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Inside the third front of the farm agitation

Farmers at the kisan mahapanchayat at Shamli on 5 February. The government, it appears, is in no mood to relent. Yet, a sustained movement in the Hindi heartland might force a rethink.Premium
Farmers at the kisan mahapanchayat at Shamli on 5 February. The government, it appears, is in no mood to relent. Yet, a sustained movement in the Hindi heartland might force a rethink.

  • The sudden groundswell of support in western Uttar Pradesh could widen the protests. A ground report
  • While farmers in Punjab and Haryana fear a market takeover, farmers in western UP are angry because the government went back on its promise to pay sugarcane growers on time

SHAMLI/NEW DELHI : Andolan hamari majboori hai. To protest is our compulsion. That’s how 30-year-old Mohit Khatiyan, a farmer from Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh, began speaking. While walking toward a kisan mahapanchayat (a farmers’ meeting) in Bhainswal village, Khatiyan opened up about his hopes giving way to a sense of betrayal and expressed repentance about the communal violence that rocked the region some years ago.

Mind hijack ho gaya tha. Our minds were taken over. I had voted as a Hindu (in the last few elections). Next time, I will vote as a farmer," Khatiyan said firmly.

On a sunny morning on 5 February, Mohit Khatiyan’s sentiment matched those expressed by most farmers this reporter spoke to. It has been more than two months since hundreds of thousands of farmers reached Delhi’s borders demanding the repeal of three reform bills passed by Parliament last September. The agitation, which started with Punjab and Haryana, is now entrenching itself in the crucial cow-belt state of Uttar Pradesh.

“Farmers in Punjab are smart and were the first to realise. We were late, but we have arrived too," Khatiyan said.

At a village common ground, which was slightly larger than a football field, a steady stream of people kept pouring in to attend the mahapanchayat, even though the gathering was denied permission by the local administration.

The crowd treated the heavy deployment of police with nonchalance, whistling loudly and beating drums. A few even wanted to pose with policemen who sat on a bullock cart with the Indian national flag tied to a corner pole.

Some of the attendees carried long sugarcane sticks in hand— the main crop of farmers in the region. Many wore caps and waved the flag of a regional political party—Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)—which once reliably banked on the joint support of Muslims and Hindu Jat farmers, but faced a washout following communal riots in 2013.

By the time the meeting started, a crowd of over 15,000 had gathered. On stage, local Khap (community) leaders were having a hard time pacifying the noisy crowd.

As local political leaders canvassed for their party, someone on the stage reminded the speakers to stick to the farmers’ problems, which set off loud cheers from the audience.

“This government has ignored your needs, you too ignore them in the next elections," Jayant Chaudhary, former member of Parliament and national vice president of RLD advised the boisterous crowd.

At a far end of the crowd, bordering a narrow canal, stood Jitendra Malik, a farmer who came from a village some 25 km away. “Sarkar ko jhukna padega (the government has to bend)," Malik said. Then, referring to an ancient Indian epic, he added for emphasis: “The battle of Mahabharata was fought for the sake of five villages. This is no less and we will win this battle."

Malik described how he skipped dinner and left for Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on the night of 28 January after news trickled in that the state police were preparing to evict protesting farmers following the violence during a tractor march in the national capital which took place on Republic Day.

A teary-eyed Rakesh Tikait, a farmer leader from the neighbouring Muzaffarnagar district who was camping at Ghazipur, resisted the eviction attempt and said he will give up his life but not budge from the protest site. Thousands like Malik rushed to the site in no time.

By the next morning, the crowd at Ghazipur had swelled. And Ghazipur—till then overshadowed by larger protest sites at Singhu and Tikri on the Delhi-Haryana border—has assumed centre-stage ever since.

“After what happened that night, the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) will not find space to do rallies in these parts," Malik said. He also recalled how as a 19-year-old he had attended a historic farmers’ rally in Delhi’s Boat Club in 1988 under the leadership of Rakesh Tikait’s father, the legendary farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait. “The mood in the villages now is how it used to be 30 years back," Malik added.

The gathering storm

Tikait’s fervent appeal that night also prompted a string of kisan mahapanchayats in the Jat-populated farming belt of Muzaffarnagar, Mathura, Baghpat and Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. The Shamli meeting on Friday was the fifth in a row and was followed by similar shows of strength in parts of Haryana and Rajasthan.

“The events on the night of 28 January were a tipping point. Tikait’s tears gave expression to years of anguish rooted in economic miseries. It has forced the entire village ecosystem, and not just farmers, to come together in support," said Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University and a resident of Bhainswal village, the venue of Friday’s mahapanchayat in Shamli.

The groundswell of support in western Uttar Pradesh and a possible spill over into states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh may throw a spanner in the government’s persistent argument that the farmer’s agitation is limited to just Punjab and parts of Haryana.

So far, 11 rounds of meetings between the farmer unions and the government has failed to resolve the deadlock. Following the violence on the Republic Day, during which some protestors hoisted the Sikh religious flag at the historic Red Fort, the agitation faced an immediate pushback. Several union leaders have been named in FIRs by the police; over a hundred were arrested.

