The peasants threatened to intensify their two-week-old agitation across the country after several rounds of negotiations with the centre failed to produce a positive outcome.
The farmers rejected a proposal to make some amendments in the three agri-laws to address the concerns expressed by the peasants saying only a withdrawal would pacify them.
By end of November, thousands of farmers from various states laid siege of the national capital in biting cold to push their demand saying the three controversial agriculture laws were anti-peasant and pro-corporate.
The large-scale mobilization of peasants, which was later supported by the opposition parties, was the first major political challenge to the second edition of the Modi government, which had faced a similar resistance in 2015 against the controversial land acquisition ordinance that had to be withdrawn.
The face-off this time was different but created huge pressure on the centre.
However, the farmers’ demand for withdrawal of the three new agriculture laws, which the government says are reforms, is not new and had been first raised in September when the centre rushed through the legislations during the Monsoon Session of Parliament.
Before that the farmers had raised the red flag when the centre had issued three new ordinances for the same during the lockdown saying the executive orders were needed to boost the agriculture sector.
But the farmers did not buy the government’s argument and came out in large numbers across the country, mainly in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana demanding withdrawal of the three new agriculture laws.
The farmers were pacified for a while in September when Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh passed three separate state laws to negate the central laws. But the state laws could not be approved by President of India Ram Nath Kovind, as mandated by Constitution, as the files remained stuck with Punjab Governor VP Singh Badnore.
The protests revived in October as the agitated farmers blocked roads and railway tracks in Punjab to put pressure on the central government.
Alarmed at the development, the centre stopped movement of passenger and freight trains in Punjab citing security concerns. This resulted in shortage of raw materials like coal for power plants and fertilizer for the wheat crop in Punjab and induced losses to the state exchequer forcing the Amarinder Singh government to buy electricity from the national grid.
The Punjab CM staged a protest in the national capital but to no avail. As the centre remained unresponsive to their demand, the various farmer groups decided to take their protest to Delhi for a final resolution towards the end of November.
As thousands of farmer groups from Punjab and Haryana marched through Haryana to reach the national capital towards November end, they had to face police brutality in the state and later braved water cannons in cold winter mornings at north Delhi’s Singhu border.
At first the centre tried to discourage the farmers by denying them entry in Delhi, but later relented when many of them faced a lathi-charge as they broke police barriers to enter the city.
Meanwhile, farmer groups from western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand too reached Delhi’s borders in Ghaziabad and Noida to join the protest, while demonstrations were held in other states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Realizing there was no escaping the determined farmers the centre then invited them for talks which, in fact, were an attempt to bring the peasants around the government’s view.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed the central farm laws in his weekly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’ indicating the centre was in no mood to repeal the laws.
But several rounds of talks between the represen- tatives of around 40 farmers groups and Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Food and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal at the Vigyan Bhawan failed to provide a solution.
The farmers refused the government’s proposal of setting up a panel to look into the issue saying the time for consultations was over and only a repeal of the three central farm laws in a special Parliament session would pacify them.
As farmer protests across Delhi stretched beyond a week the demonstration attracted widespread support from other peasant groups across the country many of whom moved towards Delhi to express their solidarity with the farmers of Punjab and Haryana.
Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait said: “The government and the farmers did not reach any decision during the meetings. The government wants to make amendments to the three laws, but we want the laws to be completely repealed.”
Alleging the government was not serious in ending the deadlock, the farmer groups organised a Bharat Bandh on December 8 to push their demand.
The move got widespread support from the political parties across the country and the trade unions forcing Union Home Minister Amit Shah to step in and offer some amendments in the new farm laws.
However, the deadlock prevailed as the peasants rejected the centre’s offer and instead threatened to intensify the protests across the country. The plan included to block the Delhi-Jaipur highway, taking over of all toll plazas on Dec 12 and nationwide protests on Dec 14.
