Farm bills: Farmer unions in Punjab ask political parties to stay away from their protests

A farmer protests during the Kisan Mukti March, a farmers' rally, in Delhi in 2018. On 25 September 2020, around 30 farmer unions in Punjab called for a bandh to protest the farm bills. Ali Monis Naqvi
25 September, 2020

On 20 September, the Rajya Sabha passed two contentious bills related to the farm sector— the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill. On 22 September, it passed the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. The Lok Sabha had earlier passed these bills amid stiff opposition from farmers. The bills introduce changes in the way agricultural produce is stocked, marketed and sold. Farmers in Punjab have been opposing the bills since they were first introduced as ordinances in June. Farmers’ organisations say the new rules will lead to corporate monopoly and fear that it will end the current system built around a government-guaranteed minimum support price, or MSP.

Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of Bhartiya Kisan Union, a farmers’ organisation, told me that close to 30 farmer unions in Punjab have come under one banner and called for a bandh on 25 September in protest over the farm bills. Supporting the protests, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, another farmers’ organisation in Punjab, announced a “Rail Roko”—or stop the trains—agitation from 24 to 26 September. “Had these legislations been revolutionary in terms of benefits to farmers, then the farmers would not have left their fields unattended to protest in hot and sultry weather without any water or food on roads,” Rajewal said.

The dispute over these farm bills has led to a heated political debate in Punjab. On 17 September, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, resigned from the union cabinet in protest over the farm bills. Harsimrat was the union minister of food processing industries. SAD is one of the BJP’s oldest allies, and the two had jointly ruled Punjab between 2007 and 2017. However, SAD’s position on the farms bills shows that it has been struggling to choose between its ally and the rural vote bank of farmers in Punjab.

SAD’s initial stance was to support the farm ordinances. On 26 August, Narendra Singh Tomar, the minister of agriculture, wrote to Sukhbir Singh Badal, the SAD president, stressing that the ordinances were meant for “safeguarding the best interest of the farming community.” Tomar said that bills would have “no bearing” on the MSP, which would continue to co-exist with the new system. Soon after, Sukhbir reiterated Tomar’s statement in a virtual press conference, and defended the ordinances, emphasising that they were in the interest of farmers.

However, in the face of increasing anger among farmers, SAD began to change its stance the next month. In a statement on 12 September, Daljit Singh Cheema, the SAD’s spokesperson, said that in a core committee meeting, the party had decided to request the central government to address the concerns of farmers before bringing the ordinances in parliament. On 15 September, Badal spoke in parliament against the bills. Two days later, Harsimrat resigned from the cabinet. Subsequently, Sukhbir tweeted, “Akali Dal opposes all the three agriculture ordinances of the Central Government.” SAD also announced a chakka jam for three hours, on 25 September, in protest against the farm bills. A chakka jam is a blockade of transport as a form of protest. However, the party did not officially end its alliance with the BJP. The SAD currently has two members of parliament from Punjab in the Lok Sabha. It has 15 seats in the 117-strong Punjab assembly.  

The Congress, which is ruling the state, has been vehemently opposing the ordinances since they were introduced. It has also called out SAD’s U-turn on the issue. Sunil Jakhar, the chief of the Pradesh Congress Committee in Punjab, described Harsimrat’s resignation as a farce and said that SAD had half-heartedly criticised the bills. He claimed that SAD had earlier been trying to weaken the farmers’ protest movement by projecting a positive narrative on these bills to farmer unions.

In a press release, the Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh described Harsimrat decision to resign from the cabinet as theatrics and questioned why the SAD had not quit the ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition. He challenged Sukhbir to quit the BJP-led government to prove his party’s sincerity.

Amarinder said Harsimrat’s resignation was a gimmick to fool the farmers of Punjab, and was “too little, too late.” Amarinder further questioned why the SAD did not protest when the ordinances were first issued. “Did Sukhbir and Harsimrat and their coterie not see the damage the legislations would do to Punjab’s agriculture and economy all this time? Or were they so blinded by their greed for power that they deliberately chose to close their eyes to the danger posed by the ordinances?” he asked. He added that had SAD taken a stand earlier and supported his government against the ordinances, the current situation might not have come to pass.

Amarinder further stated that SAD’s decision to leave the cabinet was not motivated by any concern for farmers but to save their political careers and electoral vote-bank in Punjab, with an eye on the upcoming 2022 state assembly elections. He said it was the anger of the farmers and the pressure mounted by the state’s farmer organisations that compelled SAD to change its stance on the ordinances. On 20 September, Amarinder said his government will take the BJP and its allies to court over the “new unconstitutional, undemocratic and anti-farmer laws.”

