Going by the demands of its cadres, compromise is out of the question for farmer leaders

Farmer-union leaders arrive for their fifth meeting with the central government on ongoing kisan agitation on 5 December, at the Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi. The meeting ended inconclusively. The farmer leaders, beholden to the demands of their cadres, have repeatedly rejected anything less than a complete withdrawal of the recently enacted farm laws. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times
11 December, 2020

“We told them that if you beat us, we will be called brave, and if the people beat us, we will be dubbed traitors,” Nirbhay Singh Dhudike, a prominent farmer-leader who heads the Kirti Kisan Union, told me on 9 December. Dhudike said this to three union ministers in one of the several marathon meetings held at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan between the representatives of the protesting farmers and the central government since 3 December. “Te gall vi sahee hai”—this is true as well, he stressed.

Dhudike’s KKU is among the dozens of kisan, or farmer, organisations that are currently protesting against three farm laws recently enacted by the Narendra Modi government. Since late November, thousands of farmers have blockaded Delhi’s borders, demanding the laws be overturned.

The protests began primarily with farmers from Punjab, who were soon joined by large groups of farmers from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Farmer leaders have met with union ministers and government representatives several times since the protests began. While the Modi government has so far refused to repeal the laws, the farmers remain firm—they have repeatedly rejected anything less than a withdrawal. Beholden to the demand of its cadres, the leadership of the protests is standing firm in its talks with the government.

I spoke to Dhudike at Singhu, on the Delhi-Haryana border, which has become one of the main protest sites. We met some two kilometres away from the central stage on the blocked national highway. He had just emerged from a closed-door meeting of the entire farmer leadership. Dhudike told me that all the farmer leaders present had re-affirmed their resolve to get the farm laws repealed.

Passions and tempers flew high amidst the banners and placards. “No compromise—aar paar ke morche par date raho saathiyo”—comrades, stay firm on this do-or-die protest, read a poster pinned to the back of a young man’s t-shirt, as he sat amongst his fellow activists from Haryana. Flags of different farmers’ bodies fluttered atop thousands of tractors and trolleys that crowded the path back to the stage. The message was clear, so much so that it was regularly announced from the stage: repeal the “kaale kanoon,” or black laws.

The protests first began under the leadership of at least 32 organisations from Punjab. Primary among these were groups such as Dhudike’s KKU and the Bharatiya Kisan Union, or BKU’s Ekta-Ugrahan faction. These groups had given a call for a march to Delhi on 26 and 27 November. When police stopped the marching farmers at the Punjab-Haryana border and again at the Delhi border, they decided to blockade the highways instead.

Aside from the BKU Ekta-Ugrahan and the KKU, these organisations included the Punjab Kisan Union, led by Ruldu Singh; the Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, led by Kulwant Singh Sandhu; the Kisan Sangharsh Committee Punjab, led by Kanwalpreet Singh Pannu; the BKU-Krantikari, led by Surjit Singh Phul; the BKU-Kadian, led by Harmeet Singh; the Majha Kisan Committee, led by Balwinder Singh Aulakh; the Doaba Kisan Sangharsh Committee, led by Jangbeer Singh; the BKU-Ekta Dakaunda, led by Jagmohan Singh; and the Krantikari Kisan Union, led by Darshan Pal.

The BKU Ekta-Ugrahan is the most formidable organisation among these and has the largest mass following of over a lakh among the protesters. The demands of its two leaders, Joginder Singh Ugrahan and Jhanda Siingh Jethuke, have been clear from the first day of the march to Delhi: rescind the laws. “The government has to shed its ego,” Ugrahan told me.

Every morning, Jethuke and Ugrahan call the leadership committees of their “district-wise” units, to get a brief on the cadres—who has left, who has joined, where the numbers stand. They also pass on any necessary messages to their district leaders about the goings on in the meetings with the government at the Vigyan Bhawan. “We are accountable to our cadres, and you see their massive presence in lakhs on the highway. Our men worked very hard in the last four months,” Ugrahan said.

Ever since the central government passed the farm ordinances in June—which were passed into law in September—the BKU Ekta-Ugrahan’s cadres have increased manifold. The organisation ran an active mass-awareness campaign in Punjab and mobilised the people for the “Dilli Chalo” programme. It was earlier active primarily in Sangrur and Bhatinda districts in Punjab, and has since expanded to 14 districts. Every district unit of the BKU Ekta-Ugrahan has a register that lists the names of the people, by village, who have joined the contingent of several kilometres on the Delhi-Rohtak highway.

The leadership of this kisan organisation felt the will of its cadres for the first time on 25 November, at Khanauri on the Punjab-Haryana border. Haryana Police had barricaded the border to prevent the farmer protesters from reaching Delhi. That day, Ekta-Ugrahan announced “a week’s ultimatum to Narendra Modi” to repeal the new farm laws, and said the farmers would march ahead to Delhi if this was not done. This announcement did not go down well with the youth protesters thronging the area, who had come from Punjab’s Malwa region, the group’s stronghold. The youth dissented and demanded that the leaders stick to the plan of reaching Delhi the next day.