The farmers showed remarkable restraint in keeping their protests peaceful. Long stretches of roads across the Delhi’s borders with Haryana and UP turned into large camps as thousands of protesting farmers, both young and old, spent chilling nights on makeshift beds inside tractor trolleys and under tents.
The farmers had come prepared for a long haul and carried ration for several months to sustain the protest. Great bonhomie was seen among the farmers who prepared food and served community lunches or langars for the protesters. Some enthusiasts even installed DJ systems on trolleys to add to the mood even as some youngsters staged street plays to cheer up the crowd.
At times food was offered even to the security forces deployed in the area despite the fact that the protesters had faced lathi charge and water cannon from the police.
The local villagers helped the protesting farmers with supplies of milk and vegetables and other essential items. Across the UP and Singhu border medical camps for the farmers were organised by the locals.
Several women farmers also joined the protests and contributed in the preparation of langar. Popular Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh joined the protests and others performed for the farmers while boxer Vijender Singh threatened to withdraw his Khel Ratna award to support the peasants.
Several western UP farmers blocked the Delhi-Meerut highway over the issue as well as the Noida border. Demonstrations were also held in several states.
During the several rounds of negotiations with the government at the Vigyan Bhawan, the farmers refused to eat government lunch and ate the food brought in by their colleagues to make a point and send across a message to the centre.
At least 15 deaths were reported during the protests. The Punjab government announced financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh each for families of two of farmers from the state who died during the protests.
Amid the protests by farmers on Delhi’s borders, BJP leader Kapil Mishra asked President Ram Nath Kovind to take steps to provide respite to city residents who, he claimed, were being held hostage.
A petition seeking immediate removal of the mass gathering of farmers at Delhi borders was submitted to the Supreme Court as the farmers’ protest entered its 9th day. The petition filed by Advocate Om Prakash Parihar stated that it was ‘necessary to remove the gathering’ as the protest is posing a hurdle for accessing emergency medical services needed to curb the spread of Covid-19 and attend to patients in need of medical attention.
The peaceful protests by farmers on Delhi’s borders invited international reactions and put pressure on the Modi government to end the deadlock.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s views in support of the farmers protest were summarily rejected by India’s ministry of external affairs which later issued a demarche to the Canadian High Commissioner in Delhi. Despite that Trudeau went on to repeat his remarks.
A group of 36 cross-party parliamentarians wrote to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab asking him to make representations with India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar about the British Punjabis affected by the farmers’ protests in Delhi.
Stephane Dujarric, Spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed the peaceful protests saying “people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and authorities need to let them do so.”
Reacting to the comments by the foreign leaders, External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “We have seen some ill-informed comments relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country. It is also best that diplomatic conversations are not misrepresented for political purposes.”
Why are the farmers angry?
The farmers are miffed over the three new agriculture laws. The first of them is The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and facilitation) Bill, 2020 which allows trading of produce outside the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee or mandis regulated by the states.
The other two farm laws are The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 which provides for a legal framework for contract farming and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which deregulates the production, supply and distribution of food items like cereals, pulses, potatoes, onions and edible oilseeds.
Besides the three laws, the farmers also demanded withdrawal of the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which aims to reform the power sector subsidies and may reduce the authority of the states considerably.
Subsidized power has helped farmers of the two states enhance their agri-output considerably for decades and allowed the region to emerge as the food bowl of the country.
The farmers of Punjab and Haryana are also miffed with an ordinance which imposes heavy fines for stubble burning as it chokes the national capital every year.
While the farmers have issues with all the three new farm laws, their main worry relates to no mention of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) in the legislations though the central government has assured that the old system will stay.
The centre purchases wheat and paddy besides some other crops from the farmers of Punjab and Haryana in large quantities every year at MSP, which is revised from time to time keeping in mind the input cost.
This procurement has been taking place through the various APMCs or state owned mandis for long and made a significant contribution towards the prosperity of the peasants.
