TheBharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-UGRAHAN) of Ugrahan village in Sangrur district, Punjab has consistently taken up farmer issues as well as those affecting the landless peasantry and agricultural workers in Punjab. It has also rallied the most number of farmers at the protest sites in the borders of Delhi. It has an active women’s wing as well. Joginder Singh Ugrahan, who leads this faction of the BKU, is an army man turned full-time farmer union leader. Joginder Singh spoke to Frontline shortly before participating in the 11th round of talks with the government on January 22. Excerpts from the interview:
The government has been saying that the farmers are stubborn.
The laws are all wrong. In fact it is the government which is being totally stubborn and egoistic about the repeal. Why do we elect a government? It is for the people, no? Why be so egoistic then with people who are against the laws? Let the government convince us about the benefit of the laws. No one is convinced except the government. If people are convinced, the government can always go ahead.
We would like to know why the government did not discuss with us before it went ahead with the ordinances. Today the Supreme Court has stayed the laws. Even the government is ready to suspend the laws. This means there is something wrong with the laws. If the laws can be stayed, they can be repealed also. If the government can suspend the laws, it can also repeal them. So many people have died in the course of these protests. A death is reported almost every day. We have no wish to die like this on the streets.
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The government also argues that laws can be experimented with for some time and then called off if they do not work. The model proposed under the laws has not worked anywhere in the world. It is a failed idea. In the United States, too, farmers are reeling under huge debts. Back home in Bihar, it has failed. What more evidence does the government need? The government should not be stubborn but listen to what lakhs of people are saying against the farm laws.
The government says that there are many people supporting the laws.
Why doesn’t the government show us the massive support they have for the laws? Of the four people the Supreme Court appointed, one of them has resigned and another member is dithering. We would also like to meet these people who are supporting the laws.
Why do farmers’ unions reject the idea of a committee to discuss the repeal?
People are totally fed up with committees. They are seen as a strategy to either stall decisions or put inconvenient topics in cold storage. We suspect this is what will happen. Governments seldom implement what committees recommend, especially when the recommendations don’t suit them. We have seen how even the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee were not implemented. So what is the sanctity of any committee? Constituting committees and suspension (of the laws) is in the control of the government. The suspension can be revoked anytime.
‘Government rigid, unrelenting’
The government says it is open to talks and that farmers have to come up with proposals.
On the contrary, the government has not been prepared to budge an inch. They say the farmers are stubborn. The government’s position that it is open to talks is like a mother saying that she would do anything for her child, and then giving the child one rupee when the child asks for Rs.100. What is the point of such an assurance? This government is totally rigid and unrelenting, leaving little room for flexibility.
Are the notices sent by the National Investigation Agency a matter of concern?
They are bothersome. We raised this issue on two occasions with the government at the meeting and told them it was wrong to harass people who were supporting the protesters with rations, transport, medicines and so on. They said they were old cases under the NIA and if there were any new instances we could take it up with them.
The Haryana government has said that it had given many facilities to the protesting farmers.
Yes they did give us “facilities”. They dug up roads, put up barricades, placed huge boulders to prevent us from moving forward, teargassed and sprayed water cannons on farmers in the cold weather conditions. At Shahjahanpur, too, where farmers have gathered, the Haryana government welcomed them similarly with water cannons.
Why will the laws make the situation worse?
There is already a deep agricultural crisis. Now it has become a matter of survival, rotikasawaal (matter of daily bread). If public procurement goes down, the public distribution system (PDS) will get affected. According to the government’s estimates, 86 per cent people earn less than Rs.20 a day. So if the PDS goes, it will affect these sections.Everything—health, education—has become expensive. The laws are like a death warrant. That is why the movement has gained so much popular support. If you talk to any person in our protest, they will say that are not ready to go back without the repeal. No one wants to take their own lives. But if people are compelled to, they will. In such a situation how can we call off the agitation?
We encourage women to take on leadership positions. We consider them equals. We have worked very hard to ensure that nobody attends the meetings inebriated or under the influence of drugs. Due to such interventions, women feel confident about taking part in the protests in large numbers. As of now, there are 2,000 women who are participating in the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) Morcha. And even though we made separate arrangements for them, they insisted on sleeping in the trolleys under the same conditions like the others.
What is the significance of the yellow chunni (scarf) worn by the women protesters?
It is ‘basanti’, the colour of ‘basant’ [the spring] that our revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was known to be fond of. We try to follow his principles as well. Our flag also bears this colour.
It is not as if the conditions will improve if the farm laws are repealed.
Absolutely. The repeal in itself will not lead to any gains. But we stand to lose whatever little we have if the laws are implemented. ‘Roti se haath dhona padega’ (we have to wash our hands off the prospect of food).
The reality is that the public sector is being sold off; the number of salaried people has dwindled and each day the numbers among the educated unemployed are growing up. When the government says that there is a huge support for the laws, why is it not visible?
The government has clause-by-clause objections.
It is just a strategy to stretch the issue. The clause-by-clause will move on to word-by-word discussion. They will defend every letter of the farm laws using legal language. But the question is, why did they not discuss the language of the farm laws with the farmers earlier? When the government takes a decision, any decision, it should consult the stakeholders first. This post facto discussion of clause by clause is only diversionary. Today the government agrees that some amendments can be done.
This is the largest farmer protest since Independence.
Everyone understood what lay behind the farm laws. Despite the differences among the various farmer unions, many of whom never spoke to each other, have come together against the farm laws. Not only that, they are sitting together and raising slogans also in unison. Isn’t this visible to the government? Of course there were many attempts to break the unity of the unions but it did not work. Another significant thing is that no political party representative was allowed to come on the stage. Some of them tried to hijack the movement but we did not allow them. Isn’t this significant? Why does not the government see this? We have no objections if any political party objects to the laws and organise protests.
Agricultural workers are also rallying behind farmers against the farm laws.
The PDS question affects agricultural workers greatly. They know that the survival of the PDS depends on government grain stocks and this can only happen if there is government procurement. And government procurement can happen if there are government mandis. The agricultural workers have understood that if there is no government procurement, there will be no PDS.
What will happen if the laws are not repealed?
We have no other weapon but to protest daily. We are fariyaadis (complainants). We have come to the government with our fariyaad (complaint). It is up to them to either listen to us or ignore us.
You are attending the 11th round of talks later today. Are you still hopeful?
No one can stop us from hoping and dreaming that it (the repeal) will happen. That is our right, no?