Exclusive | In the shadow of election frenzy: Farmers who refuse to back down

23 May,2024 06:48 AM IST |  Chandigarh  |  Faisal Tandel

As the poll juggernaut rolls into Punjab, mid-day visits Ground Zero of protests that have been going on silently, the temporary township of Shambhu

Barricades installed on the road. Pics/Faisal Tandel

Key Highlights

While all the political parties are busy campaigning for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in Punjab, thousands of farmers from various remote areas of Punjab have gathered at different borders to protest against the Central and state government, demanding their basic needs. To celebrate the 100 days of protest, the farmers culminated in a large assembly, or sammelan, on Wednesday at the Shambhu border.

A mid-day reporter visited the protest sites near the Shambhu border and observed that the farmers have established a small town-like settlement. Barricades were installed, and the main highway towards Haryana was blocked almost five kilometres ahead of the Shambhu border. Farmers are steadfast in their demands, which primarily include better prices for their crops, cancellation of debts and improved access to essential services like water, electricity and healthcare. They are determined to stay put until their grievances are addressed, highlighting pressing agricultural issues with both the Central and state governments.

The tents are set up on the road at the protest site

When mid-day reached the spot, we found the protesters staying in trolleys they brought from their villages and tents they had installed. On Wednesday, more than 30,000 farmers gathered at the protest site to mark 100 days of the protest. Leaders of the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha spoke against the government, discussing the ongoing protest and future steps.

Tejveer Singh, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) (Shaheed Bhagat Singh), who has been at the spot for the past 100 days, said, "This is the third-largest protest in India which has gone on continuously for 100 days. We farmers are celebrating it collectively and paying tribute to the martyrs of the movement. Despite government pressure, such as deploying paramilitary forces and banning social media accounts of leaders, we are still on the ground protesting for citizens' rights."

Tejveer Singh, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) (Shaheed Bhagat Singh)

Raids to stop the protest

Tejveer also highlighted the government's response: "After the tractor march on January 26, the Central and state governments started raiding the houses of protest leaders. More than 150 leaders faced raids, and their relatives holding government jobs were pressured to make us withdraw the protest. Officers like Narendra Bhargav and Jaskaran are using force to lower our morale."

Regarding the duration of the stir, Tejveer stated, "The protest will continue even after the election, whether the NDA or the INDIA bloc comes into power. Until our demands are met, the agitation will go on. We are against the BJP, which is ignoring the feelings of the common man. We are protesting not just for farmers but to save nature and the environment.

The large crowd at the protest site. Pics/Faisal Tandel

If corporate culture takes over, our soil and water will be destroyed, and we will become dependent. Farming is the only saviour for the environment. We are fighting to save our generation."

He emphasised the inclusive nature of the protest, "Protests involving women and children have succeeded in the past, and this protest also includes women and children from different parts of Punjab and Haryana, totalling more than 25,000 to 30,000 participants."

Farm leaders Ashok Balhara and Dilbag Singh Gill

How the protest started

As the election approached, many farmers expected protests, but some leaders joined political parties instead. On December 27, 2024, the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha was formed, initiating local protests. On January 2, 2024, Sarvan Singh Pandher announced a farmer march to Delhi on February 13, in collaboration with SKM (Samyukt Kisan Morcha).

"As planned, thousands of farmers started walking towards Delhi on February 13, but we were stopped at the Shambhu border by Haryana and Punjab police. They put up barricades and built concrete walls on highways to stop us. The government deployed around 70,000 paramilitary forces at the Haryana borders. Are we terrorists that such force is used against us? We are fighting for farmers' rights," said Ashok Balhara, president of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan.

Balhara added, "On February 13 and 14, authorities used rubber bullets and tear gas. On February 21, they fired live rounds. At the Kanori border, a young man named Subh Karan was killed by a bullet. Four people were injured by gunfire, and 400 others were hurt. Tractors and medical stalls were destroyed. Three youngsters are in jail - two in Ambala and one in Jind. We protested on railway tracks for 34 days so that they were released but withdrew to complete 100 days at Shambhu and prepare for the poll." Balhara noted that the farmers' protest was ongoing at four Punjab and Haryana borders: Shambhu, Khanauri, Dabwali and Ratanpura. Nearly 70 organisations from remote areas support the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha.

