Chautala’s Choice

In Photos: Ten thousand farmers protest in Sirsa, call for Dushyant Chautala’s resignation

Police use water cannons against farmers protesting around one hundred metres from the residence of Dushyant Chautala—the deputy chief minister of Haryana—on 6 October in Haryana’s Sirsa district. The protesters, most of whom were farmers, demanded Chautala’s resignation from the state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party–Jannayak Janta Party alliance, to oppose three contentious farm laws introduced by the BJP in Parliament.
Police use water cannons against farmers protesting around one hundred metres from the residence of Dushyant Chautala—the deputy chief minister of Haryana—on 6 October in Haryana’s Sirsa district. The protesters, most of whom were farmers, demanded Chautala’s resignation from the state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party–Jannayak Janta Party alliance, to oppose three contentious farm laws introduced by the BJP in Parliament.
Photographs and text by Rohit Lohia
08 October, 2020

At 11 am 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 Bharatiya Janata Party in Haryana. The alliance partners have been facing vociferous criticism from farmers since June, when the BJP-led central government passed three contentious farm ordinances regarding the procurement and sale of agricultural produce. Several farmers’ organisations have held large-scale protests against the new policy in Punjab and Haryana over the last four months. But Parliament enacted the ordinances  into law in September. While protesters at the Dussehra ground rallied against the new policies and the BJP through the day, it was Chautala who earned most of their ire. 

The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee—an umbrella group of seventeen farmers’ organisations, including the Bhartiya Kisan Union, the Kisan Sangarsh Samiti and the Punjab Kissan Union—had called for the protest. Although most protesters appeared to be middle-aged farmers, Punjabi celebrities such as Deep Sandhu and political leaders including Yogendra Yadav and Abhay Singh Chautala were also present at the gathering. Some protesters sung songs of revolution in Punjabi. Many of them carried flags of the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and raised slogans of “Inquilab Zindabad”—Long Live the Revolution—“Long Live Farmers Unity” and “Modi-Khattar-Dushyant Down Down!” referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Chautala. 

Numerous protesters said they felt that Chautala had betrayed them and the legacy of his great grandfather, Chaudhary Devi Lal. Lal served twice as Haryana’s chief minister, in the 1970s and 1980s, and was also a deputy prime minister of India. He was a farmers’ leader an ardent supporter of their rights. Chautala has invoked Lal’s name several times in his speeches and raised farmers’ issues, even during the assembly elections in 2019. Yet, he defended the three controversial laws this year and dismissed the farmers’ concerns as a “misunderstanding.” Many people at the Dussehra ground called the protest, “Dushyant Chautala ghar gherao”—protest outside the deputy chief minister’s house.

I covered the protest from 12 pm to 8 pm that day. The protesters told me why they opposed the three farm laws: Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Assurance and Farm Service Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. Many of them were 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. 

Sukhdev Singh, a 62-year-old farmer, who termed the acts as “kala kanoon”—black law—was among them. He was unsure if the government would continue to provide MSP. “Give us in writing about MSP,” he told me. Balbir Singh, a farmer from Jind district’s Narwana town, expressed his apprehensions about the sale and purchase of products outside mandis, which are government-run vegetable marketplaces. “Our ancestors used to tell us that when mandis did not exist, farmers didn’t get any cost for their production,” he said. “If mandis won’t exist, big companies will come into action and buy whatever rate they want.” 

Navdeep Singh, a 35-year-old farmer from Jakhal village, explained that not just the content of the laws, but the way the centre had passed them was also appalling. “The bills have been passed by people who are sitting in AC rooms and haven’t surveyed it on ground level—how we transport our crops to mandis, how it gets packed,” he said. “The way it has been passed is just gundagardi”—thuggery. “If the bills are actually for us, we should have been at least consulted once,” he said. Dr Kashmir Singh, a medical practitioner who comes from a family of farmers, told me, “Farmers are the backbone of the nation—if the bone is ruined, so is the whole body. So, if farmers won’t have anything, how will this nation run?”

Balbir said that it was important for Dushyant to step down. “Dushyant might not be a member of parliament and the bill’s decision might not have been in his hands. But he is someone in power who is taking the central government’s side,” he said. He acknowledged that even if Chautala resigns, it is quite possible that the laws will stand. “But we will be assured the person who has won by our votes, in our name, is standing with us,” he said. “If you are actually related to Devi Lal by blood, support the farmers. If you are an anti-farmer, then stay with the government. Clarify whose side you are on.” 

The pressure against Chautala appears to have intensified after the Shiromani Akali Dal—among the BJP’s oldest allies—pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance in end September. Harsimrat Kaur Badal, an SAD member who was part of the union government, had also supported the ordinances when they were first introduced. But farmers in Punjab had exhorted the party to oppose it and even gheraoed Harsimrat’s residence. Harsimrat ultimately resigned from her position in the government in protest. After quitting the NDA, the SAD president, Sukhbir Singh Badal, insisted that he and his wife, Harsimrat, had always opposed it. Yadav, the president of Swaraj India, said at the protest that Chautala now has a choice to make “kursi ya kissan”—his post or the farmer. “Punjab farmers have bowled the Badals. Now it’s Haryana farmers turn to do the same with Chautalas,” Yadav added. 

At around 3 pm, the protesters began the march to Chautala’s house—it gradually swelled to about ten thousand people. When they were just hundred metres short of the house, they were stopped by heavy police deployment and barricades. Around two thousand police personnel were reportedly deployed to stop the protesters from marching ahead.

Some protesters tried to uproot the barricades, and one local leader, Gokul Setia, tried to climb the barricades—but the protest remained peaceful. A few minutes later, the farmers tried to run through the barricades. The security officials launched water cannons and lobbed teargas shells to deter them. In response, a few protesters pelted stones at the police. 

A few protesters alleged that the police also pelted stones during the commotion. Narendra, a protester from Tohana, said, “When stones were pelted from both sides, I was near the barricades. A stone hit me and I became unconscious.” He said that he got five stitches on his head and then came back to an area near the police’s barricades, which had become the protest site. He gave a speech there. “You might be thinking, today they shelled teargas, used water cannons and deployed policemen, so we will get scared and return,” he said. “I challenge you to fire bullets and see if even that would make us move.”

At the end of the day, the farmers announced an indefinite blockade of a main road until Chautala broke off the alliance with the BJP. The blockade is at the Baba Bhuman Shah Chowk, near Chautala’s house, where the protesters were stopped by the police. Around one hundred protesters stayed on the road for the night. Most of them were detained the next day and released after about ten hours. On the afternoon of 8 October, there were over a hundred protesters on the road who had successfully managed to impose the blockade.

Chautala has expressed no intention to pull out of the Haryana government yet. “A doubt was created in the minds of farmers that they are going to lose their Minimum Support Price (MSP). On our side, we are trying to remove their doubts,” he told the Indian Express on 23 September. On the afternoon of 6 October—around the time the farmers had begun marching to his house—he announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was in self isolation. I overheard several protesters insinuate that he was lying. Prahlad Bharukhera, the president of the Haryana Kisan Manch, told me, “Even if he has COVID-19, he will have to face us after 15 days. We will be right here, waiting.”