Protesting farmers stay firm

Print edition : February 12, 2021

On the way to the protest at the Delhi-Meerut Expressway near Ghazipur border ahead of Republic Day, when farmers have decided to hold a kisan parade. Photo: MOORTHY R.V

At theTikri-Bahadurgarh protest site. The Supreme Court suggested that the older citizens, women and children could be sent back in view of the inclement weather, but women participants rejected it. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The eleventh round of talks with farmers’ leaders at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on January 22 which ended in a deadlock. Photo: PTI

The protesting farmers on Delhi’s borders rejected the Central government’s offer of suspension of the contentious laws and are determined to stay and fight until their objective is achieved even as the government seemed to harden its position.

When, on January 20, the Union government offered to suspend the implementation of the three farm laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—for one to one and a half years, there was a flicker of optimism of a “thaw” in the government’s position. After all, it was close to two months of the farmers’ protest at the borders of Delhi. But the thaw proved to be illusive.

Within 48 hours, the government’s attitude was back to square one. The 11th round of talks on January 22 ended in a deadlock. When the farmers rejected the offer, the government represented by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar reacted by stating that it had offered the “best deal” possible and that there were certain “forces” that did not want a solution.

The suspension could always be revoked, the farmers reasoned as they rejected the proposal. On the face of it, a suspension unless decreed by a court of law had little legal relevance. The government could not overturn Bills passed by Parliament and made into law. The laws, therefore, could only be repealed by Parliament, argued the farmers’ unions, notwithstanding the legislative competence of the Centre to enact such laws in the first place.

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

Meanwhile, in the course of hearing petitions for and against the farm laws and the ongoing farmer protests, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde granted an interim stay on the implementation of the laws. It appointed a four-member committee which itself became a talking point due to its curious composition. All four members of the committee, Ashok Gulati, agricultural economist; Pramod Joshi, agricultural scientist; Bhupinder Singh Mann, former Rajya Sabha member and national president Bharatiya Kisan Union (Mann); and Anil Ghanawat, president of the Shetkari Sangathana, were all known advocates of the farm laws. In fact, after B.S. Mann’s appointment drew flak from farmer organisations, he promptly resigned from the committee.

The farmers’ unions declared that they would have nothing to do with the Supreme Court committee as their disagreement was with the executive or the government. In an affidavit submitted to the court, the government held that the majority of farmers were “not only happy with the legislations but were finding these legislations to be progressive and in their interest as substantially they are having one more option than the existing option”. The affidavit did not clarify that the bulk of the farmers’ unions in the country were opposed to the farm laws.

As the farmers had already declared their intent to take out a peaceful kisan parade on the outer ring road of the capital on January 26, the government urged the Supreme Court to intervene, stating in its affidavit that the farmers had blocked roads. “With the impending Republic Day ceremony, any disruption or obstruction in the said functions would not only be against the law and order, public order, public interest, but would also be a huge embarrassment to the nation,” it stated in its affidavit. The Supreme Court declined to enter this debate and stuck to its position of the farmers’ right to protest and left it to the law and order agencies to deal with the issue of granting permission for the parade.

Also read: Farmers' struggle in India offers a lesson in resilience

At its own level, the Supreme Court sought to find a solution. It suggested that the older citizens, women and children could be sent back in view of the inclement weather conditions, a suggestion which was objected to by women’s organisations and women participants in the protest. Women, the groups said, formed the bulwark of agricultural work as producers and workers and had an equal stake and interest in the farm laws getting repealed.

Upbeat mood at protest sites

Meanwhile, life went on as usual at the protest sites. At about 9.30 a.m. at Pakauda chowk on the Bahadurgarh-Delhi stretch with the temperature probably less than ten degrees Celsius, bracing themselves for the chilly weather farmers from Punjab are getting ready to take on the day, marking what would be the 58th day of the protest. They know that on January 26, Republic Day, the Dilli Chalo call by farmers’ unions would complete a full two months. It is in this area of Bahadurgarh, not far from another bustling protest point at Tikri border, that members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) have pitched their tents and tractor-trolleys. Spread over a 25-30 kilometre stretch, the BKU (Ugrahan) is the front which has mobilised the largest number of farmers, owners of small and medium land holdings. This belies the claim of the protest comprising of “big rich farmers”.

