Image that Modi government doesn’t retract statements is shattered: BKU (EU) head Joginder Ugrahan

Courtesy Nav Rahi
Elections 2024
07 January, 2021

Since the beginning of the farmers’ sit-ins at Delhi’s borders in November 2020, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan)—the largest by far of the hundreds of unions at the protests—has appeared to be an outlier. While other unions have been protesting at different sites along the border, the BKU (EU) is only present at a sit-in at the Tikri area. The BKU (EU) is the only prominent union to vocally demand the release of incarcerated intellectuals and activists during the protests—media outlets cast aspersions on the farmers due to this, but the union did not dilute its stance. 

Joginder Singh Ugrahan founded the BKU (EU), which wields influence in Punjab’s Malwa region, in 2002. He has been leading farmers’ protests in Punjab for around two decades and is known to be a powerful orator. He hails from Sangrur district’s Sunam town and has also served in the Indian Army. In an interview with the freelance journalist Shiv Inder Singh in January 2021, Ugrahan discussed the ideology of the BKU (EU), its dynamics with other farmers’ unions and the ongoing movement’s significance. 

Shiv Inder Singh: Could you comment on the evolution of the movement against the three new farm laws, and the interaction between the government and the farmers’ unions which is happening due to it?
Joginder Singh Ugrahan: I think the agriculture minister [Narendra Singh Tomar] is just speaking the way the higher ups have asked him to. Maybe Modi sahib has not given Tomarji the power to take a decision. We knew that the seventh round of talks with the government, held on 4 January, would yield no result. The ministers at the meeting kept repeating the same things they have said earlier. “The laws are very good.” “Please agree on the amendments.” “Citizens of the country like these laws very much”—as if we are not citizens of this country, and just [unnecessarily] bent upon repealing the laws.

The government may still be adamant, but the truth is that the farmers’ movement has come so far that the government is under pressure. The image that the Modi government had chalked up, that it never takes back any statement it makes, that image has been shattered. 

Politically, the government is suffering a lot. The BJP has been eliminated from Punjab. The governments of Haryana and Bihar are under threat. Huge protests against the farm laws are being held in Patna, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The states which had never witnessed any opposition to this government, are now seeing people speak up. The farmers’ protest has become a pan-India mass movement, and is also being discussed on an international level.

SIS: The farmers’ unions leading the movement appear to be united, but have many differences. Do these differences have an ideological basis?
JSU: These differences are not related to personal interests, but are ideological in nature—and these are major differences, not small. Some of these farmers’ organisations are of the opinion that compromises proposed by the World Trade Organisation [the ones which farmers’ have opposed in the past] are correct. Ideological differences have come up during this movement as well, but we have all gathered here on a minimum program. It is a good sign that despite ideological difference, we were able to come together with a common minimum program.

SIS: The BKU (EU) has taken decisions that are different from that of other unions, but you have also been implementing the decisions taken by the united front of over 400 farmers’ organisations. For instance, several unions from Punjab crossed the state’s Shambhu and Khanauri border on 26 November 2020, but you crossed it a day later. What is your strategy?
JSU: This interpretation is completely wrong. There is a difference between taking a decision under someone’s pressure and taking calls after understanding the feelings of people. It is not our nature to take decisions due to pressure. The decision to not cross the border on 26 November was taken by more than 400 farmer organisations—we are not a part of their front, yet we implemented the decision. It had been decided to stop wherever the police asked us to, but to hold a strong sit-in protest at that spot itself. But on 26 November, other organisations broke barricades and crossed the Punjab-Haryana border. We decided during a meeting at 8 pm the next day to cross the border. 

We have maintained discipline in our union. We have not even let anyone who is not serious come up on our stage.

SIS: You have been accusing people from the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha—a national farmers’ collective—that they invite political individuals on their platform, but recently you called Yogendra Yadav, who heads the Swaraj India party, on your platform.
JSU: Your question does not hold much weight. Not just Yadav [who is a part of the SKM], we have been telling everyone that all participants in this movement should speak on each other’s platforms. When everyone is here on a common minimum program, when we can attend the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha’s meetings, then why should Yadav’s presence itch us? We will also welcome other farmer organisations on our platform. 

Let me make one thing clear for you: neither are we a part of a group of 500 farmers’ organisation, or a group of 260 farmers’ organisation, or a group 150 farmers’ organisations, nor are we a part of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha or the front created by 32 farmers’ organisations of Punjab. But we do implement the minimum program and also attend their meetings. We have no problem in speaking on their platforms or calling them on our stage.