The centre argued the new laws would help create new markets outside the APMC or mandis and this in turn would allow the farmers to sell their produce to anyone at a price of their choice.
The new system would free the farmers from the clutches of the middlemen who control the mandis and exploit the food producers, the centre argued.
But the farmers countered this by saying the system of commission agents, known as Arhatiyas, has been a time-tested one in Punjab and Haryana and works to the satisfaction of the food producer who gets a host of services from the middleman.
The farmers fear that with the corporates coming in, the role of mandis may shrink and reduce the procurement of crops at MSP, thus impacting their profits.
The government offered this could be addressed by making some restrictions for the corporate entering the new market, letting the state government tax the new trading markets and ensuring that the APMC would also stay.
Arguing against the law which allows contract farming, the farmers said it only allowed them to appeal in the office of the local sub-divisional magistrate and not a civil court, in case a deal goes sour and puts the food grower at a disadvantage.
The government later said an amendment could allow them to approach the civil courts.
Further, allowing big corporate to buy crop directly from the food producer and store them without any limit would lead to hoarding of the food items, the farmers argued.
Countering the centre’s one-nation, one-market slogan of the NDA government, the farmers pointed out that at present a food producer can sell his produce anywhere in the country and there was nothing new the government had done with its ‘reform’ bills.
The farmers also offered to withdraw the cases registered against them during the protest.
Political blame game
With the farmers being a significant political constituency across the country, the various opposition parties came out in support of the peasants to corner the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which, in turn, alleged that its rivals had instigated the farmers.
The entire opposition comprising the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, Trinamool Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtriya Samithi, Communist Party of India-Marxist, Communist Party of India, Forward Block, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party besides the trade unions backed the ‘Bharat bandh’ call given by the farmers on Dec 8 while Dravid Munnetre Kazhagam leader MK Stalin led protests in Tamil Nadu.
Following the bandh, which had a mixed response, a delegation of opposition parties comprising Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, NCP’s Sharad Pawar, CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s D Raja and DMK’s TKS Elangovan petitioned President Kovind on Dec 9 against the three new farm laws.
Earlier, Minister of State for agriculture Kailash Chaudhary said the agitating peasants had been misled by the opposition parties, mainly the Congress whose interim president Sonia Gandhi had urged party-ruled states to pass laws against the central farm laws. Union minister Raosaheb Danve went to the extent of saying that China and Pakistan were instigating the farmers.
Taking cue from Sonia, Congress-ruled Punjab and Rajasthan passed such state laws, annoying the centre in the process. The Congress, which has branded the Modi government to be anti-farmer, charged the centre of neglecting the plight of food growers and urged the PM Modi to resolve the crisis by talking to them.
The Congress further alleged the centre wanted to eliminate around 42,000 mandis across the country and leave around 62 crore farmers at the mercy of the corporate which will control the crop production business worth 25 lakh crore with the help of these bills.
The Congress reminded the Modi government of the BJP’s 2014 poll promise of implementing the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Commission and fixing MSP of crops at 50 percent of the comprehensive cost of production.
On its part, the government claims it has increased MSP 1.5 times but the issue remained debatable.
The Congress recalled the previous UPA government’s 72,000 cr worth farm loan waiver in 2008-09 and charged the NDA’s Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana had only benefited the private insurance companies which had been paid 90,000 crore premium.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi came out in support of the farmers saying anything short of a withdrawal of the three central farm laws would be a betrayal. He also said it was the duty of the grand old party to support the farmers who fed the nation.
BJP leader and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and AAP founder and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal blamed the Congress for playing politics over the farm laws. But as the protests swelled, Kejriwal met the protesting farmers and backed the Dec 8 Bharat Bandh.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the speculation about the closure of mandis and MSP were misleading and untrue and farmers should not pay attention to such speculations. “Families occupying one-two acres of agricultural land in MP for 50 years will be given pattas. Online arrangements will be made soon for all land-related records,” Chouhan said.
