One week in Haryana’s Sirsa district convinced me that the farmers’ movement is resurrecting itself. Just as police firing on farmers in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur in June 2017 led to a sudden eruption of the movement, the three recent farm laws of the Narendra Modi government have triggered the second phase of the movement after it was suddenly extinguished in 2019.
I was in Sirsa to participate in a ‘pakka morcha’ announced by the local farmers’ organisations. About 15,000-20,000 farmers gathered on 6 October in a rally to demand the resignation of Haryana’s Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala and Electricity Minister Ranjit Singh. The farmers asked both of them to choose between “kursi” (power) or “kisan” (farmers) on the issue of the farm Bills that were passed by Parliament during the monsoon session and received President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent on 27 September.
The farmers’ demand was a politically astute move: both Dushyant and Ranjit come from Devi Lal’s clan. Just as the Badal family in Punjab, with which they enjoy close family ties, the brand equity of this family is its positioning as farmers’ representatives. Their ancestral village, Chautala, is located in Sirsa, although Dushyant contested and won the 2019 Haryana assembly election from Uchana Kalan in Jind district. The seat of the family’s power, Chautala House, a mansion secured by a 10-feet granite wall, is also located in Sirsa town.
As soon as the rally ended, thousands of farmers started walking towards this mansion. They were stopped at the police barricade, followed by water cannon and tear gas. Yet, the farmers came back to resume the sit-in, their pakka morcha. Forcible eviction and detention of protesting farmers next morning led to spontaneous blockade of National Highway by the farmers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government capitulated and unconditionally released all farm activists, including this columnist. Since then, this 24×7 sit-in has continued in Sirsa, unfazed by bad weather and the harvesting season, not to mention the coronavirus pandemic. Attempts to capture or split the movement have been foiled by the farmers.
Protests not confined to Punjab
The first message is that the protest is spreading beyond Punjab. To be fair, Sirsa is on the border of Punjab and most likely to catch its mood. True, the movement is stronger in the Punjabi-speaking belt in this area than in the Bagari-speaking belt. Yet, the signs of popular acceptance are quite unmistakable.
Farmers are arriving at the dharna site with their tractors and trolleys, with their bedding and essentials, at their own expense. There is a spontaneous collection of funds. A young girl broke her gullak to give Rs 2,800 to the morcha. Haryanvi singers are beginning to follow the lead given by Punjabi artists in supporting the farmers’movement. And after a long time, I saw a significant presence of the youth in a farm movement. These are mostly educated young men, some of them with Masters or engineering degrees.
This may not be the situation elsewhere. But the protest during the day-long Bharat Bandh on 25 September showed the potential of the movement. The media reported protests mainly in Punjab and Haryana. But we at the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) received reports of protests from 20 states, including 300 locations in Tamil Nadu. Farmers of Karnataka observed the bandh not just on 25 but also on 28 September. Protests in these states are nowhere close to Punjab, but there is potential support that can deepen anytime.
Farmers across the board are united
Second, there is near unanimity among farmers’ organisations in opposing the three legislations. In Sirsa, I witnessed the relatively well-off farmers’ union speak the same language as the Left-oriented farm workers’ unions and the opposition parties. Local leaders who opposed the pakka morcha and appealed to the farmers not to join it began their speech by denouncing the three farm legislations. This is a fair reflection of what is happening all over India.
As yet I have not come across a single mass-based farmers’ organisation that has supported the Modi government on this issue. The AIKSCC and other umbrella organisations and alliances of farmers’ organisations, including many who don’t speak to one another, have all opposed these laws in one voice.
Ideologically, the test case would be Shetkari Sanghatana, because these Acts may be seen in line with what its founder Sharad Joshi had demanded. While some of Sharad Joshi’s ideological followers have supported the Modi government, the only mass-based legatee of Sharad Joshi, Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana led by Raju Shetti, had also burnt a copy of the Bill. Politically, the test case is the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Mahendra Singh Tikait’s sons, known to be close to the BJP of late. They too have opposed the three Acts. Even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, affiliated to the RSS, has come out openly against the government on the issue of minimum support price (MSP). I cannot think of any other issue in recent times that united the entire spectrum of farmers’ organisations.
Without media’s help
My third lesson was about the media. Big media has carefully downplayed the farmers’ protest, when not dismissing it altogether. Farmers’ protest is not in TV headlines nor on the front pages of the newspapers. Yet, this cannot block the news flow to the farmers, thanks to the rise of the new social media.
It’s not just private WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts. In Sirsa alone, there are at least a dozen local channels that use YouTube and Facebook platforms, whose combined reach outstrips the national media in the region. They compete fiercely to put out information first, to be outspoken and get scoops. They are the principal source of news for the young smartphone-carrying farmers of Sirsa. Just to give you an example, one of my speeches broadcast live by one of these local channels has had 16 lakh views so far. The combined circulation of all the newspapers in the district is around two lakh.
Yes, govt is nervous
Finally, I learnt in Sirsa that notwithstanding grandstanding, the Modi government is nervous about this issue. When the farmers announced their protest, Dushyant Chautala had said he would welcome them at his house. But a day before the rally, he suddenly left for Chandigarh. On the day of the rally, he announced that he had tested Covid positive, though non-symptomatic.
The attention that the local administration paid to foil and divide the farmers’ movement was unusual, to put it mildly. The Deputy Superintendent of Police who detained us was receiving minute-by-minute instructions directly from Chandigarh. The Haryana government has put all its ministers and MLAs on a propaganda mission to convince the farmers about the virtue of these laws. Many of them have been boycotted, shown black flags. The BJP’s attempt to organise a tractor rally to support these legislations ended up in a rent-a-crowd exposé because most of these “farmers” turned out to be workers from Bihar and Bengal.
This is happening all over India: the government is trying to reach out, privately and publicly, to all farmer activists, asking them to suggest a way out. Farmers’ organisations are in no mood to oblige.
Harvesting season is about to end in Haryana. Sowing of winter crops would follow it. By Diwali, farmers of northwest India would be relatively free. This is traditionally the season of farmers’ protest. Sirsa taught me that this could be a winter of discontent.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.