Agitation or Politics?
After many years India is witnessing the emergence of a farmers’ movement albeit not in the classical form of the earlier farmers’ movements or peasant movements of the seventies. Members of the farmers’ organisations headed for Delhi to lay a siege of the national capital and build pressure on the BJP-led Union government against what they consider as contentious provisions in the new central farm laws. The agitation has seen an estimated 200,000-300,000 farmers converging at various entry points to Delhi.
Protests against the central farm laws began in Punjab soon after they were passed by Parliament in September. Members of 31 farmer organisations of Punjab, which represent nearly one million farmers in the state, have been blocking highways and railway tracks passing through the state since September 22. These laws have, among other things, paved the way for farmers to sell their crops anywhere in the country—both within and outside APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) markets—and allows them to go for direct contracts with traders and food processors.
However, Punjab’s farmers, the biggest beneficiary of the Centre’s wheat and paddy procurement, fear that these laws will harm their interests. They fear that central agencies, such as the Food Corporation of India (FCI), might gradually scale down food procurement targets, and even PDS (Public Distribution System) allotments may eventually move to the direct benefit transfer system. PDS alone accounts for about 80 per cent of the FCI’s outflow, along with ‘right to food’, mid-day meals and other social schemes.
Anilesh K Mahajan says in his article on INDIATODAY that “around 85 per cent of Punjab’s yield coming to the market is procured by FCI. In the last Rabi and Kharif seasons, central procurement agencies bought grains worth Rs 54,000 crore from farmers in Punjab.” Farmers are insistent that procurement and purchase of their produce at MSP (Minimum Support Price) rates be made mandatory. The Union agriculture ministry does not find this a practical option.
Among the farmers’ demands are making purchase of all crops at MSP rates mandatory; setting up of special tribunals and courts for redressal of grievances instead of ‘consolation boards’ created under the local SDM (sub-divisional magistrate), with the local district collector as the appellate authority; and cheaper access to storage facilities. The central government has agreed to work on most of the demands and make them part of the rules—which will need Parliament’s approval—except that of making purchases on MSP rates mandatory.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tomar have clarified that FCI would continue to procure wheat and paddy from farmers in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states. The Centre’s argument is that the new laws will make even other crops, beyond wheat and paddy, more viable and make trading in them easier. But farmers’ groups in Punjab remain unconvinced.
There are various voices doing the rounds in this regard. The Centre has claimed that the new farm legislation will free farmers from the arhtiyas, but has failed to explain how it will prevent the farmers from being exploited by big corporates, who, as claimed by the farmers, been taking over one sector after the other under the current dispensation. The fight to retain the APMC, despite its shortcomings, is also a fight to extract a commitment from the government on maintaining state support to the agriculture sector. With government investment in agriculture declining in real terms, input costs rising and subsidy declining, farmers fear the withering away of their last instrument of state support of the MSP regime. Farmers’ anger is not just about restoring the primacy of the APMC mandis but also the manner in which these Bills were thrust upon them. Voices of dissent emanating from the farmers’ unions should have been heeded to by the government before hurriedly pushing these contentious Bills.
But there is another aspect of this scenario. For small and marginal farmers, higher MSP means costlier food in the market. The MSP tends to set the market price for foodgrains and almost all small and marginal farmers are net buyers of foodgrains. So, a regime that helps the “rich” farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh makes the daily lives of an average Indian farmer a little more miserable.
Still those protesting are from about 400 organisations of farmers. They have come together under an umbrella banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha. A number of these organisations have been politically aligned against the current central government. The presence of some leaders such as Gurnam Singh Chaduni, who contested Lok Sabha election in 2019 from Ladwa constituency in Haryana polling just over 1,300 votes, has become a blot on the agitation as Chaduni faces a few criminal cases.