The pressure from the youth was visible all along the Ludhiana-Delhi highway. During the day, some young farmers, along with the help of villagers from around the area in Haryana, cleared the barricades, faced water cannons and forced the Haryana police to retreat. At Karnal, on the Shambhu border between Punjab and Haryana, and at Sonepat, youth farmers bulldozed the huge concrete barricades at the borders while facing water cannons. They did not come under the banner of any specific kisan organisation. The BKU Ekta-Ugrahan leaders were forced to back down that night and announced that they would start for Delhi the next morning.

Another faction of the BKU that is among the leadership that has marked its presence is that of Balbir Singh Rajewal. A senior farmer leader, Rajewal is known for his urbane manner. He, too, has been firm in his demand to repeal the laws. “These acts are totally unconstitutional. The government is lying on MSP, as it is nothing without the procurement,” Rajewal told the media on 9 December, referring to government procurement of crops.

A day earlier, Rajewal had given an emotional speech at the main stage at the Singhu border, where he cautioned young protestors and asked them to stay disciplined in their protests. Rajewal warned them against the “nefarious designs of certain elements in sabotaging our protest.”

Rajewal was a part of a select 13-member delegation invited by the union home minister Amit Shah for an informal meeting in the evening on 8 December. The meeting was earlier scheduled to take place at Shah’s residence, but was changed to a different venue after Rajewal and other leaders refused to go to there. The 13 leaders included Rakesh Tikait, who heads a non-political faction of the BKU in western Uttar Pradesh; the Krantikari Kisan union leader Darshan Pal; Bogh S Mansa of the BKU (Mansa); Satnam Ajnala of the Jamhoori Kisan Sabha; Buta S Burigill of the BKU (Dakaunda); Manjit S Rai of the BKU (Daoba); and Gurnam Singh Chaduni, who heads a BKU faction in Haryana. The meeting, which lasted eighty minutes, did not yield a conclusive agreement.

Shah spoke to the farmer leaders about a 20-point proposal of the government for certain amendments in the farm laws. “Amit Shah remained adamant on amendments, and we rejected that,” Chaduni, of the Haryana BKU, said. “We already knew the contents of the draft for the amendments that Shah said he would be sending. And we all unanimously rejected it in our review meeting.” Chaduni was referring to a larger meeting of the farmer leadership that was held the next day, at the Singhu border. Tikait, too, reiterated to the media that the government would have to withdraw the new farm laws.

Notably, the leadership of BKU Ekta-Ugrahan, the KKU and other such groups who have huge cadre and have been unmoving in their demand for a complete withdrawal, were not invited to Shah’s meeting. At the 9 December meeting of all the kisan organisations at Singhu border, these groups told the 13 leaders that they ought not have gone to meet Shah separately.

Jethuke told me, “The meeting of the handpicked leaders with Amit Shah could have been avoided.” He added that all the leaders present unanimously acknowledged this point.

It is worth remembering that on 28 November, when the sit-ins had just begun, Shah had invited the BKU Ekta-Ugrahan leadership for talks. The leadership had rejected Shah’s invitation and asked the home minister to talk to all the groups at once.

On 10 December, Rajewal reiterated the farmers’ stance and told the media, “We are firm on our stand, we have rejected the government’s proposal we received yesterday. No further meeting scheduled with the government as on today.” Rajewal said that on 12 December, the protestors would ensure a forceful closure of all the toll plazas across the country. He also announced the leadership’s decision to call for a boycott of Jio SIM cellphone connections and to hold protests in front of Reliance-owned shopping stores and malls. (The protesting farmers believe that the laws will profit large corporations favoured by the Modi government, such as Reliance.)

Aside from Chaduni’s BKU, other farmers’ groups from Haryana, too, have been unwavering in their support to the protests’ leadership and backed the demand for repeal. According to Bhagat Singh Balhara, who leads the Bharatiya Kisan Panchayat, a relatively new organisation with a stronghold in Sonepat, the people of Haryana are wholly satisfied with the decisions of the main leadership till now. “We will follow the decisions of the big unions,” Balhara told me. “The people want that they should not adopt a samjhautawadi niti”—a compromising attitude. “There is pressure on the leaders from the farmers that they should not compromise.”

Balhara added, “The farmers could only rise up … and they are ready to die. The protest is peaceful, but they are angry on the inside.” He said that the farmers and the organisations of Haryana had learnt the ways of peaceful protest from Punjab. “If this many farmers had risen from Haryana, the protest may not have turned out this peaceful. But we have learned from Punjab’s farmers a lot.” He added that his union was intent on maintaining a peaceful protest.

Evidently, the Modi regime is finding it difficult to isolate or split the protests which have now evolved to a nationwide agitation from its humble beginnings of the 32 organisations from Punjab. This is different from the situations the government has faced in recent years, after passing laws such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or abrogating Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. The bottom line—that has emerged directly from the protesting masses of farmers—remains that the farmers’ organisations will maintain their demand for repeal of the laws.