If rulers get stubborn it’s a crime to sit at home: Punjab farmers’ protests get popular support

On 27 September, women from the farming community participate in a rally near Amritsar, in Punjab, against the central government’s newly enacted farm bills. The previous three days had witnessed massive mobilisation by farmers’ groups across the state, as 31 organisations came together to organise a rail blockade and a one-day general strike. The farmers are demanding that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government rescind the bills. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

“The central government may have pushed through these bills by force but we will not allow them to be implemented,” Harinder Kaur Bindu, a farmers’ leader who is active in the Malwa region of Punjab, told me on 22 September. She continued, “We are willing to put our lives on the line against these bills. This is not the first time that Punjab’s organisations have protested against central policies.” While the bills—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill—were passed in the Parliament between 20 and 22 September, Punjab’s farmers have been protesting against them since June, when they were first announced as ordinances. But over the last three months, organisations representing several sectors in the state—farm workers, labour, dairy farmers, commission agents, retailers, women’s rights groups, cultural activists—have lent their support to Punjab’s farmers. Women and the state’s youth have joined the protests in huge numbers and converted the protests into a peoples’ movement.

As of 28 September, at least 31 farmers’ organisations have come together in Punjab to organise the agitations. This includes the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakonda), the Krantikari Kisan Union, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, the Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, the Punjab Kisan Union, the Azad Kisan Sangharsh Committee, the Kul Hind Kisan Sabha (Punjab) and the Jai Kisan Andolan, among others. They organised a three-day “rail roko,”or rail blockade, from 24 to 26 September, alongside a Punjab Bandh, or general strike, on 25 September. The rail blockade will be resumed on 1 October for an indefinite period. Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the president of the BKU(EU), told me, “We are witnessing a constantly increasing participation by common people in the farmers’ protests. More women and young people are joining these morchas every day.”

Darshan Pal, the coordinator of the 31 organisations, told me, “None of the farmers’ wings of any of the political parties are a part of the protesting farmers’ groups. Our struggle has been going on for over three months while these political parties have woken up just 15 days ago, and that too to shine their political agendas.” In fact, contrary to the claims by the central government that the farmers are being misled by vested political interests, Punjab’s farmers’ have unequivocally eschewed any political interference, as reported by The Caravan earlier. “Captain and Badal are the same when it comes to farmers’ demands,” Bindu told me. She was referring to the incumbent chief minister of Punjab, the Congress’s Amarinder Singh and Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal, the principle opposition party in the state and erstwhile ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the centre. The SAD pulled out of its 23-year-old alliance with the BJP, and the ruling National Democratic Alliance, on 26 September.

Since September, the people of the state have voluntarily started joining in the farmers’ processions and sit-ins—every day tractors loaded with women and young people are turning up at protest sites. As I travelled through the districts of Amritsar, Patiala, Bhatinda, Muktsar and Mansa, among others, the pervasive sentiment among people was that if they do not speak up now it will be too late. Ram Singh, a farmers’ leader from Mansa, told me, “Several people from the villages here have broken away from political parties to become members of farmers groups.”

The Lambi Vidhan Sabha constituency, in Muktsar district, is the SAD’s Parkash Singh Badal’s home turf. At least two dozen villages of Lambi appealed to the farmers’ group to be allowed to be a part of a rally organised in Badal village, in the same district. Badal is the ancestral village of the Badal family and considered their stronghold.  The rally, which started on 15 September, went on for eight days. At least six buses full of people turned up at the protest site just from the neighbouring villages of Bhatinda district, such as Chaukey. This included several women and youth. The women came draped in dupattas of yellow and saffron, colours symbolic to the farming community. Till date, none of these villages would ever see participation of more than thirty or so people for any farmers’ protest. Amarinder’s home turf, Patiala town, witnessed a similar protest rally on 15 September, which, too, went on for eight days. At the protest site, I met Gurdev Singh, an elderly farmer from a village called Gajju Majra in Patiala district. His passion was a sight to behold. “We will break this centre’s stubbornness. When rulers get stubborn it’s a crime to sit at home.”

Gurdev’s sentiment is being echoed across the state where the BJP has found itself increasingly isolated on the issue of the farm bills. The leaders of several farmers’ organisations told me that they are going to escalate the protests and open another front in their struggle—in the coming days, the BJP and its politicians are going to be boycotted by the people of the state. They said that apart from the rail roko agitations, gram sabhas across the state are going to pass resolutions asking the central government to rescind the farm bills and these resolutions will be presented to the centre and the president, Ram Nath Kovind. Satnam Singh Pannu, the president of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee Punjab, told me that over the past one month, around one thousand gram sabhas had already passed such resolutions—including 175 from the Firozpur district, 220 from Tarn Taran district, 150 from Amritsar district, and 120 from Gurdaspur district, among others—and thousands more would follow. Darshan Pal, the coordinator, said, “Till now, thousands of villages have burnt the effigies of Narendra Modi and the central government.” 

In Amarinder’s ancestral village of Mehraj, young people have started forming farmers’ groups to join in the agitation. Gurbachan Singh Chabba, a secretary of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, and a resident of Chabba village in Amritsar district, told me that his whole family has been making protest flags for farmers for the past fortnight, since the demand for these flags is increasing by the day. Jhanda Singh Jethuke, a senior leader of the BKU (U), said that since the day the bills were passed, “we have already distributed 24,000 flags and 48,000 badges of support.”