There are many such names who are known for their hatred against the Prime Minister and also their anti- national viewpoints. In a nutshell, what Rajat Sharma says in his opinion page on INDIATV.COM is very apt. He says that “most of the farmer leaders from Punjab owe their allegiance to Left Parties, both moderate and extremist. There was a period in Punjab politics, when Communist leaders, including Harkishen Singh Surjit, used to hold sway over farmers’ outfits. However, presently, most of these farmer leaders have less to do with the interest of farmers and follow the political agenda of opposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm policies. At one point of time, these leftist farmer leaders used to condemn middlemen (adhatiyas) as bloodsuckers of farmers, but now they have included a large number of adhatiyas in their group to spearhead the farmers’ agitation.
When the new farm laws were enacted by Parliament, these Left leaders grabbed the chance to incite and instigate illiterate farmers and took control of the agitation. These leaders torpedoed every attempt by the government to establish channels of communication with the farmers. They succeeded in changing the direction of the farmers’ agitation, and recently, they came out in the open and made farmers chant slogans for release of anti-nation elements and pro-Naxalite leaders. The second the farmers came to know about the antecedents of ‘Tukde Tukde’ gang activists like Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid, and pro-Naxalite intellectuals like Varvara Rao and Gautam Navlakha, they threw away the posters, placards and banners.
But the most worrying aspect is that these anti-national elements and their supporters are still there within the ranks of farmers and are working in an organized manner. These elements have leanings towards Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists and Maoists who are engaged in insurrection. Intelligence agencies have cautioned that these elements may create unrest and violence taking advantage of the farmers’ agitation.”
Detractors of the demonstrations have drawn links between the protests to everything from the separatist movement for a Sikh state of Khalistan and the anti-citizenship law sit-in at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh earlier this year. These claims were instantly rubbished by the farmers’ groups who have staunchly maintained that their protest is apolitical and peaceful, rebuffing overtures from opposition parties.
“We reject this claim… No one can influence us. This is the government’s propaganda to defame us. All the decisions are taken by the Samyukt Kisan Union,” Raminder Singh Patiyal, president of one of the 32 demonstrating groups Kirti Kisan Sangathan, said.
Recently, the Haryana government told the Punjab and Haryana High Court in an affidavit that majority of the protesting outfits are “organisations with a history of indulging in criminal activities, creating law and order problems, and disturbing public peace and order”. In Punjab and Rajasthan, the farmers have received support from the ruling government. In Punjab, especially, government support has sustained the protest leading to blockades of railways and roadways.
Else, the farmers in Punjab may not have had much reason to protest at the beginning of a fresh cropping season. The Punjab government of Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh passed a resolution in state assembly pulling itself out from the ambit of the three farm bills passed by Parliament. Until this is reversed in Punjab Assembly, through a court ruling or by Parliament, the farmers of Punjab are shielded from the impact of the three farm laws of the Centre. Still, the farmers of Punjab are the most assertive in their protest. However, the longer the protest lingers on, the Congress may have to deal with a new leader. Agitations are known to throw up new leaders in politics.
Right now, Punjab politics is in a state of flux. The Congress is ruling in the state that will go to the polls in less than 18 months. It cannot afford to have an agitation-prone environment to top up the anti-incumbency especially when the State Economic Survey has identified unemployment rate among youth at 21 per cent — a major issue as they don’t align themselves with agriculture and are unable to tap respectable jobs.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is facing a crisis of credibility over its rather late reaction to the three farm laws that were in force as ordinances much before the bills were passed by Parliament. The resignation of SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur came a bit late in the wake of protests. This works well for the BJP, which has a low support base in Punjab and is eying to expand it. Then there is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that is eager to have a piece of power in Punjab.
Peasant movements have a long history in our country. Unlike the movements in British Period that targeted the establishment, all protests in the post-independent India have been related to farm issues such as fixing of output prices. But this protest is becoming ugly day-by-day. Congress and Communists are trying to revive its lost ground and trying to instigate the innocent farmers. While people beyond the territory are dreaming of an Imaginary Khalistan, let there be three Khalistan states. One in Canada, second in UK and third in Pakistan. We in India have enough sovereign states to be governed democratically.
By Nilabh Krishna