Chandigarh: On Thursday, when thousands of agitating farmers made the Panipat toll plaza their abode for the night, on their way to Delhi, a local Congress leader sent a truckload of blankets to be distributed among them.
The farmers who were braving the cold night, many of them in wet clothes having faced water cannons on the journey to Panipat, rushed towards the truck. But within minutes, they began returning the blankets when it was announced that the blankets had been sent by a politician.
Faced with charges from the Narendra Modi government that their agitation has been instigated by the ruling Congress in Punjab, the conglomerate of 31 Kisan unions have assiduously tried to remain apolitical.
In September, when the unions came together under the common banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), they formally decided to keep politicians of all parties out of their “struggle”. The farmers were then protesting outside the residences of Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh in Patiala and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal at his village.
“It was decided that no leader of any political party will be allowed to speak from our stages. Politicians are looking at 2022 (assembly elections) but we are looking at our livelihood,” said Kulwant Singh Sandhu, general secretary, Jamhuri Kisan Sabha, Punjab, while talking to ThePrint. “We don’t need their support, rather they want to join our protest. But we have strictly banned that.”
Sunday, while announcing their decision to stay put at Delhi’s borders, the unions reiterated their September decision. “No politician can speak from our stage. Our stages (at the protest spots) will be conducted by a committee which will decide who will speak,” said Surjit Singh Phill, president BKU (Krantikari) addressing the press conference at the Singhu border.
While the protesting farmers are maintaining a “safe” distance from political parties for this movement, many of the unions leading them have their affiliation with left parties and some were erstwhile Akali and AAP supporters some support the far left ideology.
“Our individual leaders might have political affiliations but for this movement no political agenda is set. We are not doing all this for a political future,” added Kulwant Singh.
History of political affiliations
Gurnaam Singh Chaduni, the Bharat Kisan Union (BKU) Haryana president who united farmers in his state with those from Punjab, had contested as an independent candidate in the 2019 assembly elections from Ladwa. He lost, getting only about 1,300 votes. His BKU had earlier hobnobbed with the AAP ahead of the 2014 assembly elections.
Ajmer Singh Lakhowal, heading his BKU, was appointed the Mandi Board chief during the Akali Dal regime. Balbir Singh Rajewal heading his unit of BKU that is playing a prominent role in the current protest, was once considered close to Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sukhbir Badal but parted ways later.
“There is no BKU totally independent of political affiliations or sympathies,” said Bhupinder Singh Mann, a former prominent leader of BKU talking to ThePrint. His BKU, which has steered clear of this movement, has been an Amarinder supporter for decades. “Both Lakhowal and Rajewal emerged from my BKU. Out of Lakhowal’s BKU, factions with clear left orientations or open affiliations with CPI, CPM or CPI (ML) emerged. These unions stand with the left parties during elections and in 2022 you will see this movement’s impact on their performance,” he added.
Prof Harjeshwar Singh, a Punjab historian, says the current movement is “definitely political” but not aligned to any conventional party. “The movement is led by Kisan organisations, most of whom are not part of any political party but are far left groups such as the BKU (Ugrahan), the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, Kirti Kisan Union, BKU (Dakaunda) and others are of large scale farmers like BKU (Rajewal), BKU (Sidhupur) and BKU (Qadian),” he said.
Not so cosy with Congress
The ruling Congress in Punjab that otherwise would seem to be one with the kisan unions has, in fact, had a difficult time with them. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, though completely in support of their cause, has differed from the unions on some issues.
Amarinder first met the farmer bodies on 29 September promising to call a special session of the assembly to negate the impact of the three central farm laws.
But when the session was not called until 7 October, the unions issued a seven-day ultimatum for the session, failing which they threatened to launch protests against Congress leaders including the CM.
An upset chief minister reacted: “The unions’ threat to gherao my residence would not force me into taking any decision.” He, however, did announce the calling of the session within that week. It was only after the session that the unions acceded to the CM’s appeal and suspended the rail roko of goods trains on 23 October.
Amarinder’s constant encouragement to the unions to talk to central ministers, has in fact invited criticism that he is playing a “fixed match” with the Centre. On Saturday, he once again urged the agitating farmers to accept Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s offer of talks.
Akalis shunned too
Initially, the focus of the protesting farmers was against the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), seen as party to the passing of the three acts.
“After Harsimrat Badal’s resignation (from the union cabinet) and the subsequent breaking away of the Akalis from the BJP, they (SAD) thought this was their moment in the Sun. But there was a backlash,” said Kanwalpreet Kaur, a Chandigarh-based political scientist.
Last month, SAD chief Sukhbir Badal admitted that they had tried to join the farmer’s agitation but it led to a misunderstanding. “The unions thought we were trying to hijack the movement,” he said.
Sukhbir Saturday asked that Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee provide boarding and langar to farmers camping outside Delhi.
AAP kept at a distance
After several failed attempts to make the farmer’s cause their own, AAP state chief Bhagwant Mann announced on 22 November that party workers will join the farmers in the ‘Dilli Chalo’ march without their flag or banner.
“It’s only now when the farmers are camping outside Delhi that the AAP sees it as a fresh opportunity to make its presence felt,” said Dr Kanwalpreet.
After refusing permission to the Delhi Police to convert stadiums into jails to detain farmers, AAP MLA Raghav Chaddha Sunday lashed out at the Congress and BJP and came out in support of the protesting farmers.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.