Chandigarh: If there is one thing that can be said with utmost certainty about 75-year-old Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the former soldier who heads the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), it is that he has never followed the herd.
That was on display again last week.
Ugrahan’s BKU (Ugrahan), one of the most prominent farmer unions protesting in Delhi, sparked controversy by commemorating the International Human Rights Day on 10 December by holding up posters of detained activists such as Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Sudha Bhardwaj and Gautam Navlakha, among others.
Ugrahan also addressed the crowd, demanding the release of all civil society activists and intellectuals who are currently in jail.
It prompted an immediate response from the union cabinet with Railways Minister Piyush Goyal among those claiming that the beleaguered Left and “Maoist” elements had hijacked the agitation.
Ugrahan is also under attack from his own ilk, with the 31 other protesting farmer unions distancing themselves from him and claiming that he had “harmed the movement”.
But the farmer organisation remains unapologetic. “Whatever we did was a part of our protest in favour of the farmers, lakhs of who are supporting us. No trick of the government or corporate-owned media can divide us (farmer unions) or derail the agitation,” Sukhdev Singh Kokri, general secretary of BKU (Ugrahan), told ThePrint.
Too big to be ignored
During the two months of protest in Punjab against the central farm laws, before it reached Delhi, Ugrahan ran his own parallel agitation, with the 31 other unions trying to keep pace with his aggressive and sometimes extreme methods.
Ugrahan was among the last of the farmer union leaders to reach the Delhi borders on 28 November, and has been camping with thousands of his supporters at the Tikri border ever since — his organisation is manning a separate stage there. The 31 other unions, also leading several thousands of supporters, are gathered at the Singhu border site.
The Singhu border kisan unions include older ones such as the BKU (Rajewal), BKU (Lakhowal) and the relatively newer BKU (Dakaunda) but they cannot do without Ugrahan’s outlier organisation that commands a massive support base in the agriculture belt across Malwa and almost a blind following in at least 20 districts of South Punjab.
Refused to join other unions
When the protests against the three Central farm laws (then bills) began in Punjab in June this year, BKU (Ugrahan) refused to be a part of any joint forum or collaborate with other unions.
“BKU (Ugrahan) decided to retain its independence and have separate protest programmes but they coordinated their efforts with the 31 unions,” said Dr Darshan Pal, president of the Krantikari Kisan Union Punjab, one of the first organisations to join the protests.
BKU (Ugrahan) office-bearers were invited for the meetings of the 31 farmer union conglomerate while the agitation was being planned and executed in Punjab. “They would agree to some of our programmes, disagree with some and add their own as well,” added Pal.
Corporates & politicians on target
For instance, BKU (Ugrahan) started a six-day sit-in protest outside the residence of former chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, and outside Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s residence in Patiala in mid-September. The conglomerate of 31 unions, however, was not in favour of a six-day agitation and wanted it to be restricted to one.
The idea to launch protests outside malls, petrol pumps and silos of large corporate groups in Punjab came from Ugrahan and was adopted by the conglomerate.
While there was a difference of opinion between the Ugrahan group and the conglomerate regarding burning of effigies of senior BJP central leaders, the latter supported Ugrahan’s move to gherao Punjab BJP leaders outside their homes.
Same destination, different routes
When the conglomerate announced its ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest of 26-27 November, Ugrahan held a meeting of his office-bearers and decided that his union will march to Delhi from Rohtak side and not through GT Road, the path taken by the 31 groups.
Ugrahan’s supporters were stopped at Khanauri on the Punjab-Haryana border just as the supporters of the conglomerate were stopped at the Shambhu border near Ambala. While Ugrahan’s supporters decided to stay put at Khanauri, the youth leading the protest for the conglomerate decided to break through all the barriers and head towards Delhi.
“It was only when the news of our breaking barricades reached them that the Ugrahan group decided to break the barriers at the Khanauri border and reached the Tikri border,” said a farmer leader.
While the supporters of the conglomerate are gathered at the Singhu border, Ugrahan’s supporters are sitting at the Tikri border.
“For the Delhi Chalo programme, we formed a Sanyukt Kisan Morcha. Apart from 31 organisations, we got the support of members of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee and many other national kisan bodies. Ugrahan is not a part of this joint morcha,” said Darshan Pal.
At the Singhu border, the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha has a stage that is the epicentre of the protest and from where all the speeches and announcements are being made. A little ahead of this stage, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, another farmer body from Punjab that has a large membership of landless labourers, has its own stage. Like the BKU (Ugrahan), the committee is not part of the 31-union conglomerate.
At the Tikri border, Ugrahan has set up multiple stages spread across several kilometres. His organisation has complete control, deciding who gets on stage to address the crowd and on what issue. “There are many speakers who choose to address the crowds at both stages. And there are some who are exclusive to us or them,” Pal said. “The common agenda is the farmers’ agitation and we have no doubt that they are totally committed to it. But we have no control over who speaks on their stage.”