Far from Delhi, frustrated with leadership, farmers at Rajasthan sit-in break barricades

On 31 December 2020,  at least 46 tractors break through a police cordon on the Rajasthan and Haryana border at Shahjahanpur, in an attempt to go to Delhi. Farmers from Ganganagar and Hanumangarh in Rajasthan wanted to join ongoing protests at Delhi’s borders, against three farm laws that were enacted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in September 2020.
02 January, 2021

On 1 January 2021, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha announced that a decision to move the Shahjahanpur farmers’ protests, on the Rajasthan-Haryana border, to Delhi’s border will be taken in the coming week. During the press conference, Yogendra Yadav, one of the leaders of the Shahjahanpur protests, said that the decision would be based how the talks with the central government progress. Yadav was striking a reconciliatory note, as a group of farmers from the Shahjahanpur site broke through police barricades on the afternoon of 31 December 2020, in an attempt to march to Delhi. The Rewari police had deployed tear-gas shells and water cannons against the contingent of around five hundred farmers. Several farmers told me that farmers’ leaders, such as Yadav had rejected their plea to march towards Delhi the previous evening. They said that as they tried to break the barricades, some leaders labelled them as “anti-social elements,” and used the protest stage to declare that they were not farmers—this was what triggered the police action.

The farmers said that the police lathi-charged them too. The deputy superintendent of Bawal, a town in Haryana’s Rewari district, Rajesh Kumar denied that the police beat up the protesters and told me that no one was injured in the police action. However, I confirmed that at least three farmers were injured in the lathi charge. One of them, a farmer named Gurjeet, has sustained head injuries.

After one group of farmers broke through the police cordon on 31 December, around fifteen hundred farmers were still camped at the Shahjahanpur border. A farmer named Akashdeep told me, “Due to the police action, we could not go with the farmers who went ahead. So many of our supplies and colleagues were left behind.” Akashdeep had been assigned langar duty at the protest site. On the evening of 1 January, even as the Morcha’s press conference was going on—the Morcha is an umbrella outfit of around forty organisations that is spearheading the farmers’ protests—Akashdeep said that 30 tractors packed up supplies and moved ahead from the Shahjahanpur site to join with the first group at Sangwari Chowk, in Rewari city.   

Apart from the contingent that moved on 1 January, I counted at least 46 tractors—several of them had at least two trolleys attached, filled with rations and other supplies—that broke through the barricades at around 2.30 pm on the new year’s eve and moved towards Sangwari Chowk. Most of the famers who broke the police cordon and marched towards Delhi are from the Ganganagar and Hanumangarh districts of Rajasthan. Pawandeep Singh, a farmer from the Romana Chak village in Hanumangarh, was among them. He told me, “Our people from Punjab and Haryana were telling us that instead of sitting so far away from the protests, sit in Gurgaon, on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.” He said that on 30 December, the farmers of Ganganagar and Hanumangarh held discussions and decided to break the barricades planted by the Haryana police on the Shahjahanpur border, and go to Delhi.

As I spoke to the farmers, most of them expressed a sense of impatience and frustration with the leadership, their decision making and their inaction. Pawandeep said, “What is the point of sitting here? It makes sense for us to move ahead. We have just been sitting here for fifteen to twenty days.” He added, “On the evening of 30 December, we farmers asked Yogendra Yadavji to march to Delhi. He said he is not in favour of marching ahead. We again asked him that ‘if we break the barricades and move ahead, will you support us?’ He flatly refused.”

Pawandeep said that the next morning, after the langar at a nearby gurdwara, a group of farmers again went to Yadav. “We went to him again, to tell him that we are going to break the barricades and move on towards Delhi. We told him, ‘Up ahead, when we set up our stages, please do not come there.’” Pawandeep added, “We do not want to cause any harm to the movement, whatever we do we will do it together. We have consulted with our people.”  

