Chandigarh: The farmers’ agitation seems to be getting pulled into the vortex of politics ahead of the 2022 assembly elections in Punjab.
Farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the most prominent leaders of the agitation, has been accused by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) of projecting a clear “bias” against the party while “favouring” rivals in the run-up to the polls.
The affair blew up in the aftermath of a planned protest march by the SAD in Delhi on 17 September to mark the anniversary of the passage of the three farm laws that are at the heart of the ongoing farmers’ agitation.
At a press conference Monday, the SAD alleged that participants of the protest were “attacked and humiliated” by “hooligans” claiming to represent the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella body at the forefront of the farm laws agitation, comprising 32 farmer unions of Punjab and another half a dozen farmer bodies from outside the state.
Rajewal, who heads the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal), is a part of the SKM.
A day later, Rajewal held his own press conference where he lashed out at the SAD for holding the media briefing despite the SKM having identified and warned the miscreants, and accused the party of trying to defame the farmers’ movement.
He suggested the party, which split from former ally BJP last year over the farm laws, was working in cahoots with the central government.
Countering Rajewal’s outburst, senior Akali leaders said Rajewal was “angry” with them because they had denied him a ticket in the 2017 assembly elections, after which he declared support for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). They said Rajewal should “not indulge in politics” and “demean” the intent and purity of the agitation he is leading.
While Rajewal has denied bias against the SAD, farmer unions have disassociated themselves from his press conference.
“Rajewal’s press conference was not authorised by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha. It was done in his personal capacity as heading BKU Rajewal along with some unions from Doaba supporting him,” Buta Singh Burjgill, president of the BKU (Dakaunda), the largest of the 32 farmer unions, told ThePrint.
Farmers unions leading the agitation against the three farm laws have been claiming that they are completely apolitical, maintaining an equal distance from all political parties.
Asked about the other farmer unions disassociating themselves from his press conference, Rajewal told ThePrint that he was one of the most senior leaders of the agitation, adding that the presser was held by his organisation in collaboration with four other unions.
How it all began
The Akalis had planned a ‘Black Day’ protest march in Delhi on 17 September in support of the farmers’ agitation.
Thousands of SAD supporters, led by party president Sukhbir Singh Badal, gathered at the Rakab Ganj Gurdwara in Delhi for their scheduled march towards Parliament, but were stopped and Akali leaders courted arrest.
A day later, some videos surfaced on social media purportedly showing people claiming to be supporters of the farmers’ agitation misbehaving with Akali supporters while they were on their way to attend the march.
“Vehicles of our supporters were stopped and men and women manhandled. They were robbed of their money, mobile phones. Their beards were pulled and pagris desecrated. They were ridiculed for being supporters of the Akali Dal. They were told that they were attending the rally for liquor and money,” said senior SAD leader Dr Daljit Singh Cheema at the press conference Monday, demanding criminal action against the perpetrators.
The farmer unions said they had taken a serious note of the incidents immediately and called a meeting.
“Samyukta Kisan Morcha expresses deep regret at the unsavoury incidents… such misbehavior from any protesters is unacceptable and this is clearly going against the farmers’ movement… a warning has been issued against any such misbehaviour,” read a statement issued by the SKM Sunday.
‘Akalis most hated party’
At his press conference, Rajewal questioned the Akali’s media briefing.
“When we had settled the issue, identified the miscreants and warned them, what was the need to rake it up again?” he said, alleging that the Akalis were defaming the farmers’ movement.
“A lot of miscreants, including from agencies (intelligence) who claim to be our supporters, are always looking to create trouble and we try to keep them out,” he added.
Rajewal said the Akalis were being targeted by farmers because they were “hated everywhere”. “They have not been able to satisfy the people regarding the sacrilege incidents, and (they) support Sirsa dera chief baba Ram Rahim, that is why wherever they go people heckle them.”
The resignation of Akali leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Modi government last year, in protest over the farm laws, was “drama”, he added, hinting that the Akalis were hand in glove with the Centre.
“We (farmers) are not able to enter Delhi but here thousands were allowed to reach the Rakab Ganj Gurdwara. Which means they are all mixed up,” he said.
Rajewal then objected to the fact that the Akalis had brought thousands to the march. “We had suggested that only MLAs and MPs should give a dharna outside Parliament. Not bring in people. Moreover, not a single slogan was raised in favour of the farmers. All slogans were hailing the Akali leaders,” he said.
‘Rajewal hates us’
The Akalis hit back in yet another press conference later Tuesday.
“Rajewal is a respected farmers’ leader but he should not indulge in politics. We understand he is against us because we denied him the party ticket from Samrala in 2017 where he was our party’s halqa incharge (“a halqa incharge functions as a bridge between the electorate and the government”). Then he announced his support for AAP,” Cheema told ThePrint after the press conference.
“He should rise above such petty personal disgruntlement. If he wants to come into politics he should do it openly and then we will debate with him on a political platform.”
Cheema said Rajewal “has remained equally close to (SAD patron Parkash Singh) Badal saab, Captain Amarinder Singh (of Congress) and AAP but now it seems that other political parties are being favoured by him and we are being constantly attacked”.
“Why should a farmer leader object to our gathering crowds and taking them to Delhi for a march? Slogans were raised in favour of the farmers’ agitation, leaders courted arrest and still he is not happy,” said Cheema.
“If the miscreants had been identified by the kisan unions, why was no criminal action initiated against them. They should have at least been made to return the money and mobile phones that they robbed from our workers,” Cheema said.
Earlier in the day, during his presser, Rajewal had denied allegations of harbouring any bias against the Akalis. “The IT cell of the Akalis abuses me all the time, but I have not reacted. But showing videos of how their workers were handled by miscreants, they are trying to harm the movement,” said Rajewal.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rajewal refuted allegations that he was denied a ticket in 2017. He added that he held the press conference because he wanted to give a befitting reply to those were trying to damage the movement.
“I have already said what I had to say in the press conference. The Akalis are frustrated and they can keep saying whatever they have to. I am not bound to reply to them. It is a complete falsehood that I was denied a ticket from Samrala or that I was even their halqa incharge. If I had ever wanted to join politics, there were enough opportunities in my decades-old career but I did not take up any,” he said.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)