Khaps, which were considered outdated and regressive, now help in spreading the word

As Haryanvi singer Ajay Huda croons “Zindabad kisani, zindabad jawani”, his latest song on farmers’ protests, sons of farmers break into a jig at the Bhojpur panchayat called by the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) against the contentious farm laws.

Among them are four upper caste software engineers working in private companies in Noida and Gurugram, after passing out from a private university in Ghaziabad. They say the protests against farm laws have brought them closer to their roots.

“We are professionals and we want the government to understand that farmers are also professionals who know what is good for them. Why are they not being taken into confidence?” asked Abhishek Rathi, adding, “We are being told to diversify. When the stray cattle are not leaving the wheat crop in this region, how do you expect us to sow pulses?”

Old-timers say youth who had moved out of villages because of better prospects have responded to the protests because they realise it has become a matter of losing their identity.

Suddenly, khaps, which were considered outdated and regressive, have become “cool” for they help in spreading the word.

“Land was relevant for youngsters only at the time of the wedding, when we could boast that we have this much bigha of land. Otherwise, it was given on batai (sharecropping) and there was no day-to-day connection with farming. These laws have spurred interest in farming and its symbols,” said Dheer Singh, a farmer with 15 bighas of land in Bhojpur, looking at a fleet of tractors on the road.

“We were swayed by the Ram temple politics and the nationalist agenda of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) but khali pet na hot bhajan gopala (even prayers cannot be sung on an empty stomach). The Modinagar sugar mill has just begun to pay the dues of last February,” said Satyam Kaushik, citing the popular Hindi proverb.

“Input costs are rising and MSP remains an illusion,” he adds. “It affects everybody. If we won’t get the payment in time, how would we pay those who work for us in the fields?”

“If politics is not important for them, why are the top two in the BJP are ignoring farmers’ protests and are putting in all their energy into Bengal polls?” chips in Vishal Malik. “Why don’t they clarify farmers’ doubts about the Bills?”

Ajay Malik, who runs a fertilizer shop along with tilling his land in Bhojpur is equally stressed. “If corporate farming becomes a reality, companies will provide seed and fertiliser. What would be my role?” he asks.

The principal doubt, said Mr. Malik, is that the laws will leave farmers at the mercy of corporates. “Having worked in the corporate set-up, I know they work only for their profit. They might give farmers incentives in the first couple of years, but after that they would do manmaani (arbitrary approach). How would we stand up to them without government support? These laws give an indication that the government is moving out of agriculture,” he said.

Prashant Chaudhary, a young farmer from neighbouring Bulandshahr, said the three-month-long protests have unravelled the character of the ruling party. “Our elders used to call it sarmayedaron (capitalists) ki party. Their arrogance has proven it. I kick myself as to how I supported such an insensitive party,” he said, adding, “They could see communal colour in Rinku Sharma’s murder but could not spare time to shed a tear on more than 200 farmers who have died during the protests. This Hindu-Muslim politics won’t work. Now, even if they take back the laws, we have understood their character.”

Riazul Hasan, an aged farmer from Nakud, said it’s not that small farmers will benefit from these laws. “Having lived during the zamindari period, I could sense new zamindars are being brought to villages. As kids, we were told how the British government asked farmers to cultivate only indigo. We are not ready to be dictated on what to sow and reap,” he said.

The BJP’s confidence, observers say, possibly stems from the assessment that the small and landless farmer from castes that have been socially oppressed in the region for centuries, and which form a large chunk of the vote bank, are still with them. Ajay Malik agrees social structures have changed in villages in the last couple of decades .

“The cost of farm labour has increased from ₹200 to ₹500 a day and you can no longer dictate them on whom to vote. They appear to be with us socially but ultimately they will see what is in their financial interests,” he said.

“We had no problem with the ruling party till the Hathras case happened,” said Surjit, a 30-year-old sanitation worker in Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam, who has a couple of bighas of land in Bhojpur.

Pointing at the panchayat, he said they had gathered to save their lands. “They fear that a new [corporate] chaudhary (landowner) is coming to villages. We have nothing to lose. If the BJP government makes sanitation workers like me, who are on contract for 15 years, permanent, I don’t mind supporting it,” he said.

“We are here as farmers in support of fellow farmers. But we have yet to make up our mind on whom to vote,” said Harbir Singh, another Scheduled Caste farmer from the area, waiting to see Behenji’s (Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati) next move.

That’s why both the RLD and the Bharatiya Kisan Union are repeatedly emphasising on strengthening bhaichara (brotherhood) at the grassroots for only then vote ki chot (wounding by voting) could be inflicted upon the BJP.

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