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Farm laws repeal | A feel of victory, but fields of discontent

Farmers travel in tractors from Amritsar to the Singhu border to participate in protests on November 25, 2021.   | Photo Credit: R. V. MOORTHY

Gurmeet Singh, 73, stands tall at the edge of a concrete sidewalk at the Dhareri Jattan toll plaza in Punjab’s Patiala. It is November 23, a sunny winter day. Gurmeet, clad in the traditional kurta-pajama, cautions a group of farmers gathered around him. The Centre’s assurance that it will repeal the three controversial farm laws is only “a battle half won” for the farmers, he says. Gurmeet exhorts the farmers to continue with their agitation. They should not give up till they get an assured return for their crops, he stresses.

Gurmeet has been participating in the ‘pucca morcha’ (permanent protest) for over a year now and is determined to continue doing so as he believes that the Centre cannot be trusted. He alleges that a “political game on divisive lines” is being played ahead of the Assembly elections in Punjab, scheduled for 2022.

Farm laws repeal | A feel of victory, but fields of discontent
 

“Some (Bharatiya Janata Party) leaders say that for the sake of unity among different communities — mainly Hindus and Sikhs — the government announced the repeal of the farm laws,” Gurmeet says. “A narrative is being created that a wedge was being developed between communities during the agitation. This is totally false. This is an attempt by the BJP to polarise society before the elections. The truth is that the BJP realised that it would lose the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and in other States as it is not just farmers but other sections of society too that are anguished,” he says.

It has been a year since farmers — mostly in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — gathered at permanent protest sites, many of them at Delhi’s borders, to agitate against the three controversial farm laws passed by Parliament: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. They have been demanding that the laws be repealed. After the government’s attempts to convince the farmers about the benefits of the laws failed, on November 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised to the farmers and announced that the government would repeal the laws. The repeal bill is likely to be tabled soon in the winter session of Parliament. But the farmers are far from convinced about the government’s intentions. Many remain angry, suspicious, and determined to continue with their protest, especially in Punjab, which has emerged as the battleground of the resistance.

Distrust in the air

Gurmeet reiterates what the farmers have been claiming all along: that the government through the farm laws intended to “sell agriculture to the big corporates”. He says: “People from all sections of society have supported our struggle and have understood the government’s intention. The agitation is being led by people and not by leaders, which is what has made it a success. But let me tell you something: the farmers in Punjab and elsewhere will not forget the brute manner in which the Central government has treated us. Hundreds of farmers lost their lives during the agitation. People will not forget the atrocities of the government. Not just farmers; other people will also not forgive the BJP.”

 

Gurmeet says several attempts were made by some BJP leaders to malign the ongoing agitation by labelling the protesters as “Khalistanis” and “anti-national”. “All this was being done to discredit the movement. When nothing worked in the government’s favour, it began resorting to divide and rule. Its aim is to divert attention from the core issues of the farmers. The primary issue for us is that there is still no law on Minimum Support Price (MSP),” he says. MSP is the price at which the government promises, on paper, to procure agricultural produce from farmers. There are MSPs for 22 agricultural products, primarily grains, pulses and oil seeds, paddy and copra. According to studies, only a small number of farmers benefits from MSPs. Bringing in a law would force the government to procure all the produce that farmers want to sell at the MSP.

It is not just the branding of the farmers as “anti-national” by some, but the government’s stubbornness to keep the laws that has led to resentment. A participant in the protest, Amar Singh, says his anger against the BJP won’t go away easily. “I can’t forget the arrogance of the government. It’s only due to its arrogance that the government refused to repeal the farm laws earlier. And hundreds of farmers lost their lives during the one-year struggle. We will persist with our agitation until all our demands are met,” he says.

 

Another farmer, Gurnekh Singh, who has a three-acre farm, says the agitation can have a positive impact on electoral politics, which “will now revolve around farmers’ issues”. Besides the repeal of the farm laws, other demands will take centre stage, especially a law on MSP, he says. “I will only trust the BJP if all our demands are met in writing. Apart from the BJP, even other political parties will now have to seriously think about farmers’ interests — be it the ruling Congress in Punjab or the Shiromani Akali Dal or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I think the time has come for farmers to fight elections and work towards fulfilling their demands,” he says.

Surinder Pal Singh emphasises that the farmers have remained united throughout the struggle. “The entire world was fighting to save one another during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we were forced by the government’s inconsiderate attitude to fight on two fronts: one against COVID-19 and the other against the government for our demands. Eventually the government had to succumb to our demands and that happened only because people from different sections of society were supporting the struggle,” he says.

Surinder also thinks the BJP is arrogant. “Its leaders are not yet publicly ready to acknowledge the strength of the people’s movement. The Centre’s autocratic way of functioning has irked everyone. Now, the government is trying to give the agitation a religious or community-based colour by asserting that the repeal was done to preserve the ‘brotherhood’ of Punjab, which, according to the government, was under threat due to some anti-social elements. The truth is that the agitation has demonstrated how people of various religions, castes and creed are united.”

Ranjeet Singh, a local farmer leader, points to an important aspect of democracy that the movement has underlined. People, he says, have started questioning political leaders, seeking answers to various questions, and demanding discussions on issues that affect them. “We will continue to question leaders of political parties, be it the BJP, Congress, Akali Dal or the AAP in Punjab,” he says. “Apart from a law on MSP for crops, we also want the Central government to withdraw the amendments to the Electricity Act, which will only harm the agriculture sector and bring further financial distress to farmers,” Ranjeet says. The farmers will stay on the ground protesting until the other half of their battle is also won, they say.

