Chandigarh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal the contentious farm laws Friday is being seen by many as a historic victory for the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) — the umbrella body of farmers’ unions that had been leading the agitation against the legislations since they were passed in September last year.
Welcoming the Modi government’s decision, the SKM said they will wait for the announcement to take effect through parliamentary procedures. “If this happens, it will be a historic victory of the one-year-long farmers’ struggle in India,” said a statement issued by the SKM.
But what led to the withdrawal of the farm laws? ThePrint lists five factors that helped the SKM get its demands fulfilled. These include the movement’s leadership, perseverance, a strong resolve to keep the movement apolitical, and the mass support behind the protest.
The leaders of the SKM are being credited as the biggest reason for the success of the agitation. In June 2020, when the Modi government passed the ordinances that served as the laws’ predecessors, 32 farmers’ bodies joined hands to oppose them. The leaders of the organisations, although divided for years, united for a common cause and stuck together through the agitation.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU, Rajewal) and Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, who heads the BKU (Lakhowal), had been at loggerheads for decades, but were brought together by a team comprising Jagmohan Singh Patiala, who heads BKU (Dakaonda), and Dr Darshan Pal of the Krantikari Kisan Union (KKU). The BKU (Ugrahan), the largest farmers union in Punjab, did not join the 32 unions, but supported their programmes and calls for protest.
After agitating in Punjab for some months, the 32 unions decided to take their battle to the rest of India, under the aegis of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC). The AIKSCC included leaders like Yogendra Yadav and Rakesh Tikait, among others.
The SKM, with a nine-member core committee, was formed on 7 November last year following a meeting at the Rakab Ganj gurdwara in Delhi for the purpose to leading the agitation to Delhi. The nine core committee members were Rajewal, Dr Darshan Pal, Jagjit Singh Dallewal (BKU Sidhupur), Joginder Singh Ugrahan (BKU Ugrahan), Gurnam Singh Chaduni (BKU Haryana), Hanan Mollah (All India Kisan Sabha), Shiv Kumar Kakkaji (Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh), Yogendra Yadav (Swaraj India), Yudhvir Singh (BKU). The committee gave a call for a Delhi march on 26 November 2020.
The SKM leadership came into its own once the agitators reached the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders of Delhi on 26 November, which have since been the epicentres of the movement.
Rajewal, Darshan Pal and Yogendra Yadav gave the agitation direction, while Jagmohan Singh Patiala, Joginder Singh Ugrahan and Jagjit Singh Dallewal provided the core support, in terms of numbers. The BKU (Haryana) — led by Gurnam Singh Chaduni — and BKU (Kadian) led by Harmeet Singh Kadian brought in youth power to the movement..
A month into the agitation at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, the SKM was joined by the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, an organisation of landless labourers in Punjab. This proved to be a big boost to the agitation, which till then had been viewed as largely one by land owners.
Rakesh Tikait, a BKU leader from UP, proved to be a vital asset for the agitation and after the Republic Day march fiasco earlier this year, has been credited for singlehandedly rescuing the movement and putting it back on track.
Organisation and strategy
Every meeting of the SKM was chaired by leaders of different unions in rotation, and the leader of each meeting would later address the press.
Any leader who went beyond the planned programme and the established “code of conduct” of the movement was chastised, and, if needed, suspended. Yadav was suspended from the SKM for one month after he met the families of BJP workers killed in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.
According to the leaders, they tried to conduct themselves in a way that would act as an example to the other agitators. During meetings with the Modi government, representatives of the agitating farmers refused food offered by the Centre. They carried their own food and were seen sitting on the floor of the meeting venue while eating. The leaders did not leave the protest sites at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders. While some agitators chose to stay at the site, others lived in hotels nearby.
The makeshift stages erected at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur became the nerve centres of the agitation. There were Sikh prayers, followed by speeches by SKM leaders and other invitees. Hundreds of singers, artistes, advocates and religious leaders have graced these stages in the past year to keep the supporters motivated. Farmers, too, addressed the masses from these stages. On more than one occasion, leaders of the agitation were criticised by the farmers for what they saw as wrong decisions or missteps.