The fortification of protest sites with iron nails and concertina wires drew sharp criticism from international celebrities and activists. But the government, it appears, is in no mood to relent. On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to Parliament insisted that the laws will benefit small growers and castigated activists for living off the protests like parasites.

Yet, a sustained movement in the Hindi heartland states might force the government to rethink its position. In particular, western Uttar Pradesh is politically significant as the region accounts for about a fourth of all assembly constituencies in the state.

While farmers in Punjab and Haryana have kept politicians at bay at the protest sites, political parties like the RLD are playing a key role in Uttar Pradesh by mobilising their cadre and providing logistical support. The state goes to polls next year and could prove to be the first political test for the reform laws passed by the ruling BJP.

“It is a significant development that Jat leaders like Tikait are publicly saying they made a big mistake in 2013. But the political implications are not yet clear," said Nakul Singh Sawhney, a documentary filmmaker who has worked extensively in the region.“It will depend on whether other agrarian castes like Gujjars join the movement and how the opposition (Samajwadi Party) consolidates its support base by focusing on the kisan instead of caste identity."

Right now, everything is in a state of flux but one cannot discount the Jat consolidation in Uttar Pradesh underpinned by the role of Khaps that can have ripple effects in states like Rajasthan, said political commentator and senior journalist Neerja Chowdhury. “(Former Prime Minister) Charan Singh built his politics around the kisan identity which brought non-Congress governments to power in nine states in 1967. In Uttar Pradesh, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary is now trying to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps."

The failed promises

After the meeting at Shamli ended, a burly man in his mid-fifties pulled me aside to explain in minute details the reasons behind the growing discontent. Despite assurances from the Prime Minister that sugarcane growers would be paid within two weeks of supplying cane to mills, said Vinod Rana, the mills are yet to clear payments for the previous 2019-20 sugar season.

Overall, mills owe farmers in Uttar Pradesh around 11,000 crore in pending payments—including 1,100 crore dues from last year.

While farmers in Punjab and Haryana are opposed to the new laws because they fear a market takeover of their livelihood and a dilution of assured purchases at support prices, farmers in western Uttar Pradesh are angry because the government went back on its promise to pay sugarcane growers on time.

“This season, we are supplying cane to mills without even knowing the price we will receive (since the government is yet to announce the state-advised price)," Rana said. He added that cane prices have stayed at 2014 levels but farmers are paying more for inputs like diesel, electricity and fertilisers. For instance, for a 15 HP electricity connection, farmers are currently paying 27,000 per year compared to 12,000 in 2014.

“Is this how our incomes will double?" Rana asks, referring to the government’s promise of doubling farm incomes by 2022 (with 2015-16 as the base year) and pointed out that sugar mills owe him more than 350,000 (including 90,000 from the last season). “What you are seeing around is not just about the farm laws. This is about years of failed promises. I voted for the BJP in 2014, 2017 and 2019, but that is going to change now."

Unlike in Punjab, farmers here depend on the market to sell their paddy and wheat at prices lower than the government-announced minimum support prices. If farmers in Punjab are fighting to protect their gains from state support to agriculture, farmers in Uttar Pradesh, exposed to the vagaries of the market already, are asking for those very support systems to be put in place.

At the Kheda Gadai village, a short ride away from the Bhainswal, a group of farmers expressed their gratitude to farmers from Punjab for setting the stage to air their common grievances.

Referring to the recently passed contract farming law (among the three reform laws), they argued that growing sugarcane is essentially a contract between growers and sugar mills. “But every year, mills renege on the contract and pay us late. We do not get the interest that is due for late payments. So, how can we trust that the new law will be good for other crops?"

They also complained that most farmers from the village have to travel to Karnal in Haryana to sell their paddy and wheat in the absence of government purchase at support prices locally. “For every quintal of paddy and wheat, we lose between 200 to 400. What is the point of tall promises around MSP?"

In conclusion

Since 2013, communal tensions have dominated politics in the region. When asked how this could impact the agitation, given that there are state elections next year, Rana replied with an aphorism: “You cannot cook repeatedly in a wooden pot."

The perception of Muslim farmers is somewhat different. “It is true that Hindus and Muslims have come together in this agitation, but that does not mean that our relations have mended," said Zahid Malik, a farmer from Hasanpur Lohari village in Shamli. “It will take years to repair the ties that were snapped during the 2013 riots. Even today, at the mahapanchayats, we are not treated as equals. We may still end up voting together in the next elections but that is a compulsion and not a result of communal amity," Malik added. Most Hindu Jat farmers this reporter spoke to were ready to bury the past. They wanted to focus firmly on the current agitation. At the neighboring Gandhewada village, residents said that local workers of the ruling BJP are deserting the party. “I have been with the party since 2013 (following the riots). It took me some years to realise we are farmers first," said 35-year-old Yogesh Kuhar.

“This is a movement rooted in our emotions. What leaders say or do matter little now," he concluded.

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