A year since it began, the farmers’ protest in Punjab has now acquired a larger space. Interestingly, it may be for the first time that the state government is supporting the farmers’ movement against the Central government. Not only this, the movement is being supported by all political parties in the state, except the BJP — Congress, Akalis, AAP. It has enormous support among retired and even serving civil servants, teachers, students, civil society activists, artists and professionals. In other words, the class which has ruled this state since the mid-’60s in the post-Green Revolution phase has joined this protest.

It is a well-entrenched class, having at its disposal an abundance of human and material resources and can thus provide sustainability to this movement. Even the songs have exhorted the people to join the protest using the nostalgic theme — once a farmer, always a farmer — addressing those who left farming and are now engaged in non-agriculture activities. And the slogan — no farmer, no food.

The three Acts passed by Parliament reinforce the apprehensions of this class that their control over the agricultural economy is being weakened even as they could not graduate to industry, trade or the service sector. For the hegemonic agrarian ruling class in Punjab, land is not merely an economic asset, but has social and cultural value. The current protest movement is different from earlier agrarian protests in terms of the economic demands, politico-cultural stakes and identity overtones. Most of the protests in the ’80s revolved largely around the enhancement of support prices, institutionalised credit system, regular supply of inputs on subsidised rates, etc. Those protests used to threaten to stop the supply of foodgrain to other states. Whereas now the crisis is privatisation of agricultural operations and of foodgrain not finding a market. This protest is for survival.

Another reason for its longevity is the forthcoming election in early 2022 in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. This explains the desperation of political parties, other than the BJP, to support this agitation. In Punjab, it has provided an opportunity to the ruling Congress to overcome anti-incumbency. Knowing well that the state assembly has no powers to nullify the central Acts and introduce their own Acts to regulate agriculture trade, the Amarinder Singh government did exactly that.

Similarly, the AAP government in Delhi notified the central legislation, even as its Punjab unit supported the farmers’ agitation. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an erstwhile ally of the BJP, after initial hiccups, also came to support this agitation. And the BJP, nurturing an ambition to repeat Haryana in Punjab, found itself on the margins — as the pilot of Acts which not only have adverse implications for farmers but have also hit its support base amongst small traders, arhtiyas and small shopkeepers.

The lesson to be drawn by political parties is that blanket support to the economic reforms agenda shaped by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and being implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is fraught with danger — it directly affects the survival of the people living on the margins.

The first round of talks with farmers was held on December 3, 2020. In the sixth round, the Centre agreed to exempt farmers from the stubble burning penalty and dropped changes notified in the Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020. As a follow-up, the government offered to amend provisions related to the fee structure notified in the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), and promised stricter provisions to safeguard farmers’ land rights, strengthening of notified markets and a guarantee on minimum support prices (MSPs). These proposals were rejected by a majority vote by 35 farm organisations. On January 12, the Supreme Court stayed for two years the implementation of the farm laws, besides constituting a committee to reach fair and equitable solutions.

The leaders of the movement registered the fact that it was politics which had primacy, not legal recourse. The Supreme Court has a role, but it cannot reverse the anti-people implications of the processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation.

The turning point in the movement came when the protest march on Republic Day turned violent. Some protesters hoisted the Nishan Sahib at Red Fort. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal on January 28 provided another lease of life to the movement. The farmers condemned the violence, disowned the perpetrators, and termed the Red Fort incident as shameful.

Before the January 26 incident, the songs, slogans and speeches mainly covered how the farmers from different regions of Punjab, Haryana, UP and MP were joining hands. However, after the incident, songs started reverberating with political events such as Mamata Banerjee’s victory in West Bengal, making them their own. “Ho wich Bengal te jadta koka/ Fer dubare Mamta ne dhonn cho killa kadh ke rakhta/ Kadh ke rakhta janata ne/ Ho Didi di iss jeet ch hissa/ Thodda vi taan paya ae (Mamata has embellished Bengal’s cap with another jewel/ People have defeated and humbled the arrogant/ All of us have contributed to Didi’s victory)”.

A significant dimension was added to the protests when they carried out Covid care and relief activities, refuting the Centre’s bid to label them as terrorist sympathisers or anti-national. “Ho nawa banaya pind aa authe/ Saddi vi hunn Hind ae authe/Junga na itihaas hai sadda/ Guru Gobind de Singh hai othe atankwadiya ne hi langar oxygen da laya ae (We have set up a new village, a replica of Hind/ Those who are rewriting history are the descendants of the tenth Guru/ And these very terrorists do free sewa of oxygen for the needy)”.

The farmers’ movement so far could not throw up a leader, or overcome the faultlines between kisan and khet mazdoor. But they have successfully questioned the absence of a national agriculture policy. States with high productivity in foodgrain like Punjab and Haryana are being forced to diversify, while states like Madhya Pradesh and western UP are encouraged to produce grain. There is an urgent need to overcome the flip-flop in public policy and revisit the market centred growth model to ensure food security for the poor, food sovereignty of the country, and income redistribution policies for marginalised populations including farmers.

The writer is Director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh

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