As several thousand farmers held hunger strikes and dharnas at Delhi’s border and across the country on Monday, demanding a repeal of the three recent agricultural marketing laws , the Centre continued to engage with individual elements in the farmers’ movement, in an effort to restart negotiations and broker a settlement.
The national convenor of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) , one of the farmer groups leading the protest, was evicted from his position after he expressed willingness to engage in separate talks with the government, focussing on demands for a minimum support price (MSP) law, rather than the repeal of all three contentious laws.
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Tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting on the borders of the national capital for 19 days now. Leaders of the movement held a day-long hunger strike from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal joined the fast in solidarity.
Dharnas, or sit-in protests were held across the country, with people coming out in 60% of districts, according to estimates from the AIKSCC.
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About a hundred farmers continued to hold a sit-in protest on the Haryana-Rajasthan border near Rewari, blocking traffic heading towards the capital on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway. The farmers, from Rajasthan and southern Haryana, wanted to travel to the capital to take part in the protests, but were stopped at the border by Haryana Police, who are now diverting traffic at five points before the protest site.
On the Uttar Pradesh border, protestors aligned with the Bharatiya Kisan Union-Tikait temporarily blocked the highway at Ghazipur.
“Farmers are being arrested, and their tractors and trolleys are being stopped. Farmers from Uttarakhand are also being held back in U.P. We will not tolerate this harassment,” BKU leader Rakesh Tikait later told journalists, threatening to completely seal the Ghazipur border. “State government should not interfere. Our fight is long, and our demands are with the Centre,” he added.
However, another farmer leader from U.P. and national convenor of the AIKSCC V.M. Singh seemed ready to engage with the Centre.
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Mr Singh said he was willing to leave aside the demand for repeal of the laws, if the Centre will bring in a law to guarantee MSP rates for all farm produce, from both public and private buyers. “These three laws will automatically become infructuous if the MSP guarantee law is passed. That was always our original demand. [Other organisations] are now changing the goalposts,” he told The Hindu .
Mr Singh was evicted from his position as AIKSCC national convenor on Sunday night for his stand.
The Centre has offered a written assurance that MSP will continue, but has so far refused to consider a legal guarantee.
“If the government invites us for talks, I am willing to negotiate on behalf of U.P. farmers... So far, we have supported the demand for repeal of the three laws, but we cannot support a deadlock. We cannot be so rigid,” added Mr. Singh.
Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, meanwhile, met groups of farmers who support the farm reforms , albeit with amendments.
Speaking to journalists after the meeting at Krishi Bhavan, Mr. Tomar said, “The government is ready for talks at any time. We wanted to have a clause-by-clause discussion on these laws. We are engaging with farmers. We have given our proposal to the farmers to let them study it. The farmer leaders have to decide and convey when they are ready for the next meeting.”
Haryana Deputy Chief Minister and Jannayak Janta Party leader Dushyant Chautala also urged farmer unions to take a step back on their demands, to end the stand-off in the larger interest of the farming community.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who has previously acted as a mediator with farm leaders including Mr. Singh and Mr. Tikait, also struck a conciliatory note.
“Agriculture has been one sector which has been able to avoid the adverse effects of the pandemic and, in fact, come out the best...There is no question of taking retrograde steps against our agricultural sector ever,” he said, addressing industry group FICCI. “The recent reforms have been undertaken with the best interests of India’s farmers in mind. We are, however, always willing to listen to our farmer brothers, alley their misgivings and provide them with assurances we can provide,” he added.
(with inputs from Ashok Kumar in Gurugram, Vikas Vasudeva in Chandigarh and Dinakar Peri in New Delhi)