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SKM facing factionalism, rebellions in unions. What it means for farmers’ movement

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda) is currently facing an internal rebellion. But SKM, the farmer coalition which includes the outfit, says it won’t affect the larger cause.      

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Chandigarh: Over a year after the Modi government withdrew its contentious farm laws, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the coalition of farmer unions that led protests against the legislations, continues to disintegrate.

This comes at a time when the SKM’s leadership is confident of shaping it up as the most prominent farmers’ body in India.

The latest development is an imminent split in the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda), a prominent part of the SKM, which is a coalition of 32 farmer unions from Punjab and a handful of others from states such as Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

On Tuesday, a rebel BKU (Ekta Dakaunda) faction led by senior vice-president Manjit Singh Dhaner “expelled” president Buta Singh Burjgill and general secretary Jagmohan Singh Patiala, accusing them of financial irregularities and acting in violation of the union’s interests.  

The “expulsion” occurred at a general body meeting called at a gurdwara in Bathinda after the rebel faction accused the two leaders of colluding with the central government during the 2020-21 agitation against the farm laws. 

In their place, the rebels declared Dhaner as president and Harnek Singh Mehma as general secretary. 

However, Burjgill has not only dismissed the allegations but has also claimed that Dhaner and six of his aides had already been expelled from the union last week, and, therefore, the meeting and the decisions taken in it were not valid.

He also said that he and Patiala continued to have the support of most of the union’s members. 

“Even if we assume that the gathering in Bathinda was the union’s general body, they have no right under our organisation’s constitution to remove the office bearers,” he told ThePrint. “For that, a special meeting of the designated delegates has to be convened.” 

Burjgill added that Dhaner and his faction were free to call their unit anything but BKU (Dakaunda). 

Days before its apparent split, the union had supported the Qaumi Insaaf Morcha, a group of sit-in protesters who have been demanding the release of ‘Bandi Singhs’ — Sikh prisoners arrested for various crimes during the days of militancy in Punjab and incarcerated for over 20 years. 

Since the rebellion, both Burjgill and Dhaner have asked their own factions to support the cause. 

This is the second such instance in the SKM in two weeks. Just last week, BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), a union led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan, one of the most influential farmer leaders in the state who commands a huge following in the Malwa region, split in two.

The BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) is one of the biggest farmer unions in the state. 

The split became official last week after its state vice-president Jaswinder Singh Longowal, who was expelled last month for anti-organisition activities, launched his own union — the BKU (Ekta Azad). 

Before it split, Ugrahan too extended support to the Qaumi Insaaf Morcha at Mohali.

While BKU Dakaunda was a prominent member of the SKM, Ugrahan supported the coalition from outside, powering it with supporters and resources.

Since the agitation ended, the SKM has seen several farm unions break away in its Punjab segment. But Darshan Pal, one of the members of the SKM’s core committee, told ThePrint that the latest crisis (in BKU Dakaunda) would have no impact on the functioning of the SKM.    

“After the Delhi morcha was lifted, there was a crisis in the SKM over the issue of Punjab elections. Leaders were divided over it. But SKM has not suffered much damage. As a body, it has only strengthened in the past years,” Darshan Pal, head of the Krantikari Kisan Union, who was instrumental in the creation of the SKM ahead of the Delhi agitation, told ThePrint.

He added: “The SKM is mobilising farmers across many states in India where we are holding gatherings and receiving a huge response. The splits in some organisations in Punjab don’t impact the SKM.”

Agricultural economist Sucha Singh Gill agrees. Punjab’s farmer unions have always been divided, he said, but that didn’t stop them from coming together when the time came.  

Also Read: Protests, lathicharge — why Punjab farmers are becoming increasingly disenchanted with AAP govt

It started with Chaduni 

Even before the latest development, SKM has seen its share of trouble, with the earliest rifts happening even while the protests were ongoing.  

The first splinter came with Gurnam Singh Chaduni, the head of BKU Haryana. While the leaders of SKM insisted on keeping the protests apolitical, Chaduni disagreed, insisting that public sentiment generated by the agitation must be channelised into a political movement. 

Although Chaduni’s rebellion led to his temporary suspension from the SKM, he remained undeterred. 

While the SKM’s protest was still ongoing at the Singhu border, Chaduni, with his eyes on the 2022 state assembly polls, launched a drive to mobilise political support across Punjab in August 2021.  