AAP leader and Delhi’s deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia alleged that Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was behaving like a BJP Chief Minister.
Sisodia’s response came after Amarinder Singh met Union Home Minister Amit Shah and urged the centre to rethink its stand on the legislations while appealing to the farmers to find an early solution to the problem that was adversely impacting the “economy of the state and also posing a serious danger to national security”.
Sisodia said: “Captain Amarinder Singh met BJP leaders and is now defending BJP. He is saying that the farmers’ agitation is a danger to national security. The Punjab Chief Minister is behaving like a BJP Chief Minister. He is speaking on the lines of BJP.”
However, the Congress alone was not opposing the central farm laws.
Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too threatened a nationwide agitation if the central farm laws were not repealed. Banerjee spoke to various farmers’ groups protesting at Delhi’s Singhu border against the centre’s agriculture laws and assured them of her party’s support.
TMC leader Derek O’Brien, who spent almost four hours with the agitating farmers, facilitated the interaction over the phone. “The CM spoke to the farmers. Four telephone calls to different groups from Haryana and Punjab, they shared their demands and they were clear that they wanted the farm bills (laws) repealed,” O’Brien said. “It was a very emotional meeting. The farmers’ groups were aware of the laws and knew exactly what they wanted — the repeal of these laws,” O’Brien said.
Recalling her 26-day long hunger strike against the forceful acquisition of agricultural land in Singur in 2006, Banerjee expressed her solidarity with the protesting farmers.
“Fourteen years ago on Dec 4, 2006, I began my 26-day hunger strike in Kolkata demanding that agricultural land cannot be forcefully acquired. I express my solidarity with all farmers who are protesting against draconian farm bills (now laws) passed without consultation by centre #StandWithFarmers,” Banerjee tweeted.
RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav’s led protests in front of the Mahatma Gandhi’s statue at Gandhi Maidan in Patna, capital of Bihar, to express support for the farmers’ protest.
“Farmers should get fair prices… MSP should have been mentioned in the legislation. Everyone in the country is upset with this government,” Yadav said.
The Shiv Sena, which had parted ways with the BJP last year to form a coalition government in Maharashtra with the Congress and the NCP under Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, claimed the farmers from Punjab had brought the Modi government to its knees through their protest against the new farm laws and the world had taken note of the unity shown by them.
Interestingly, BJP’s long time ally in Punjab the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by Sukhbir Singh Badal too had quit the NDA terming the three bills anti-farmer and took to streets in September to compete with Amarinder Singh. Sukhbir’s wife and then Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the cabinet in protest.
Harsimrat Kaul Badal said: “What’s wrong in giving the people what they are asking for. Half the protest of farmers will be over if the minimum price guaranteed by the government (MSP) is made a right by law.”
After SAD founder and former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal wrote to the President Kovind that he was returning his Padma Vibhushan award in protest, Shiromani Akali Dal (Democratic) President and Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa also announced to return his Padma Bhushan award to express solidarity and protest against the treatment meted out to the farmers at the borders of Delhi. In his letter to President Kovind, Dhindsa said the people of Punjab were facing a vilification campaign and a hostile attitude, which, he said, could further lead to a hate campaign against them.
Another BJP ally in Rajasthan Rashtriya Loktantrik Party leader Hanuman Beniwal too threatened to quit the NDA if the three central farm laws were not withdrawn. Two Independent lawmakers in Haryana also came out against the laws.
People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti, who had formed a coalition government with the BJP in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, too slammed the saffron party, saying “the BJP is scared of people’s power and that’s why a reign of repression has been unleashed in J&K since illegal abrogation of Article 370. Not allowing any peaceful medium for dissent shows their nervousness and failure on all fronts.”
Several farmers’ organisations including Shetkari Samanvay Samiti, Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Prahar, Janshakti, Chhava and Krantiveer protested in Nashik city of Maharashtra against the new farm laws to express their solidarity with the farmers agitating in Delhi.