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

Protest against Zira liquor factory is yet another example of the growing rift between Mann government and farmers, who were the primary drivers of AAP’s landslide victory in March.

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Chandigarh: Less than a year after the Bhagwant Mann government came to power in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) honeymoon period with Punjab farmers appears to be over.

Believed to be one of the chief drivers of AAP’s landslide victory in Punjab this March, farmers in Punjab have been up in arms against the Mann government for various reasons in the past few months. The protesters claim they are completely disillusioned by the way the government has been tackling their problems. 

Punjab Agriculture Minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal Thursday issued a press statement listing the various “pro-farmers” decisions taken by the Mann government since they took over in March. At the press conference, Dhaliwal took great pains to explain how the government had brought in a minimum support price (MSP) for moong dal, given jobs to the next of kin of the farmers who died during the farmers’ agitation in 2020-2021, and reduced stubble burning in the state.

The statement appeared to be an attempt to mollify protesters at the Malbros International Limited in Mansurwal village in Zira tehsil, Ferozepur. Steered primarily by farmer unions, the protest entered its fifth month in December, with protesters demanding the closure of the Malbros factory they claim is responsible for polluting their soil, air, and groundwater. 

However, despite Dhaliwal’s statements, farmers remain unimpressed.    

“It is clear that there is a huge difference between what the AAP had promised and what they are finally delivering,” said Surjit Singh Phool, head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Krantikari), a farmers’ union that’s part of the ongoing Zira Sanjha Morcha agitation. 

BKU (Krantikari) isn’t the only union at the Zira protest — the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a coalition of several farmer unions that spearheaded the year-long protests against the now-repealed farm laws, is also part of it. 

Also Read: ‘All is well,’ Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann plays down tiff with Guv over Chandigarh SSP transfer

Why Punjab farmers are upset

The Malbros factory in Zira has remained closed since 24 July after villagers held a dharna outside its gates. 

The protests have also led to confrontations with the state government — for three consecutive days this month, protesters clashed with Punjab Police after there were attempts to have them forcibly removed from the protest site. 

After several protesters were booked and even detained following the clash, farmer unions swelled the ranks of the protesters, prompting police to lathicharge them. 

The Punjab government justified the lathicharge by saying that it was merely following Punjab and Haryana High Court’s orders to clear protesters from outside the factory gate.

Protesters, however, say they won’t budge until the factory is shut down. Punjabi singer Jagdeep Randhawa, who went to the Zira protest site Thursday, said he was once a supporter of Mann and the AAP but that he was “shocked” at how people of the state were now being “taken for a ride”

“AAP leaders were talking about real issues only when they were not in power. After they came to power, they are behaving like all other parties who have looted Punjab,” he said.

The police action isn’t the only issue upsetting the protesting farmers. They also accuse the Mann government of siding with the factory owner, liquor baron Deep Malhotra.

Malhotra, a former MLA of the Shiromani Akali Dal, is now considered to be close to AAP’S Delhi leadership. In October, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided two of his premises in Punjab as part of its ongoing investigation into the Delhi excise policy scam.

What seems to trouble the protesters most is the speed at which the Punjab government abided by the HC’s orders after it was fined Rs 20 crore for the losses claimed by the factory over the protests.

“What was the tearing hurry to pay compensation to a liquor factory?” Phool asked Thursday. “Farmers have to protest for months to get compensation for damaged crops. No move has been made by the government to challenge the fine imposed by the court. It almost seems that they are happy to compensate the liquor baron while trying to forcibly remove us from the site.”

Growing rift

In November 2020, when farmers held protests on the borders of Delhi, AAP was among several opposition parties extending their support.

In December 2020, along with AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh, Mann, then an MP from Sangrur, protested the farm laws in Parliament and called farmers “ann daattas” (providers of food).  

While speaking to the media the same month, Mann said the AAP would file suits against BJP leaders “defaming” the farmers protesting in Delhi. 

In 2021, AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal had even passed a resolution in the Delhi Assembly against the farm laws.

But, the past few months have seen a growing rift between Punjab’s farmers and the AAP. 

The first confrontation took place on 29 March — days after the AAP government was elected to power. 

Seven farmers were wounded in a police lathicharge in Lambi, Muktsar, when BKU (Ugrahan) — the largest farmer union in the state — was holding protests demanding compensation for damaged cotton crops.

On 9 October, BKU (Ugrahan) once again sat on a protest outside Mann’s house in Sangrur. The protest lasted three weeks and ended only when farmers were given a written assurance that their demands for compensation would be met. 

At that time, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the head of BKU (Ugrahan), said that there would have been no need for the protest if Mann had kept the promise he made to them during their meeting on 7 October.

Then, in the first week of November, hundreds of farmers belonging to the Sanjha Mazdoor Morcha — a conglomerate of farm labour unions — were lathicharged when they were protesting outside Mann’s Sangrur residence. 

While farm labourers were demanding a hike in their daily wages, Mann was campaigning with Kejriwal in Gujarat ahead of the assembly elections. 

Later the same month, Jagjit Singh Dallewal, head of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (non-political), sat on a week-long fast to protest against what he said was Mann’s attempt at defaming farmers. The dharna came after Mann held a press conference accusing farmer unions of holding “paid protests almost as if they had laid out a schedule of protests among themselves”. 

To farmers who feel cheated by the AAP government, Mann’s response to the protests has been less than satisfactory. 

When confronted with anti-government slogans near the Chandigarh-Mohali border in May this year, Mann said the protests, held to demand a bonus on that season’s wheat yield,  were “undesirable and unwarranted”.  

While farmer unions said Mann, having first agreed to meet them, cancelled the meeting at the last minute, Mann asked if “raising murdabad slogans is the way to hold a meeting”. 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Violence is returning to Punjab and India can’t afford it. AAP can’t forget poll promise


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