The Union government is not holding any informal talks with protesting farm unions, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told The Hindu on the sidelines of a press conference on February 3. “We will inform you when formal talks will be held,” he said.
Asked about the farm unions’ stance that they will not hold talks with the government until the barricades at the protest sites are removed and farmers in police custody released, the Minister said he did not want to comment on a law and order issue. “That is not my job,” he stated. He suggested that unions should talk to the Delhi Police Commissioner regarding such concerns instead.
After two months of protest on Delhi’s borders, and 11 rounds of negotiations, talks broke down when farm unions rejected the Centre’s proposal to stay the implementation of the three contentious farm laws for a year and a half while further dialogues were held to resolve the issue. At the last meeting between Central Ministers and farmer leaders on January 22, the unions held out for full repeal of the laws, but the Centre said it had no further concessions to offer.
Positions hardened still further after a section of protesting farmers deviated from the planned Republic Day tractor parade routes, clashing with police in various parts of the city and swarming over the ramparts of the Red Fort to hoist a religious flag and a union flag.
Since then, the Delhi Police and their Uttar Pradesh counterparts have evicted protesters from some smaller sites, installed multi-layer cement, metal and barbed wire barricades at the larger protest sites, dug trenches and laid spikes on approach roads, and deployed large numbers of security personnel in an unprecedented fortification of the capital’s border points. More than a hundred protesters have been arrested, cases filed against union leaders, and at least 29 protesters are still missing. Journalists have been denied access to protest sites, and Internet connectivity has been suspended, causing outrage both locally and globally.
On February 1, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a joint front of the farm unions, decided that talks will be held only “after the unconditional release of the farmers who are in illegal police custody... and police and administration harassment of different kinds against the farmers’ movement is immediately stopped”.
In the early days of the protest in November and December, several farm union heads engaged in informal, back channel conversations with multiple BJP leaders and Ministers, even before formal talks began. However, that pattern seems to have ended. Although the Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister have both said the government’s previous offer still stood and the doors were open for resumption of dialogue, unions said they have not received any direct outreach from the government post Republic Day.
Mr. Tomar confirmed this on Wednesday.
Asked whether the government was informally engaging with the unions, he said, “No. We will inform you when formal talks will be held.”