Manohar Shergill is a farmer from the Ghadsana village in Ganganagar. He is the grandson of Lekha Singh, a well-known farmer leader of the Ganganagar-Hanumangarh region. The front bumper of his blue coloured Farmtrack-60 tractor was twisted as he had used it to push aside the concrete blocks used by the police. “All of us farmers were determined to travel to Delhi,” Shergill told me. “The leaders tried a lot to stop us, but we farmers had decided we are going to go ahead.” In a written response, Yadav said that, “This was the unanimous decision of the local committee of Shahjahanpur and the national committee of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha and that was not to break the barrier and move forward.”

Apart from Yadav—who is the head of the socio-political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan and has been participating in the ongoing protests against the recently enacted farm laws—Raja Ram Meel and Rampal Jaat are a couple of the other farmer leaders who were at the Shahjahanpur site when the farmers broke through. Jagjot Singh, another farmer who moved towards Delhi, told me, “As the farmers were trying to break the barricades, the farmers’ leaders present there took the mike and said, ‘All those calling for marching to Delhi are not farmers, they are anti-social elements.’” Jagjot added that it was only after the leaders made these announcements that the police resorted to lathi charge and tear-gas shells. Several other farmers confirmed this. Pawandeep said that initially around 25 to 30 tractors had crossed the barricades, but the police did not resort to violence; it was only after the leaders declared them as “troublemakers” that the police used force.

Around five hundred farmers defy police barricades at Shahjahanpur on the Rajasthan and Haryana border, on 31 December 2020. As the farmers used their tractors to break the barricades, the police deployed tear-gas shells and water cannons. The protesters aim to merge with the farmers’ agitation on Delhi’s borders, which has been going on since 26 November 2020. Courtesy Rashee Mehra

Gurjeet, the farmer who sustained head injuries, also said the same. When I spoke to him on the night of 1 January, his head was wrapped up in white gauze. “Some 30 to 40 trolleys had crossed the barricade, the police did nothing. Then these leaders announced, ‘Stop these boys, they are not our people.’ The police then deflated my tractor’s tyres, and then they started hitting with lathis.” Gurjeet added, “I got hit on my shoulders and then two hits on my head and then I lost my bearing. No one touched us before they said that we are not their people.” Jagjot said, “You tell us, what kind of leaders are they that they are getting the police to use force on us?”

Another farmer, Prabhjot Singh, said, “These self-appointed leaders here have not even brought a single farmer. Sitting on the Shahjahanpur front, they talk to the TV news people as if all the farmers here belong to their organisation and were mobilised by them.” Prabhjot, too, blamed the leaders present for the police action. “As much as our community is threatened by enemies, it is also threatened by traitors who get us beaten by the police by calling us anti-social elements,” he said.

Yadav denied making any such announcements. “I have never called these youth anti-social elements, neither in personal conversation nor from the stage. I said that this is an idealistic youth, I respect their energy, but breaking the barrier at this time is not a wise thing, it will not benefit the movement and one should maintain sensibility along with enthusiasm,” he said in response.

By the evening of 1 January, the Morcha’s leadership seems to have taken cognisance of the farmers at Sangwari Chowk. As I spoke to him late that night, Shergill said, “Yesterday, after we broke through the Shahjahanpur border, they called us troublemakers, gangsters, they said we are not with them. But today, now that we have made our arrangements here and we have spoken to groups in Punjab, now we are getting calls saying, ‘You are our brothers, we made a mistake.’” During the press conference of the Morcha, Yadav also said that they were in touch with the farmers and would be speaking to them and there would be constant communication with them. When I mentioned this to Akashdeep, he said, “They are saying this now since our numbers here [at Sangwari Chowk] have increased dramatically. The police also has no problem with us, they said, ‘You sit here and let your brothers coming from behind reach here.’”

I also spoke to Sukhjit Singh, another one of the farmers who was injured during the lathi charge. “I have suffered a knee injury to my right leg, but I not worried.” Sukhjit added, “I am worried about our colleague, our comrade Gurjeet, who suffered head injuries.” He then said, “I hope that he recovers soon, comes back to the protests, and once we have managed to repeal these black laws, we will all go back home together.”