In December 2021 — just days after the central government announced it was withdrawing the laws — Chaduni came out in the open about his political ambitions with a political outfit — the Sanyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP). He declared that his outfit will field candidates in all assembly constituencies in the Punjab elections.

Political ambitions spread

Months after Chaduni’s declaration came another split in the SKM as 22 farmer unions from Punjab led by Balbir Singh Rajewal, the chief of BKU (Rajewal) and a core committee member, announced that they would contest the assembly elections.  

The party thus formed was called the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) and Rajewal was declared its chief ministerial candidate. 

But some Punjab farmer unions, such as BKU (Ekta Dakaunda), BKU (Ekta Sidhupur), and BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) rejected the move and both Rajewal and Chaduni were expelled from SKM’s core committee.

Meanwhile, Rajewal’s SSM joined hands with Chaduni’s SSP and fielded candidates on over 100 of the Punjab assembly’s 117 seats. But their political adventure turned out to be a failure — not only did the parties draw a blank but chief ministerial face Rajewal also lost his security deposit. 

Political debacle takes its toll 

Following the elections, the SKM stood clearly divided between those who had political ambitions and those who wanted to remain apolitical.  

After last year’s assembly elections, the two warring groups held separate meetings, refusing to share a common platform.

In early July, an attempt was made to unite the SKM. Ahead of the nationwide road blockades the coalition had announced to push for its pending demands, it reinducted 15 unions.

However, two core committee members, Jagjit Singh Dallewal of BKU (Ekta Sidhupur) and Shiv Kumar Kakkaji, a former leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s affiliate, Rashtriya Kisan Sangh, found this unacceptable. In August, they both broke away to form SKM (non-political), taking a strong stand against farmer leaders reaping the political benefits of the agitation. 

In September, another core member, Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India, too, resigned from the SKM coordination committee saying that he wanted to politically support the opposition.

Also Read: AAP govt gives nod, 17 of 54 cases filed against farmers for farm laws protest to be withdrawn

Two years on, no united programme

To this day, SKM remains a divided house, and the cracks were on full display last November when the coalition and various farmer unions organised programmes to mark two years of agitation on the borders of Delhi. 

Left with four core committee members, the original SKM announced rallies and marches to Raj Bhavans, or governor houses, in various states on 26 November to highlight their pending demands.

However, Rajewal and the five unions that continued to support him didn’t join this, instead planning a protest over Punjab’s acute water crisis — a programme it had to eventually postpone because it join the Zira Insaaf Morcha’s protests against an alcohol factory in Mansurwal village in Punjab’s Ferozepur district. 

“Now we have again postponed our agitation on account of the Qaumi Insaaf Morcha. We do not want to have a parallel protest on another issue at the same place,” Prem Singh Bhangu, who heads the All India Kisan Federation — one of the five organisations with Rajewal — told ThePrint.

Meanwhile, another former SKM leader, Dallewal, began a week-long fast on 19 November to protest Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann’s comments about farmer unions. However, none of the other SKM members supported him in his fast.

What next

“The Punjab unions were divided earlier also over local issues. But we brought them together,” SKM core committee member Darshan Pal told ThePrint. “Then we joined hands with farmer bodies of other states and formed a pan-India body, which fought the long hard battle on Delhi’s borders.”

The coalition, he said, was looking at bringing in more structural changes to prepare for another fight — one for its pending demands. 

“Last year we formed an 11-member draft committee to suggest a new structure and core guidelines. The draft committee gave its report and we adopted it during our last meeting on 9 February at Kurukshetra,” he said. 

“One of the nine suggestions given by the draft committee is the creation of a 31-member coordination committee of the SKM. Also, it has been made clear that SKM will remain to function apolitically. Any leader who participates in electoral politics will not be a part of SKM,” he said. 

Agricultural economist Gill said that although they are currently divided, the unions would come together when the time comes. 

“After the end of the Delhi agitation, they are going back to their normal state — ego issues among leaders and the lack of a common larger cause are the two main reasons the farmer unions remain in splinters in Punjab. Also charges of corruption and financial misunderstandings tend to fly a lot in these unions,” he told ThePrint.

“But I have no doubt that in case the need arises — and it may sooner than expected — these divided unions will come back together again for a common battle — not unlike what they did before” he added.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: I’m making public the Supreme Court panel report on farm laws. India needs to know the truth


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