Just a week before the bills were passed, in the Haripur village of Patiala district, I came across elderly farmers who were donating portions of their pensions and savings to farmers’ groups. They were soon joined by rickshaw pullers and labourers who were giving anywhere between rupees ten to twenty of their meagre earnings—some of them told me that if the country’s farmers are in peril, even they will not be safe.

The farmers’ agitation is now being supported by Punjabi writers, intellectuals and artists. Several famous folk performers have joined the protests and have participated in the agitations full time. The singer Kaur Mohammed, of Hameedi village in Barnala district, is one such artist. His dholak—a medium-sized two-sided percussion instrument—has not stopped for days. Dozens of dholchis—dholak players—have joined the protests. Jasvir Khara, a tumbi player—a single-string folk instrument—has been travelling all over the Mansa district. Women from the village of Ugrahan, in Sangrur district, have been singing the central government and Narendra Modi’s siappa—songs sung during mourning. Surendra Sharma, a theatre artist from Ludhiana, has been conducting plays to raise awareness about the farmers’ struggles. Screenings of documentary films on farmers’ issues are being held among the locals in the Malwa region. The folk singer Jagseer Zidda has played his tumbi at several rallies.

Amolak Singh, the head of the Punjab Lok Sabhyacharik Manch, a cultural organisation, told me that several young people from farmer households are writing and conducting street plays. Consequently, the farmers’ unions have also decided to try and mobilise further support for the cause from youth by appealing to their admiration for the freedom-struggle revolutionary Bhagat Singh—his birthday falls on 28 September. The farmers’ groups told me that Bhagat Singh’s images, writings and speeches will be displayed and played out in rallies henceforth.

This growing sense of solidarity with farmers was on display everywhere, across age groups, gender and occupations. Jagmeet Singh, a young farmer from Doda village in Muktsar district, told me, “Farmers were asleep till now, the farm bills have woken them up. Even commission agents have started saying that there is no survival without farmers.” Vijay Kalra, the state president of the Federation of Arhtiyas Association of Punjab, an organisation of commission agents, told me he had already declared a boycott of the BJP when I spoke to him on 24 September. “If farmers are in trouble, the agents will also be affected,” he said.” The government wants to sell us all to the big corporates and agents will also suffer terribly. This is why we fully support the farmers.”

Several economists from the state have also argued against the farm bills and their criticism is wide ranging. Gyan Singh, an economist, told me, “What we are seeing today is the result of the policies adopted in the 90s. What do the bills deal with—buying and selling of crops in open markets; price guarantee or lack of; and the utter weakening of the 1955 essential commodities act.” He continued, “From 1965 till now, rice and wheat crops would be bought by government agencies at a minimum support price. While this system has been criticised by political parties, farmers’ organisations and experts, the fact is that this somewhat shielded your average farmer from exploitation in the open market. Now, since open markets have been approved, the existing government mandis, or markets, and the mandi boards will suffer severe losses. All the village development carried out by these mandi boards will suffer.”

Sukhpal Singh, another economist, agreed with this assessment and said that all allied developmental activities undertaken by the mandi boards, such as building link roads, maintaining village waterworks, will no longer have adequate funds. Gyan Singh also said, “Not only farmers, but all those who found employment in mandis—labour, administrators, weighers, agents, retailers, transporters—everyone will suffer. All this talk about increasing the farmers’ incomes via open markets is wrong.” He added, “It’s important to understand that open markets only serve to build profits for the big capitalist companies, not the small farmer.”

Bawa Singh, a former professor who is an expert in agricultural studies and a former vice-chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, was dismissive of the BJP’s arguments that the bills do not tinker with current provisions regarding the minimum support price, or MSP. “The farmers are not fools. Declaring the MSP and buying at MSP are two separate issues.” He explained, “For instance, the MSP for corn is Rs 1,850 per quintal but right now this crop is selling between Rs 650 to Rs 915 per quintal in Punjab. Officially the government declares the MSP for 23 crops. But barring wheat and rice, that too just in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, farmers anywhere do not get the optimum price for their crops. As you can see, this proves that the government’s claim that allowing corporates and private buyers will increase prices for farmers is absolutely false.” According to a news report in the Punjabi Tribune, 10.49 lakh farmers in Punjab sell wheat at MSP.

In addition, the state is already grappling with farmers’ suicides. According to a 2017 study by three universities in Punjab, 16,606 farmers and rural labourers of the state died by suicide, between 2000 and 2015. Out of these, 9007 were farmers’ suicides and 7,234 were rural labourers. The study blamed debt as the reason behind most deaths. As of March 2017, the farming community’s cumulative debt stood at around Rs 80,000 crore, of which 62 percent was held in government and organised banks and 38 percent with moneylenders. When the Congress came to power in the state in 2017, it promised to waive off farmers loans. As of July 2019, only Rs 4,600 crore had been waived off with another Rs 1,800 crore pending clearance. Farmers who take loans from the informal sector are not eligible for these waivers and the state decided to cap the waivers at Rs 6,400 crore.

The farming sector in the state faces other grave issues too—only 27 percent of the farmed land is irrigated via canals and other waterworks. The rest of the farming land depends on groundwater. According to a 2019 report by the Central Ground Water Board, “all available groundwater resources till the depth of 300 metres in the state will end in 20-25 years.” Given the magnitude of the crisis facing the sector in Punjab, the new farm bills are being viewed by farmers as a death knell, and the only way out, according to them, is to protest.