All protest sites have a single central podium while some others have more than one. Gurpal Singh, a M.A. History student at Shri Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and Harjeet Singh manage a book stall and a lending library adjacent to the BKU (Ugrahan) stage. The bookstall has books ranging from popular romance to agriculture to revolutionary poetry. There were around seven or eight “podiums” earlier where daily meetings would be held. This was because the tractor-trolleys were spread out in all directions and messages needed to be coordinated and carried through. But now all meetings were held at one central point. Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president of the BKU (Ugrahan), told Frontline that there were perhaps close to two lakh people at all the protest points put together. “No one has done an inventory in that sense as more and more people are joining in. There could be more or slightly less but it is close to that,” he said.

Also read: Farmers in Punjab stand in for those involved in the Delhi agitation by fulfilling their farming roles

At all the protest sites, the day began with a thorough cleaning of the main assembling area where announcements and speeches were made. At the Bahadurgarh protest point, the “sabha”, or public meeting, timings were from 12 noon until 3.30 p.m., after which everyone had to disperse. The meetings were held mostly to make important announcements and to motivate the protesters with important dimensions of the farm laws and other subjects. At the Bahadurgarh protest site, women with bright yellow stoles (chunnis) signifying the colour of spring (called basant in the Hindi belt) occupied the front rows and listened to the speakers with deep concentration. The men sat at the far end or the flanks of the meeting area.

“The cold doesn’t bother us. Radd kara ke jawaange (we will scrap the laws and then only return home),” say septuagenarians Balbir Kaur and Gurbachan Kaur, unfazed by the weather and a little amused by the Supreme Court’s suggestion that women should head back. They said they have been at the protest camp for the last two months. “Sardar jo ghar mein rotiyaan khatey the, ab yahaan banaa rahein hain, aur assi kha rahein hain (the men who used to eat the rotis made by us back home are cooking here and now we are eating what they cook),” the women said smilingly. As if to prove what they were saying was right, Kulwinder Singh, a young farmer from Talwindi tehsil, displayed his open palms and said that he had indeed kneaded the dough and baked the rotis. He said his wife and son were also there at the protest.

The almost two-month-long peaceful farmers’ agitation has withstood the worst of the cold season but not without casualties. More than 130 persons have died, the latest to succumb to the cold was Rattan Singh, from Tole Shah village in Amritsar district, who died on January 23 at the Singhu border protest site after a severe bout of vomiting and diarrhoea. He was a member of the Kisan Sangharsh Mazdoor Committee (KSMC). “His body would be kept near our stage and sent home with full honors,” said Sarwan Singh Pandher, general secretary of the KSMC. The other casualty was 60-year-old Lakhwinder Singh, who fell ill at the Ghazipur protest site in the first week of January when the cold was at its peak and passed away within a fortnight.

Also read: The duplicity of the farm laws, or how they do not help farmers

The farmers appear determined to go ahead with the kisan parade. At the Shahjahanpur protest site on the Haryana-Rajasthan border on NH 49, farmers from Kerala, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh had joined in to sit on a relay hunger strike with their counterparts from Haryana and Rajasthan. Despite being un-acclimatised to the severe cold conditions, made worse with the exposed highway on either side, Kerala farmers Krishna Kumar from Kottayam district, Unni Ravi from Pathanamthitta, Vijish from Palakkad, Gokul from Kasargod, and Sharat from Kannur sat along with Bapuram from Dungarpur (Rajasthan), Champalal Jatrinayak and Dinakar Bhartiya from Lok Samgharsh Morcha, Maharashtra, to observe a 24-hour relay hunger strike, a regular feature at the Shahjahanpur protest site. The morale of the protesters has been kept high in myriad ways, including live performances by Kanwar Grewal, a hugely popular Punjabi singer and his team whose effortless and energetic songs on farmers and the farm laws have managed to strike a chord even among non-Punjabi speaking audiences.

Participation by women

Harinder Bindu is the president of the Mahila Kisan wing of the BKU (Ugrahan). Her father was a member of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, an organisation that was founded by Bhagat Singh. “My father was inspired by Bhagat Singh and his ideas as were many like him. He told me that it was as important to raise issues within the household as it was outside,” she told Frontline. Harinder began her political life by organising agricultural workers and later joined the BKU in 2002, the year of its formation. The same year women were encouraged to join the union and she played a leading role here. She said that normally it would have been a challenge mobilising women for the farmer protest and to convince them to stay on, but as the union had constantly raised issues pertaining to both women and men with the idea that struggles needed to be waged together, it was not difficult.

