Patiala/Sangrur/Barnala: If Bollywood is to be believed, Punjab is in a constant state of balle balle. This was true on 19 and 20 November, as protesting farmers gathered at toll booths, petrol pumps and railway stations around Punjab erupted in joy after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the government’s decision to repeal the three contentious farm laws.
However, in speeches at toll gates, dialogue at chaupals, and discussions in drawing rooms, sentiment remained sternly against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Modi.
“Modi hasn’t done us any favour by repealing the laws. “Kisana ne Modi di te utte godda rakh ke karwaya hai (we’ve forced the government to repeal the laws by keeping our knees on Modi’s neck),” said Harjeet Kaur, a 38-year-old farmer based in Patiala. “If Modi thinks this repeal of laws will get the BJP to power, then they should get over this dream.”
Punjab is one of the states going to the polls early next year.
The two major reasons why the farmers’ anger hasn’t subsided includes the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, where four farmers were allegedly mowed down by a convoy of Union Minister of State Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish. Altogether eight people were killed in the incident and the ensuing violence, including two BJP workers, a journalist and a driver in the convoy.
The second reason is the alleged death of more than 700 farmers in the one year since they began their protests against the farm laws.
Patiala is the constituency and stronghold of former Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who has announced that he will be contesting the 2022 polls from the seat.
Amarinder is entering the election race as the head of his own party, floated this month after his less-than-cordial departure from the Congress, and the erstwhile royal had said earlier that he was open to an alliance with the BJP if it resolved the protesting farmers’ issues.
Villagers say if Captain and the BJP contest elections in a coalition, it won’t help either of them.
“Punjabis don’t forget easily. Many people have died in the agitation. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident has pained and affected us very deeply. We’re very angry. The mere repealing of laws will do nothing to make this sentiment abate,” Bhupinder Singh, a resident of Shankerpur village, said.
“It doesn’t matter if the BJP colludes with Captain Amarinder Singh. We don’t believe in the Captain either. He’d have supported the laws had we not erupted in protest,” added Bhupinder, who identified himself as the Patiala district president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), one of the organisations leading the agitation under the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) umbrella.
The farmers ThePrint spoke to said they’ll vote for the candidates supported by the SKM.
“We’ll either vote for a candidate from our unions, or follow their directions. Currently, I don’t like any of them,” said Sukhdev Singh, sarpanch of Ubbawal village in Sangrur district.
Farmers flag inflation, polarisation, unemployment
Sukhdev Singh sought to highlight rising prices, and said the farmers have been suffering.
“Diesel is extremely expensive and so is petrol. Both had crossed Rs 100 per litre. Onions can be sold to consumers for about Rs 110/kg, but we only get Rs 20-30 kg,” he added. “We’re only suffering, getting lesser rates but cultivating at a higher price.”
He called for minimum support price (MSP) to be made a guarantee for all crops, adding that this was among the hold-ups in the campaigns to tackle stubble burning — the burning of the residue left over after paddy harvest — as well as the dwindling groundwater levels in Punjab.
“Give us MSP on all crops like mustard, sunflower, nuts… We only get MSP on wheat and rice. Guarantee MSP on all crops, and then we won’t grow rice, then there will be no air pollution caused because of rice. It pains us to pump water out,” Sukhdev said.
There is also much resentment about the “derogatory names” lobbed at the agitation — including allegations of a “Khalistani agenda”, and the movement having been hijacked by “andolanjeevis who show pictures of those jailed for terrorism”.
Other issues cited are unemployment and the government’s failure to curb drug abuse among the youth.
“At the end of the day, both the BJP at the Centre and the Congress in the state have failed to produce jobs. They’ve failed to address the chitta (drug) problem. Our children are educated but unemployed,” Harjeet Kaur of Daun Kalan added.
Labourers have mixed views
In his speech on 19 November, PM Modi said the farm laws were introduced especially for the benefit of small farmers. In Barnala, ThePrint met small farmers and labourers who said the protest and the government both completely sidelined their interests.
Kala Singh, president of the Punjab Pradesh Palledar Mazdoor Union, a local labour union that also participated in the protest, said the “repeal of farm laws hasn’t helped us one bit”.
“They haven’t spoken about our issues at the movement at all. We should be paid fair wages. But all our problems have taken a backseat,” he added.
“Some zamindars have 15 kele (acres), some 10, some 100. We have only 1 kela at the most. We till our farms and to survive, we also work as labourers at bigger farms,” said 35-year-old Labbu Singh, a small farmer and labourer in Barnala. “We won’t get anything out of the laws being revoked. No party talks in our benefit,” he added, saying there’s fear that “zamindars will double down on them now that they’ve won”.
He said the death of Lakhbir Singh — the Dalit Sikh man who was lynched by Nihang Sikhs for alleged sacrilege — shows that farmer-labourer unity or “kisan-mazdoor ekta” is really just a “naara (slogan) and nothing more”.
However, Malkeet Kaur, a labourer in Rajinderpura Kothe, Barnala, felt differently, saying “zamindars’ victory is mazdoors’ victory”.
Due to the protests, she said, mazdoors have suffered from lack of work and have been driven to the verge of starvation.
“If farmers don’t get work, how will they pay us? We’re happy that the laws have been repealed by the government… It’s a blessing the protests are coming to an end.”
At Rajinderpura Kothe, all labourers and farmers ThePrint spoke to voiced their approval of Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, even though they said they were disappointed by the five years of Congress rule. Since Channi is Dalit, they added, he can empathise with the small farmer and labourer community.
A study by Punjabi University in Patiala concluded that the majority of farmers who died during the protests owned less than 3 acres of land.
Among them was 50-year-old Balvir Singh from Shankerpur village, who died of a heart attack on 18 May 2021 and is survived by two sons and his wife.
His 80-year-old mother Sona was ambivalent about the laws being scrapped.
She looked at his photograph, hanging on a wall of their one-room house. “Will the scrapping of laws bring my son back?” she asked, switching off the light in the room, throwing it into darkness.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)