The political fallout

The Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC), a prominent outfit at the forefront of the ongoing agitation, and the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), one of the largest farmer outfits in Punjab, believe that an attempt to play politics with the farmers’ agitation will only backfire. “The government underestimated the magnitude and impact of the agitation, but now ahead of the Assembly elections in various States, especially Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has sensed that the mood of the people is against it. And so, it decided to repeal the laws. Now, in an attempt to save face, the BJP-led government is trying to provide various reasons for the repeal. The repeal is a win for the farmers but the BJP wants to ensure that attention is diverted from its humiliating defeat. During the agitation, several BJP leaders in Punjab and Haryana had to face boycotts and the wrath of farmers on the ground. Now, the same leaders have to cut a sorry figure after the repeal,” says Sarwan Singh Pandher, general secretary of the KMSC. “The BJP is trying to divide communities with an eye on the elections, but the people of Punjab are wise. They can see through this game plan and will not fall for it. By propagating the ‘unity under threat’ message, the BJP is playing a political game to galvanise the support of its core voters,” he says.

Sukhdev Singh, general secretary of BKU(U), says it is the unity displayed during the agitation which has “defeated the government and exposed the BJP”. He says, “The government is hatching conspiracies to harm the interests of the farmers and derail the progress and prosperity of Punjab. The BJP’s attempt to polarise society will not work in Punjab. The party will not gain anything politically.”

A group of farmers in Amritsar get ready to leave for the protest sites along the Delhi border.

A group of farmers in Amritsar get ready to leave for the protest sites along the Delhi border.   | Photo Credit: RAKESH BABA BAKALA

 

Apart from being branded as “anti-national”, the farmers have been fighting another problem: fake social media accounts. These handles, found to be operating in a coordinated manner, have been actively defaming the farmers and promoting divisive narratives. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of farmer unions spearheading the ongoing farmers’ protests against the Centre’s farm laws, pointed out that these accounts have been suspended across social media platforms. “We are concerned about the divisive agenda being promoted in this manner, and urge citizens to be extra alert about this virtual strategy to pit citizens against each other. The BJP and its supporters have not hesitated to use various strategies to attack the peaceful movement, even as the government went out of its way to suspend and stop the accounts of supporters of the protesting farmers,” the SKM said in a statement.

Some hope for the BJP

But while many farmers remain angry in Punjab, some see the repeal of the farm laws as a welcome move that could help the BJP in the elections. The party is expected to join hands with former Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s new party, although an official declaration about seat-sharing is awaited. The only irritant in this potential alliance following Mr. Singh’s fallout with the Congress was the farmers’ agitation — Mr. Singh was insistent that the laws be repealed, while the BJP-led government was reluctant to do so.

Harnek Singh, 65, who runs a sweet shop at Barkatpur in Fatehgarh Sahib, says the decision by the Centre is welcome. “There is no reason why farmers should not trust the words of the Prime Minister,” he says. Farmer outfits had earlier announced that all legislators and leaders of the BJP, as well as those belonging to other political parties who support the laws, will not be allowed entry into villages for campaigning. In the past few months, there have been several instances, especially in Punjab and Haryana, of BJP leaders as well as leaders of the party’s alliance partners facing stiff resistance by farmer groups. “Now the BJP leaders will be able to visit villages for campaigning. This will eventually help the party in the Assembly election,” Harnek says.

In Patiala’s New Grain market, a prominent trading centre, dissent has given way to a more measured response. Harnek Singh, 57, who has come to sell his rice (basmati) crop from Majri village in Fatehgarh Sahib, is hopeful that BJP leaders will now have a chance in the electoral fight. “There is anger but the decision is welcome. If the BJP announces a few more decisions in the farmers’ interest, perhaps it can garner some support. Now, it can think of fighting the elections, which looked like a bleak possibility earlier in the wake of the boycott across the State, especially the rural areas,” he says.

While the debate over the political implications of the Prime Minister’s decision and the reasons behind it continues, political observers feel that there is still mistrust of the BJP, which will take time to change. Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhaghat Singh Chair Professor of Political Science at the Panjab University, says the withdrawal of the farm laws was received positively not only by the farmers but also by traders and landless agricultural labourers. “But at the same time, there is a general perception that the withdrawal is not going to make much difference as far as the farming communities are concerned,” he says. “There is also a common perception that the announcement of the repeal without the government holding any talks with representatives of the various farm unions shows a trust deficit on the part of the ruling regime. This may deeply impact the electoral prospects of the BJP in Punjab,” he says.

 

Pointing out that Punjab is known for its unique syncretic culture, Professor Ram says that the various religions, faiths, sects, beliefs, and diverse cultural traditions in the State are intermeshed so deeply that at times it is difficult to distinguish one from another. “The followers of these various faiths and belief systems resist being pigeon-holed into separate communities. Punjab has been a cradle of diversity. There is harmony among people of different cultures. Traders, primarily Hindus, and landless agricultural manual labourers (mainly Scheduled Castes) also said that these agricultural laws would have long-term negative implications for their business. They said these laws would badly affect their agro-based businesses, too. This is why agricultural commission agents and other traders as well as landless agricultural labourers stood in support of the farmers’ protest. Thus, the question of the alleged communal angle of the farmers’ agitation does not hold any ground,” he says.

“The farmer protest movement became a people’s movement in Punjab,” says Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh. “The divisive elements remained on the margins. When there has been no division, how can any party benefit from it? Peace and communal harmony continue to remain the mainstay of Punjabi society, which has again emerged strongly in the ongoing agitation. After the repeal of the laws, the urban and semi-urban population may in some constituencies go with the BJP,” he says.

Repealing of the farm laws | Talking Politics with Nistula Hebbar
 

The farmers, only partially pacified, are not willing to let go of their demands. All eyes are once again on the government now.


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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 6:21:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/farm-laws-repeal-a-feel-of-victory-but-fields-of-discontent/article37710334.ece

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