“We did big protests under the leadership of the BKU (Ugrahan) on loan waivers, land acquisition, bus fare hikes, farmer suicides, violence against women and so on. Women were an important part of these protests. All the Ugrahan leaders encouraged women to participate and take on leadership positions. Many of our women members have gone to jail also, spent many days inside,” she told Frontline. She said they fought for social reforms within the organisation, too, which gave women the confidence to join the union.

Study and struggle

Ajay Pal Natt is the founder of Trolley Times, a bi-weekly in Punjabi and Hindi which documents all the developments in the protest sites. There was an English translation available in the digital version. He said it was needed for disseminating news because of the dispersed nature of the tractor trolleys in the protest areas. “A group of us came together, found it feasible and found it was an instant hit. The mainstream media was also portraying the protests negatively. The protests are spread over 30 kilometres. There are disabled persons among the protesters. So it was important to reach out some reading material to them,” he told Frontline. The pull-out, he said, was sent to all the seven protest sites. He had also opened a library at the Tikri protest point and named it the Bhagat Singh Library. There was a chain of libraries in all the areas and an encouraging demand for books. “In the initial days, almost a hundred books were in circulation. Now it is close to 60. The protesters everywhere have almost become like permanent residents. All age groups come here and take their pick. There are entire families. We also needed to demolish the myth that the protesters are illiterate and ignorant. That is why we keep a record of all the books borrowed so that if anyone asks us about the quality of readership here, we can produce the evidence. There is a huge demand for literature, the translated writings of Bhagat Singh, Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Rasul Gamzatov’s My Dagestan,” he said.

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

At a distance of 8 km from the Bhagat Singh Library is Nanak Hut, a library managed by Mankiran Kaur, a former Event Manager, and Mannat, a student at the University of Toronto. Mankiran Kaur said she gave up her job as an Event Manager to help set up a library and an outlet for distributing essentials. Mannat, who has a double major in public policy and development studies, was to rejoin her university but got held back owing to the lockdown. The farmer protests, she said, inspired her and she joined Mankiran to help set up the library. Now both of them have become good friends.

Haryana, Punjab join hands

Sudhir Singh is a land-owing Jat from Jhajjar, Haryana. Alamgir Khan is a barber from Moga, Punjab, and so is former army man Daljeet Singh. Charanjeet Kaur and three other women are from Moga. Santosh and her husband, who is called “Dadda”, a term for the elderly, is from Jind, Haryana. All of them have one thing in common. They share one roof and the same meals. Sudhir Singh gets vegetables and ration every day from his village, which is not too far. He said he felt motivated seeing the large number of tractor-trolleys. “I have to help out,” he said. Alamgir Khan did not own land but he, like Sudhir Singh, felt motivated to join the protests. “What would I do in the village? So I came here and as I am a barber I do my bit,” he said. “Today the government is going after the farmer. Tomorrow it will go after the worker or the mazdoor,” said Charanjeet Kaur.

Kisan parade

There were no signs of fatigue on the faces of anyone sitting at the protest points. There was hope of some positive outcome, the form of which was unclear as of now. For many, taking part in the protests was a one-of-a-kind experience. The kisan parade on Republic Day was foremost on everyone’s mind amid some trepidation as well. For the farmer unions it would be a challenge as thus far, the protests were peaceful. Farmer leaders were taking the lead in issuing statements to maintain peace and order on January 26.

Also read: Political impact of the farmer unions’ Delhi siege and Modi government’s deceitful games

For instance, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, president of the BKU (Haryana), appealed to his constituents not to oppose any political leader at the January 26 commemoration in Haryana. However, he said they could oppose public meetings by politicians in support of farm laws on all other days. “When talks break down, there is no need to panic. We have told people that those who want to take part in the Delhi parade should reach Delhi by January 24. Those who cannot should take part in the tractor kisan parade in the districts where they are located. There are attempts to sabotage our peaceful movement. We have told our ‘area committees’ to be very vigilant. The farmers’ movement might not end with the parade on January 26 as the government does not want to relent. We will compel the government to take back the laws,” said Sarwan Singh Pandher, general secretary of the KSMC.

The outcome of the protests is uncertain, but there is little doubt that it has left an indelible imprint on the lives of all those who have participated in it at various levels. In the battle of perception, the government is viewed as uncaring, intransigent and egoistic, oblivious to the misery of the protesting farmers in the severe Delhi winter. It is an undeniable fact that farmers have died due to the cold and have also taken their lives protesting against the farm laws. Above all, the silence of the otherwise voluble Prime Minister has been baffling.