Videos from the daises were shared on the union’s social media handles and these proceedings suggest that all decisions taken by the leaders, including calls for special events, were shared with the supporters stationed at the borders, as were details of meetings with the government. The videos also show supporters being asked for direction and opinions, which were then discussed by the leaders.
Apolitical and non-violent
Even though many of the leaders had political affiliations, and some like Chaduni have even fought elections in the past, it was decided that no political leaders will be allowed on the stage at the Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur borders.
The decision was stuck to even when it seemed that the agitation might die down without active political support. Any politician who tried to even address the supporters from nearby stages were stopped.
Volunteers from among the supporters were put on rotational duty to manage proceedings on the stage and ensure that no political or radical speeches were made.
Last month, the leaders asked political parties to not hold huge rallies in Punjab ahead of the forthcoming elections, so as to not take away the focus from the agitation.
In July this year, Chaduni was suspended from the SKM for a week for suggesting that the farmers should fight the 2022 assembly elections.
The agitation was also largely non-violent. A group of volunteers was stationed to keep an eye out for any troublemakers entering the protest camps. Regular announcements were made from the stage by the leaders to the youth to stay calm and have patience.
Barring the Republic Day parade during which some farmers allegedly attacked the police personnel on duty at the Red Fort, there were no major reports of violence in the past one year.
Incidents like the alleged brutal killing of a Sikh youth at the Singhu border by Nihang Sikhs, after the victim tried to allegedly desecrate the Nihangs’ holy text, and the alleged gang rape of a woman activist at the Tikri border, however, affected the agitation negatively.
After the movement reached the Delhi borders and took on a national character, it received an overwhelming support from across the country. Punjabi NRIs too extended support to the movement. Apart from the huge financial help that poured in for the agitators, supporters provided logistics like langar (community kitchen), beds, tents, medicines and clothes for the protesters.
The maximum support came from Haryana and people from the state joined the agitation in full force. Haryana villages near the protest sites ensured an unbroken supply of milk and daily rations to the protesters.
NRIs in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK held rallies and road shows in support of the farmers agitation and the slogan “no farmers no food” became an international catchword for those supporting their cause. “Today’s victory would not have been possible had the people in India and NRIs not come out in open support of our agitation and we are most thankful to them,” said Rajewal Friday.
The agitation also got huge support from Punjabi singers and actors, a large section of Bollywood, sports stars and international celebrities like activist Greta Thunberg and pop star Rihanna, who spoke up in favour of the farmers.
The media team of the agitation played a major role in generating support on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Working with the tagline #tractortotwitter the social media team not only managed to spread information and generate awareness about their cause, but also countered campaigns launched against the farmers.
Among the many strategies deployed by the Government of India to contain the agitation, the main appeared to be wearing out the protesters. The movement has, however, lasted almost a year at the Delhi borders and the leaders had already announced a series of programmes to mark the completion of a year on 26 November. Despite the thinning of crowds at the border sites and many supporters losing patience and leaving, thousands continue to stay put at the borders.
Housed in makeshift tents, these supporters, including men, women and children, braved inclement weather, including extreme cold, heat and rains. The farmers perceived the agitation as a “life-and-death struggle”. They were convinced that the farm laws, if implemented, would wipe them out and they would lose their land, crops and income.
Farmers’ leaders claim that almost 700 farmers have lost their lives in the agitation. Some farmers even allegedly committed suicide in support of the cause, starting with the suicide of Sant Baba Ram Singh, who shot himself to death at the Singhu border in support of the farmers.
Speaking to ThePrint after the Prime Minister’s announcement, which came on the morning of Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary, Balbir Singh Rajewal, a senior SKM member, said the farmers “also want an assurance from the Government of India regarding the demand for statutory guarantee of remunerative prices for all agricultural produce or MSP for all farmers”.
“Also, the Prime Minister has not said anything on the nearly 700 farmers who have been martyred in this struggle,” he added.
In its statement, the SKM said the “central government’s obstinacy is responsible for these avoidable deaths, including the murders at Lakhimpur Kheri”.
The SKM will take note of all developments, hold a meeting soon and announce further decisions, the statement added.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)