Punjab assembly holds special session to bring in legislation to oppose farm laws

Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab, speaks during the Kisan Bachao rally at Badhni Kalan in Moga, on 4 October 2020 in Bathinda. On 19 October, the Punjab Legislative Assembly began a two-day special session to bring in legislation to counter the 2020 farm laws.  Sanjeev Kumar / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
19 October, 2020

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.

Meanwhile, protests against the laws are continuing across the state. Even Punjabi celebrities, who are not known to participate in protests, are throwing their weight behind the farmers’ movement, mobilising people to oppose the laws. Punjabi singers and actors who have appeared at these protests include Ammy Virk, Ranjit Bawa and Harbhajan Maan. “My father sold a part of his farm land to support my singing and acting career. Now it is my turn to support him,” Virk said, according to a report in the Indian Express. The report also refers to two protests at end September that drew large crowds—one was organised by the singer Sidhu Moosewala, and the call for the other protest was given by Lakha Sidhana, a political activist, and Deep Sidhu, an actor. Thirty-one farmer unions jointly protesting the farm legislations have now formed a seven-member panel to coordinate with a committee of artistes in Punjab. 

According to a report in The Wire, farmers believe that the Modi government brought the farm laws at the behest of business tycoons such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani. As a result, they are also protesting against corporates. The report mentioned that “sales at Reliance petrol pumps across the state have either come to a halt or dropped by 50%.” The protesters wrote “Go Back Adani” at his Silo Project at Moga with Food Corporation of India, according to the report. In early October, farmers had reportedly launched “Sim Satyagraha”—protest by breaking or destroying Reliance Jio mobile SIM cards.

The BJP and the NDA are facing an intense backlash. Members of various farmer organisations on 14 October heldsenior BJP leaders captive for three hours in a private school in Sangrur, according to The Tribune. The leaders had organised a virtual meeting between Kailash Choudhary and some farmers of the area.

At several protests, farmers have burnt effigies of Modi and other cabinet ministers. The Shiromani Akali Dal—among the BJP’s oldest allies—pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance in end September. Farmers in Punjab had exhorted the party to oppose it and even gheraoed the residence of Harsimrat Kaur Badal, an SAD member who was then a part of the union government. She subsequently resigned from the cabinet in protest of the laws. On 6 October, thousands of farmers gathered at the Dussehra ground in Sirsa, Haryana, and led a protest march to the residence of Dushyant Chautala, the state’s deputy chief minister, demanding his resignation. Chautala is a founder of the Jannayak Janta Party, an ally of the BJP in Haryana. Many farmers decided to hold a “Rail Roko” agitation in Amritsar—which began in September end—till 21 October.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with more than 25 years of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.