“When those in power get arrogant, they lose:” UP farmers to join protests

Thousands of farmers from Punjab and Haryana stage an indefinite sit-in at Singhu, a small town on the Delhi-Haryana border, on 2 December 2020. Farmers from several districts of western Uttar Pradesh have decided to join these protests. The protesters’ key demand is that the central government rescind three laws related to agricultural activity which were passed in September 2020. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
03 December, 2020

At around 8 pm on 2 December, Narendra Rana came home to find a police vehicle parked outside his house in Doghat village of western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district. Rana is a leader of the Kisan Adhikar Andolan, a farmers’ organisation, and he had spent the day travelling the villages of Baghpat and mobilising farmers to join the ongoing farmers’ protests spread across the borders of Delhi. He is among several leaders of farmers’ organisations, from the districts of Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Moradabad and Baghpat, who have decided to lend their support to the protests against three laws that the agitating farmers have termed as “Kaale Kanoon”—black laws. “We have asked our farmer brothers and numerous organisations to reach Khekra Pathshala and we will march towards Delhi from there on 3 December,” he told me. Khekra Pathshala is a well-known landmark of Khekra, a small town in Baghpat district less than thirty kilometres from the Delhi border.

Rana said that police officials from the Doghat police station tried to convince him not to participate in the protests or ask other farmers to join in. While he was apprehensive that he might be arrested on his way to Khekra, Rana was equally vehement about lending support to the protests. “Our farmer brothers have agreed to fight this war. The farmer is preparing to fight this cheat government; he is willing to leave the harvesting of his sugarcane, the wheat sowing and even marriages to take part in the protests.” He was highly critical of the ruling party at the centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in the state, and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. “They feel that they are true patriots and everyone else is a traitor—all who talk about their rights are Khalistanis or Pakistanis or terrorists.” Rana, like several farmers protesting since 26 November, was equally scathing about the media, too. “Some media is also supporting the government in this. We farmers have understood who is talking in our support and who is manipulating and cheating us. The farmers of western Uttar Pradesh will now give answer to all of them.”

I spoke to several farmers’ leaders from western Uttar Pradesh who told me that not only were they going to march towards Delhi on 3 December but a mahapanchayat—grand council—has also been convened on the Delhi border at Ghazipur, where all organisations will discuss the strategy ahead. Apart from the Kisan Adhikar Andolan, numerous farmers’ rights organisations have decided to join the protests, including the Bharatiya Kisan Union, the Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Asli-Arajnaitik). All the leaders told me that they have been conducting meetings since 26 November and they have support from farmers across this region. They said that if the police or administration tried to stop the marching farmers from reaching Delhi, they would dig in wherever they were and protest there. The leaders also said that those who could not join the protests have been asked to start agitations in their own villages. Apart from the opposition to the recently passed legislations and the demand to rescind them, there was significant anger towards the BJP, its style of governance, the media and the attempts to discredit the farmers and their protests.

Ghulam Mohammad Jaula is an 84-year-old farmer from Muzaffarnagar. He is a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, and has served as its national vice-president. He was an aide to Mahendra Singh Tikait, a famous farmers’ leader who once mobilised five lakh protesting farmers and led them to Delhi for a week, in 1988.  Jaula was active in all of Tikait’s movements, and has also worked towards maintaining Hindu-Muslim unity in the communally volatile region of western UP. The elderly farmer is playing an active role in the ongoing farmers’ movement, too. He told me that he has been holding meetings in several villages of Muzaffarnagar and its neighbouring district of Shamli, and asking people to head to Delhi. “We will gather in thousands. If the government stops us somewhere in the middle, then we will start demonstrating from the same place.”

Jaula was extremely critical of the central government’s handling of the farmer’s concerns. “The present government wants to completely ruin the farmers and labourers. We farmers will not accept their policy in any way.” He added, “They were supposed to bring Ram Rajya”—Ram’s rule or good governance—“but this government brought Ravan Rajya. It wants us to keep fighting on either religion or caste.” Jaula told me that “this government only wants to fill the coffers of the rich; it does not care for the poor.” He added, “But they should remember whenever those in power get arrogant, they lose that power. And this government is arrogant.”

Puran Singh is a farmer in the Nasirpur village of Muzaffarnagar and a president of the Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan. He told me that the region’s farmers were in for the long haul and “will fight this battle till the end.” He added, “We are getting the support of people from all over Uttar Pradesh. We have done meetings in several villages since 26 November. Many farmer organisations have called their people to the border.”

Puran, too, was upset with the portrayal of farmers by the government and the media. “They are maligning the farmers and every day there is new propaganda.” He added, “If the government feels that the farmers are Khalistani, then why not arrest them? Why are you talking to them if they are terrorists?  This government has been maligning farmers for months. They want to pretend that they are clean and the farmers are dirty and have an agenda.” He said that “the media should remember that it is the farmers’ hard work that produces the grain that they eat.” He was angry that sections of the media were parroting the government’s “propaganda.”

This theme of the media and the ruling party joining hands to discredit the protests was a common thread in all my conversations with the farmers’ leaders. Harpal Singh Bilari is a president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Asli-Arajnaitik) in Moradabad district. Bilari told me that he is involved in the ongoing agitation at Singhu, a small town on the Delhi-Haryana border where farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been holding an indefinite sit-in. “We had requested farmers on behalf of our organisation to reach there on 26 November. We want this government to withdraw these three kaale kanoon.” He called the media “Modi media,” referring to the prime minister Narendra Modi and said that “they can show whatever they want. Now, the farmers do not care.”

He compared the central government to the British Raj and said, “The policy of this government is to discredit every movement. What the British did with Bhagat Singh then, this government is doing with the farmers today by sending their people to shout slogans to disrupt the movement.” Bilari was referring to a report circulating on social media in which agitating farmers have alleged that over a hundred bike-borne members of the RSS demonstrated against farmers on the Singhu border on 30 November.

Bilari echoed Puran and asked, “The people are sitting peacefully. The villagers are sending food. They sleep on the roads in the cold. If they are terrorists then why is the government talking to them again?” Like Jaula, Bilari also called the BJP “divisive.” He added, “This party broke the farmers apart by orchestrating the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, took advantage of it and formed the government. Now, the farmer understands this. This party always divides, either on caste or religion.”

Another farmers’ leader, Nahar Singh of Baghpat, told me that the farmers there have been conducting meetings in their villages for many days and several farmers will march towards Khekra and then to Delhi. Nahar is associated with the Kisan Adhikar Andolan. “If the administration tries to stop us, then we will start our sit-in there itself, wherever we are. We will block the roads if we have to.” Nahar told me that another senior farmers’ leader from Haryana, Gurmukh Singh will also join the protests at Khekra.

None of the farmers’ leaders seemed to be open to any sort of compromise with the government. Puran said, “We were waiting for the talks with the government and the government to back down. But we do not think this government is going to accept our demands. Now, we will not back down, even if they shoot at us.” He added, “The farmers who will not be able to go to Delhi will now agitate in their villages. In ten days, we farmers will stop India.”

Puran called the prime minister Narendra Modi “the biggest liar.” He said, “Modi says that some people are tricking the farmers. But the reality is that this prime minister is the one tricking the farmers. These people will go to any extent for political power.” He added, “This party is a party of lies. This is a party of Banias and these bills are bills for the interests of the Banias.”