.m.

Also read: How farmers' freedoms are at stake

Contrary to the Union government’s expectations that the farmers’ protest would peter out because of the bitter cold conditions, with each passing day fresh reinforcements have arrived to join the tractor-trolleys at the protest sites—Singhu, Palwal and Tikri on the Haryana-Delhi border; Shahjahanpur on the Rajasthan-Haryana border; and Ghazipur and Chilla on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. On January 8, a seventh protest site sprung up in Rewari, Haryana.

More unified than ever

Significantly, though the seven rounds of talks between farmers’ representatives and the government had not yielded much, the enthusiasm among the protesters had not flagged. The eighth round of talks on January 8 once again turned out to be inconclusive as the government refused to repeal the farm laws—the main demand put forth by the farmers—and instead put the ball in the farmers’ court, asking them to come up with an alternative. Predictably, the farmers rejected the proposal. And once again, all the organisations displayed greater unity and spoke in one voice.

As earlier, they got their own food and sat on the shiny cold floors of Vigyan Bhavan, the meeting venue, eating their lunch on disposable plates with remarkable dignity. In fact, some organisations, such as the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti, which had stayed away from the official discussions, joined in the seventh and eighth round of talks lest the government or anyone else got a handle to point out that the farmers were divided.

Also read: Farmers' resistance to farm laws hardens

While the main leaders of the movement might have had some differences in the past, they had all come together and had stuck with each other throughout the entire agitation. Some of them had got together ever since the government promulgated the ordinances in June and were part of the rail roko protests in Punjab in September-October. Significantly, many of the leaders are septuagenarians—Balbir Singh Rajewal, 77, (Bharatiya Kisan Union, or BKU, (Rajewal)); Dr Darshan Pal, 70, (Kisan Krantikaari Union); Gurnam Singh Chaduni, 70, (BKU Haryana); Jagmohan Singh, 65, (BKU Dakaunda); Satnam Singh Pannu, 65, (Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee); Joginder Singh Ugrahan, 75, (BKU Ekta-Ugrahan); Jagjit Singh Dallewal, 65, (BKU Dallewal); and Hannan Mollah, 75, (All India Kisan Sabha). Among the younger lot were Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India, Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and Rajinder Singh of the Kirti Kisan Union, who declared at a press conference: “No appeal, No daleel [arguments], Only repeal.”

‘Arhatiya, not our enemy’

Most farmers seemed irritated at the suggestion by the Ministers that they were unable to think for themselves and could be misled by vested political interests, Left activists and even by the commission agents or Arhatiyas. Frontline spoke to a cross section of farmers, young and old, at the Ghazipur protest site where the number of tents and tractor-trolleys had gone up severalfold since this correspondent last visited the site.

Said Kanwaljit Singh, who had come with other farmers Avtar Singh and Joginder Singh from Bilaspur in Uttar Pradesh: “The government is trying to defame us repeatedly. Our sugarcane dues have not been settled for over one and a half years now. We stopped growing sugarcane due to the delayed payments.” They say the Arhatiyas the government wants to save them from will reappear in the form of “aggregators” as described in the new farm laws.

Said Anant Ram from Shravasti district, Uttar Pradesh: “Wherever there is a trade, there will be middlemen. If a farmer has to sell his produce, he cannot do it directly to a consumer. It has to go through a middleman. Yes, we should be protected from exploitation, but that is not something the government is interested in. I sold my paddy for Rs.800 a quintal.” This when the government has fixed the minimum support price (MSP) for paddy at Rs.1,868 a quintal.

Also read: Long march to peasant unity

Anant Ram has ten acres of land which is fertile, but as the area is flood-prone and the roads are in bad shape, he has little option but to sell his produce to the local trader. The nearest Mandi is in Bahraich, 30 kilometres away, and he can ill afford the transportation costs.

He said if contract farming was legalised, it would hurt the agricultural labour, or mazdoor, the worst. Under the contract system in sugarcane, the farmers were bound to sell the cane to the sugar mill with which they have entered into a contract. Said Mehak Singh, general secretary of the BKU in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh: “The sugar mills do not clear our dues within 14 days as mandated by the Cane Act. When we approached the District Magistrate of Moradabad and asked him to book the sugar mills for delaying our payments, he replied that it was not a criminal offence.” Mehad Singh said the farm laws were made in the “drawing rooms” of the corporate class. Asked Navdeep Singh, a young farmer from Bilaspur in Uttar Pradesh: “When the new system did not benefit Bihar farmers, why should it benefit us?”