SIS: Then, why do you operate independently? Why don’t you join their front? 
JSU: Why? Should we give up our aazadi [independence]? 

Here’s why we are independent. After the sixth round of talks with the government, which saw partial success, other organisations postponed the tractor march that had to be held on 31 December. But our organisation, which had scheduled a tractor march for 2 January 2021, did not withdraw any decision. We have kept our strength in our fist—we do not give anyone the right to change our action plan. But yes, we do work in tandem with others. 

SIS: On International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020, you had held an event in which protesters held up pictures of incarcerated intellectuals and human rights activists who have been booked under grave laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. A large part of the Indian media portrayed this in negative light. 
JSU: This was not the media’s representation, it was the Modi government’s representation because it is describing the farmers’ movement as a movement of “Urban Naxals.” When the godi media [lapdog media that favours the ruling government] presents such things in the wrong form, it is only showing the government’s narrative. 

Raising our voice in favour of these intellectuals and social activists is a crucial part of our movement. These are the intellectuals and social activists who have been laying bare the fascist mindset of the government and warning us about the pro-corporate policies of the Modi government. It is these scholars who explained how the corporate sector adversely affects the agriculture sector and the public sector to farmers through their writings. These people have been bundled into jails for speaking the truth. If we do not raise our voice for them, then who will? 

My union’s 10 major demands include the release of intellectuals and human rights activists who have been jailed by the Modi government. The human rights issue was also on the agenda of other organisations, but they did not raise their voice that day, we did.

SIS: But some people in Punjab are raising questions about your union. They say that you had held up pictures of leftist intellectuals that day, but not a single one of a person jailed in Punjab or any Sikh prisoner. 
JSU: Whenever there has been a fake encounter in Punjab, our organisation has opposed it. We are opposed to Khalistani ideology, of course, but we have always stood against excesses committed by the state in the name of [stopping the creation of] Khalistan. On International Human Rights Day too, we demanded for all black laws to be repealed—including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—and for all innocent people who are lodged in jails under these black laws, including people of Punjab, to be released. Regarding the photos—we held up photographs of intellectuals and human rights activists who have laid bare the corporate and fascist policies of the government, but there was no such scholar or social worker from Punjab.

SIS: The labour class is not participating in this movement as much. Why? 
JSU: You are right about this. Labour leaders have to bring awareness. We have to understand that this fight is not just about farmers—this became a farmers’ issue as it was connected with their land. These three agricultural laws will affect labourers badly—this is a matter of food security because the public-distribution system will continue only if the government continues to make purchases. If the government purchases, then the [food] stock will remain in the warehouses. Only then the labourers benefit, because the PDS covers most people. Secondly, farm laborers are also a part of agriculture—if the land is handed over to corporates, it will also harm them.

SIS: This movement is creating a new political culture. For instance, people from Punjab and Haryana are becoming allies. In Punjab, people have stopped supporting the parties they traditionally did. What do you think of this?
JSU: This is really a big achievement of the movement. All sections of the society are now involved in this. I see great possibilities from this movement. It has given a message to the government that fascist policies cannot operate in lokraj [democracy].

SIS: Even before these laws were brought in, Punjab was reeling from agrarian crisis. It does not look like this crisis will end even if these laws are repealed. How do you see this playing out? 
JSU: A straightforward solution for this is: reduce the input, and the output will increase. As in, reduce profits of corporate houses, slash the rate of diesel by half, and make electricity, pesticides, seeds and tractors cheaper. Bring life to the public sector, open up means of employment—then the life of a farmer will be easy. 

SIS: Youngsters click selfies, cut their birthday cakes with you—some people say that you have become a victim of heroism.
JSU: People who think like this, what they are saying—it is beyond my understanding. I have been into activism for 38 years; I have worked even in difficult times. There was never any heroism then, so how will it come now? 

SIS: What do you think will be the future of the peasants’ struggle in Punjab after this movement? 
JSU: With the movement, I think, our flag-bearers have arrived—the youth are standing with us as equals. This movement has broken the illusion that only the aged are a part of the farmers’ organisations in Punjab. Now, we elders have nothing to worry about. Hunn saanu koi maar ke bhi maar nahi sakada—tan eh sarkaar tan ki cheez hai. [Even if someone kills us now, we won’t die—then what is this government?]

This interview has been translated and edited.