The state government, farmers’ unions and residents of Punjab are stepping up their agitation against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government’s three controversial farm laws. Today, on 19 October, the Punjab Legislative Assembly is beginning a two-day special session to bring in a legislation to counter the farm laws. The previous day, the Punjab cabinet authorised Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, to take any “legislative/legal decision he may deem fit to protect farmers’ rights.” Amarinder announced the decision to hold the special session on Twitter on 14 October. That day, a meeting about the laws between a farmers’ delegation and the central government ended with the delegates tearing copies of the farm laws outside the office of the union agriculture ministry in Delhi.
This is not the first time that Amarinder has opposed the central government. He had taken a similar stance in 2004, when he was the chief minister and the Congress was in power at the centre, for the settlement of a dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal—Punjab was opposed to a canal that would carry to Haryana a significant share of the river water that flows through Punjab. After the Supreme Court asked the central government to construct the canal, Amarinder defied the Congress high command and convened an overnight session of the Punjab assembly to pass the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which abolished the state’s water-sharing agreements. The state halted the canal’s construction, but in November 2017, the Supreme Court struck down this law.
The central government has been facing vociferous criticism from farmers since June 2020, when the farm laws were first introduced as ordinances. In the last four months, farmers have led several large-scale protests in Punjab against the laws, which regulate the procurement and sale of agricultural produce. Farmers are apprehensive that the laws would privatise the current system, drive crop prices down and may allow the government to do away with the minimum support price. Experts have also voiced the same concerns. But the government has maintained that the laws would benefit farmers.
The anger against the central government appears to have intensified after the failed meeting between the farmers’ delegation and the central government. Balbir Singh Rajewal, the head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal), said, that this was the second time that the central government had invited them to discuss the matter. “After rejecting the first invitation, we accepted the second one, lest we are blamed for not resolving this deadlock,” he said. “We accepted the second one, though we are well aware of the stubborn attitude of this BJP government.” A seven-member panel of 29 farmer unions attended the meeting with Sanjay Agarwal, the agriculture secretary. The delegation of farmer leaders included Jagjit Singh Dalewal, Darshan Pal, Kulwant Singh, Jagmohan Singh, Satnam Singh Sahni and Surjit Singh. “But, as expected, the government is not serious to resolve our demands,” Rajewal said.
Rajewal told me this lack of seriousness was reflected in the fact that no union minister was present at the meeting, not even the union agriculture minister, Narendra Singh Tomar. He referred to the Kisan Samvad Sammelan, an initiative by the BJP to placate the farmers via virtual meetings. “Tomar and others are sent to launch social propaganda and misinform the farmers about these legislations but nobody was bothered to be present at this meeting,” Rajewal said. He added that even the union minister of state for agriculture, Kailash Chaudhary, who was also holding virtual meetings about the laws, did not bother to show up. Tomar later reportedly said that the talks had been scheduled only at the secretary level.
The delegation walked out of the meeting in protest. “However, we did submit our memorandum to the agriculture secretary, which outlines our objections to these farm laws, our demands, with the main being a legal guarantee for the state procurement at the minimum support prices and repealing the three farm legislations,” Rajewal said. The farmer representatives tore up the copies of these laws in front of Krishi Bhavan, which houses the agriculture ministry in Delhi.
Rajewal said that there is a “dictatorship” in the country right now. “Had their intentions been right, they would not have chosen the COVID pandemic as the time to pass these legislations, that too without any discussion—neither in the Parliament not with the farmers, who are the main stakeholders,” he said. Rajewal added that they were opposed to approaching the Supreme Court. “Courts are under pressure by Modi. This is what they want—that we should go to the court and then lose our case,” he said. “There will be no justice. The government would then proceed with these legislations saying that the court ruled in their favour.”
According to a report by the Press Trust of India, dated 18 October, the Punjab chief minister intended to contest the law in the apex court, just as Rajewal feared. “We will fight this till the Supreme Court,” the chief minister said at a meeting of the Congress Legislative Party, according to the report. “Referring to the demand raised by many farmers’ unions for an immediate session of the assembly, the chief minister said this could not be done earlier as all legal implications had to be examined thoroughly before taking any step,” the report mentioned. The chief minister added that the strategy to oppose the farm laws would be finalised in consultation with legal and independent experts. “The CM said contrary to what the BJP and its leaders had been claiming, Punjab was never consulted on farm legislations,” the report said.