None of the farmers agree that the Arhatiya is the villain of the piece as is being portrayed. Said a farmer: “They are licensed commission agents and are appointed under the APMC [Agricultural Produce Market Committee] Act. If they are doing anything wrong, they can be pulled up. The system can be modernised if that is the concern. The farmers can at least reach out to the Arhatiyas. Under the new system, they won’t be able to do so. How will they contact the company if something goes wrong? Even in the dead of the night we can call on the Arhatiya as he is a local person with whom we have social ties. We don’t believe the Arhatiya is the enemy even though the government wants us to believe so. The Arhatiya may buy from us for say Rs.100 and sell it at Rs.101. He needs to survive too. Our relationship with the Arhatiya is like the connection between the nail and the skin beneath it. It is that tight.”

Sunil Kumar, an ex-service man who was present at the Ghazipur protest site, said the government was under the impression that the present-day farmer was as helpless as the characters described in the powerful writings of Premchand or as epitomised by Balraj Sahni in Bimal Roy’s classic movie Do Bigha Zameen. “These are farmers who belong to a legacy which was part of the freedom movement. The youngsters have inherited that spirit. They are not the helpless, miserable lot described in books of the pre-Independence era. They fully understand the implications of the farm laws because their experiences are lived through and not imagined,” he said. It is not for any reason that Bhagat Singh has re-emerged as an icon of defiance; the protest sites are rife with the legendary revolutionary’s image and writings displayed all over.

Also read: Political impact of farmers' Delhi siege

Navdeep Singh from Jind, Haryana, has a tea stall at the protest site. Piles of logs have been stacked up to be used as fuel for cooking meals and making tea which is served throughout the day. Sixty-three-year old Jarnail Singh, who helps at the tea stall, picked up an empty tea cup and pointing towards the inside said with a grin that the farmers will “clean up the system” just like the cup’s insides. “This is the first time I have come on a protest. We will ensure that they take back the black laws,” he said. The farm laws are described ubiquitously as kaaley kanoon (black laws).

Jitender Singh, a young farmer who has come from Pilibhit district in Uttarakhand, sits outside his trolley, resting his back on the concrete of a flyover at the site. The icy winds do not seem to bother him much. “It gets a little cramped inside the trolley as we share the sleeping space. It is uncomfortable in the open. But it is not as cold compared with Uttarakhand,” he said.

The level of organisation at each protest site and the tremendous amount of volunteerism and camaraderie is palpable and has an infectious quality to it. The relatively larger protest sites of Singhu and Tikri resemble small self-sufficient colonies with the tractor-trolleys serving as independent household units. As entire families have joined in, women and children in tow, and youngsters bustling about overseeing activities, the areas resemble a quasi habitation. Several local people, mostly migrants, were seen plying their wares, selling woollen wear and other home essentials at the protest sites. Sukhjit, a young engineer from one of the top institutions in Delhi, has volunteered to help the movement with his acquired skills. Said Sukhjit: “For some time now, the youth never got a chance to express themselves. This became the moment. There is all-round frustration with the way things are and this is one community that can’t be hustled into a corner. The government must have realised it by now that the Sikhs are ‘out of the syllabus’, not part of the standard playbook tactics used against minorities.”

He and several of his friends are regularly blogging on the issue. “We realised that the propaganda on social media and television had to be countered. It was getting too vicious. So the idea of the Kisan Ekta Morcha was floated. Some people tried to create a misunderstanding by saying that it was a splinter group opposed to the Samyukta Kisan Morcha but that was not so,” he said. The Kisan Ekta Morcha, a social media platform, became the springboard for the movement, relaying live the daily press conferences held at Singhu. “Within two weeks, we were everywhere, with our subscribers running into millions. It is a group of five volunteers who sit at Singhu and manage the social media for the movement. It was necessary to counter the nonsense that was being propagated,” he said.

‘The farmer has woken up’

The farmer has woken up, the volunteers say, after a long slumber and would now “save” the country and the government from its own self as well. The farmers thank the government for giving them a “jolt” in the form of the farm laws. “Shukriya, hum kisan so rahe the jab tum desh bech rahe the. Ab hum jaag gaye hain. Ab tumko bhi bachayenge aur khud bhi bachenge,” (We were dozing when you were selling the country. Now we are awake and we shall save not only ourselves but you as well), they say.