The Aam Aadmi Party, which is the principal opposition party in Punjab, has also been protesting the farm bills. Harpal Singh Cheema, the leader of the opposition and a member of the legislative assembly from AAP, told me that the party had been directly and openly opposing these ordinances from the day they were introduced. He too accused the Badal family of double standards and pursuing an opportunistic policy. Singh said that AAP would protest against these “black laws” by forming human chains across Punjab. The AAP also announced that it supports the farmers’ strike on 25 September.

However, several farmers unions in Punjab are disillusioned with all mainstream political parties. Rajewal told me that they have asked all political parties to stay away from their protests. He said that during protests against the farm bills, the stage will not be offered to any political party. Rajewal added that the farmer wings of all political outfits have been kept at bay for the agitation. Rajewal continued, “All trade unions in Punjab have extended their support and solidarity for this bandh call. Our farmer workers are going shop to shop explaining the reasons behind the protest.” Zora Singh Nasrali, the state president of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, another farmers’ union, also said that they would not allow political parties to “take over” their demonstrations and project “false concerns for the farmers.”

On 18 September, shortly after the farm bills passed the Lok Sabha, Pritam Singh, a 62-year-old farmer died by suicide. His death points to the impact of the bills on farmers in the state. Pritam was a resident of Akkanwali village in Mansa district. “He was under immense stress because of the farm bills and had gone into depression,” Binder Singh, his nephew, told me. Binder said that Pritam had joined the protests being organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union since 15 September at Badal village, the native village of SAD president Sukhbir, in the Sri Muktsar Sahib district. Binder added that Pritam had consumed Celphos tablets in front of the Badal’s house. Celphos is an agricultural pesticide that can cause lethal poisoning when consumed. He recalled that Pritam kept repeating one question to himself and others—“Hun saada guzara kiwen hou”—How are we going to fend for ourselves now?

According to Binder, Pritam was the youngest of three brothers, of whom only the eldest got married due to the family’s grim financial conditions. “Both my uncle Pritam and another brother of his opted for staying single due to the limited agricultural land of six acres,” Binder said. “We have a big family of more than 15 people. Now, just imagine how could the land be divided and as such, we all stay together. He had sacrificed a lot while working relentlessly in the fields all these years.” Binder added that the family has a debt of nearly seventeen to eighteen lakh rupees.

In another example of farmers’ anger over the bills, BJP workers were forced to abandon a press conference in Sangrur city in the Sangrur district. I spoke to Bhupinder Singh Longowal, the state convener of the youth wing of the Kirti Kisan Union, a farmers’ group that opposed the press conference. He said that the BJP workers were holding the press conference in favour of the farm bills. Subsequently, the youth wing of the Kirti Kisan Union reached the spot and staged a heavy protest, forcing the BJP leaders to halt the press conference and leave the venue. “The BJP would not be allowed to spread any false propaganda to propagate lies before the farmers regarding the farm bills,” Longowal said he told the large gathering of farmers at Sangrur. He told me that the protesting farmers had decided that BJP workers and their programs would be boycotted and that they would not be allowed to enter any villages to disseminate “false information” and weaken the agitation.

However, according to the BJP, the farmers are being fed a false narrative on the farm bills. RS Shergill, the BJP’s Punjab media-in-charge claimed that 99 percent of farmers are unaware of what the bills contain. “Political parties for their cheap political gains are misleading farmers on MSP which actually is going to stay,” Shergill said.

Madan Mohan Mittal, a senior BJP leader in Punjab, further questioned SAD’s decision to resign from the cabinet. He said that all SAD’s concerns had been clarified. He added that the ordinances were discussed in a cabinet meeting before the parliament session. He noted that Tomar had written a letter to SAD stating that the current system of mandis, or market yards, would remain intact. “Despite all this, either because of the fear or pressure, they said they would resign,” Mittal said. “I guess they panicked because of dharnas”—protests—“in Badal village and took the decision to resign. Otherwise, there was no ground.” Referring to prime minister Narendra Modi, he continued, “Modi sahib has tweeted in Punjabi so that our people can read it that both mandis and MSP is going to stay.” Mittal added that if SAD wants to, it should go ahead and break the alliance, but the BJP is ready to fight the 2022 assembly elections along with SAD, with the party contesting on 59 of the 117 seats.