Purpose of the protest

The farmers' protest is driven by several key issues:

Minimum Support Price
Farmers are demanding a minimum support price (MSP) for 23 crops, not just wheat, rice, and sugarcane. "Our demand is that MSP should be implemented on 23 crops," said Ashok Balhara. "Only Haryana and Punjab have had MSP as per the scheme since 1943. But this is not there in
other states."

Loan waivers
Farmers are seeking loan waivers similar to those granted to the corporate sector. "Farmers have around R16 lakh crore in loans, and around R7.9 lakh crore is through the Kisan credit card limit, which should be waived off," Balhara added.

Land acquisition
They also demand fair compensation for land acquired for railways and roads. "Since 2015, the rate has declined to 2.5 times the collector land rate. Our demand is to maintain the old rate of four times the collector land rate," explained Balhara.

Justice for farmers
There is also a call for justice for the farmers killed in incidents involving government forces. "The son of Ajay Mishra Teni killed four farmers and one reporter in a road mishap. Still, their deaths are yet to receive justice," Balhara stated.

Historical context and ongoing struggle
Dilbag Singh Gill, president of the Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Union, highlighted the historical struggle of farmers, mentioning past protests and the government's unfulfilled promises. "The issues of farmers are not a new one. We have heard it since our childhood. The first protest started in 1907 and for 9 months the protest went on the farmer issue. After that many small protests were held in the past. The last one was from November 2020 to December 2021 which was held in Delhi. Then we requested to take three laws back. But they just gave assurance but nothing was on paper or implemented," said Gill.

Police actions
Gill also criticised the government's use of force against protesters. "Police come wearing helmets and damage our tractors, trolleys, and cars. Four boys were put in gunny bags and assaulted badly," he said.

Gill, in a tent with his supporters, pointed to a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 2013 speech. "Modi promised MSP changes, loan waivers, and crop schemes. None of these happened. We demand daily wages to increase from R350 to R700 and implementation of the Swaminathan Ayog report but these are just dreams for farmers. We have completed 100 days but won't stop until our demands are met. Police act like goons, damaging our tractors and trolleys. Four boys were assaulted in gunny bags," said Gill.

He added, "The government built concrete walls on the highway to stop us from reaching Delhi. Since 2004, farmer issues have been in every manifesto, be it BJP or Congress, but nothing has been implemented. BJP is anti-farmer and a killer of farmers. Agriculture is a state subject, but central rules prevail. Crops without MSP are sold in black markets, hurting common people. We don't need R6,000 from Modi; we need MSP."

Gill noted that more farmers would join once they finish peak season cultivation.

No. of leaders who faced raids

No. of farmers at site on Wed.

Electoral stance

Jasvinder Singh Longowal, president, Bharti Kisan Union Ekta Azad, emphasised that the protest is non-political. "We will not support any party. Our aim is to fight for the farmers. If farmland and farmers are saved, we will get many more jobs in the future," Longowal stated.

Asked about injuries and illnesses among protesters, the response was sobering. "Injuries are fewer than suicides, which are increasing. People selling land and seeking jobs abroad is a significant loss. Protecting farmland means future employment opportunities."

Support from different sectors
Manish Siddharth, a teacher from Rajasthan, was at the spot to support the protesters. "I came for the environment, the needy farmers and to save cultivation culture in India," Siddharth said.

Alleged injustice and personal struggles
Jaisingh Jalbeda, whose son was jailed during the protests, expressed his frustration. "My son was put in jail because, in 2021, he stopped the water cannon's nozzle in Delhi. He was arrested two months ago, and charges like attempted murder were put on him," Jalbeda said.

Monika Nain from the Mazdoor Kisan Union

Political pressure
Monika Nain from the Mazdoor Kisan Union criticised political actions against farmers. "When we are not allowed to go to Delhi, we will not allow BJP in our village. No party is good for farmers; all of them think for themselves," she declared.

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