Also read: New farm laws as 'reform' by stealth

Sukhjit said no other community would have been able to withstand the pressure for so many days. “If Gujaratis are there all over the world, so are Punjabis and we stand by each other, come what may. We have the resources too and the spirit to fight back. Let us see what happens,” he remarked. He said that in Punjab and Haryana, petrol pumps were giving free fuel to the tractors that were heading towards Delhi to join in the protest.

Mukhtar Singh, who owns 14 acres of land in Pilibhit, said that if the government did not repeal the laws and the protest dragged on, he and others would bring their buffaloes too. “We might have to build pucca homes and maybe even a gurudwara and a waterbody in the coming days. We won’t die of the cold. There is everything here to keep us going. Farmers who own 25 acres of land are sleeping on the floor today,” he said. But he added that he was worried about his family members, the children especially.

Said Kultaar Singh, a young farmer from Western Uttar Pradesh: “The Sardars [Sikhs] are on top of the flyover; we are below it. Many of us head back home in the evenings but the Sardars stay on. It is much colder on top of the flyover.” Sikhs and their organisations have set up all the community kitchens that are open to all and where the fire keeps burning in the hearth all night.

A lot of youth are participating in the protests. A Naujawan Kisan Sahayata Kendra (a medical aid centre put up by youngsters calling themselves “youth farmers”) and a counter called “Nanak Di Hatti” provides medicines and other essentials such as blankets and basic toilet items free of cost. The legend goes that Guru Nanak was given Rs.20 by his father to start a business but the young Nanak donated half of that to the poor. Said 77-year-old Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal): “That spirit of Rs.20 is alive even today. The idea of the langar stems from that. Itni liberal koum hai (the Sikhs are such a liberal community).”

‘Corporates do not come for desh sewa but profit’

One of the most respected leaders of the movement, Rajewal heads one of the largest factions of the BKU in Punjab. Agriculture, he says, is not just any other occupation for people in Punjab and Haryana. An agriculturist himself, he is as fluent in English as he is in Punjabi and Hindi. “People in these two States do not know nothing other than agriculture. As many as 65 per cent of the farmers and 75 per cent agricultural labourers have studied up to the tenth class. Yet, they understand what these farm laws are all about, having experienced firsthand the consequences of failed experiments with contract farming in Punjab,” he told Frontline.

Also read: Agricultural reform or battering ram?

The agitation, he said, was unique in itself as nowhere in recent history had so many people gathered in such a peaceful manner. Said Rajewal: “People from all walks of life have supported us. They understand that changes in the Essential Commodities Act will affect everyone. The corporates do not come for desh sewa, they come for profit. In the United States too, corporates have taken 80 per cent of the land. But their government subsidises farmers heavily. For the Indian farmer, agriculture is not just a job; it is a way of life. Yet most of them do not even know how the Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices decides the MSP. Today the youth who has been called a druggie is cooking, cleaning, keeping guard and even managing traffic signal points. I feel that even if the laws are taken back, the kind of changes that this movement has unleashed is going to be irreversible.”

Rajewal recalls that he got a whiff of things to come in 2017 at a meeting in NITI Aayog. He said that at the meeting, the representatives of the corporate sector said they needed huge swathes of land in order to invest. Said Rajewal: “When my turn came to speak, I said in Punjab and Haryana land ownership was important. Social ties are based on land ownership. People give their daughters in marriage only to families that owned some land. It was a source of basic income. If land was going to be snatched from our people, I said, it would create a huge law and order problem. I then came across a CACP [Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices] report that said that the government should get out of procurement as storage and maintenance costs were going up. Then six months later, another report emerged that 8.5 per cent taxes were paid in Punjab and a lesser amount in Haryana. Then the Prime Minister’s Office sent a letter to the Punjab government asking that if the Centre helped the State in the Bhavantar scheme [Farmer Producer Organisations] and gave up procurement of wheat and paddy, would that be acceptable. The Punjab government refused. I then organised a seminar in Chandigarh in February 2020 inviting all political parties and farmers’ organisations warning them of the ordinances that were promulgated in June. I told Dallewal Sahab [Jagjit Singh Dallewal of BKU-Dallewal] that we have to do something now. That is how the momentum built towards what you are seeing today.”

Also read: Farmers' protests turn into a tidal wave of anger

The momentum is gaining. It is also unique that despite each round of talks concluding on expected lines with the government refusing to budge, the resolve among the protesting farmers are growing stronger with each day. A septuagenarian from Lakhimpur Kheri summed up the sentiment: “Jab Modi kanoon waapis karega, uske baad hee hum yahan se lautenge,” (When Modi withdraws the laws, then only we shall return to our homes).