Changing gears: Three phases of the farm law protests
“It’s simple. Let me say this clearly, just smash their heads. Can you do it?” The chilling instruction, heard in a viral video on the morning of August 29 was from Ayush Sinha, an official in Haryana’s Karnal area, to policemen in full riot gear. It was to be a spark for a political firestorm.
The orders left “no doubt” in the mind of farmers resisting the Modi government’s three liberalising farm laws since 2020 that the government wanted them “killed”, one farmer said.
The controversial instructions not only ignited a fierce standoff between thousands of farmers and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Haryana government, but also served as a springboard for a full-scale political war against the ruling party by the mostly landed peasantry who are now preparing to fight the entire gamut of the Union government’s economic policies.
And it marked the third phase of the farm protests.
Seven days later, on September 5, Rakesh Tikait, the influential 59-year-old farm union leader leading the ongoing uprising of farmers against the three farm laws, announced an all-out campaign against the BJP, especially its economic agenda pivoted towards second-generation reforms and privatisation in Asia’s third largest economy.
“The government of Modi has put India on sale. We will not allow India to be sold off,” he told tens of thousands of cultivators at a rally in Muzaffarnagar, a sugarcane belt in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh which is governed by the BJP and goes to polls early next year.
It was in Muzzaffarnagar that the political objective of the farm protest – dislodging the BJP – was officially articulated for the first time.
Days later, Tikait and others led a similar march of cultivators into Karnal and laid siege to the mini secretariat there, only relenting after the government agreed to a probe. Sinha, the subdivisional magistrate, has since been transferred and claimed that the video showing his instruction to the policemen was doctored. Last week, the state government, too,in proceedings in the Punjab & Haryana high court, blamed the agriculturists for the violence .
Muzzaffarnagar and Karnal marked a new phase in the farm agitation, which has waxed and waned over the last 10 months and took a firm footing only after a series of moves by leaders of the agitation, an analysis of their movement, agendas and speeches of farm leaders show.
BEFORE THE LAWS
The first protests began well before the government brought three ordinances – laws promulgated when Parliament is not in session – in June 2020, which were later signed into regular laws in September 2020.
Cultivators in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were the first to protest against their sliding fortunes, as farm-gate prices steadily crashed in a slew of food items, in 2015 onwards. By 2016, poor returns began hurting cultivators bad.
Farmers blame several reasons for low prices. But one came abruptly, and hit them the hardest at the time, they say.
“When demonetisation happened, traders began saying they couldn’t buy too much because they did not have cash to pay. This led to a price crash,” Sukhchain Singh, a farmer, said in Hindi. He was talking about the situation at the time in the Shahabad agricultural market, one of the largest in Haryana. Singh has been a participant in the ongoing protests.
Demonetisation refers to the Modi government’s 2016 decision to withdraw high-value banknotes from India’s monetary system, accounting for about 85% of total currency in value terms.
The government has said demonetisation hadn’t shocked the farm economy, citing food output as evidence. Official estimates of total foodgrain production in 2016-17 stood at an all-time high of 272 million tonnes, 8% higher than the 251.6 million tonnes in the previous year.
Singh said the cancelling of currency notes, which spelt chaos, didn’t affect farm output that summer because farmers had met cultivation costs through informal loans to be paid later.
A BJP official who oversees economic affairs of the party, Gopal Aggrawal, rejected claims of demonetisation affecting the farm economy. He said there were initial shocks to the informal manufacturing sector, but the move to withdraw high-value currency was necessary to formalise the economy.
“We agree farmers have problems,” Agrawal said. “But farm laws are not the cause of problems farmers are facing. The solution needs big changes. It is our conviction the farm-reform laws are the only solution. Farmers haven’t been able to show any alternative.”
In June 2017, five farmers among a large group protesting low prices of milk and vegetables were killed in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, when police opened fire as the unrest turned violent. Protests soon spilled over to Maharashtra, where dairy farmers dumped milk on roads, rather than sell at throwaway prices.
This first phase quickly coalesced into an organised agitation, when a platform of over 200 farmer unions set up in 2017, the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), called a big rally in Delhi on November 26-27. The demands were still about better prices and a farm-loan waiver.
And there things stood for a few uneasy years.
Then, the government brought in three farm laws. One law was meant to allow big businesses and supermarkets to buy produce from farmers outside heavily regulated state-backed wholesale markets.
A second law would allow private traders to stockpile large quantities of food for future sales. A third law laid down a framework for contract farming.
Allowing food businesses to stock large quantities is aimed at spurring private investors to build modern silos, according to the government.
“If one looks at the overall public resources being spent on agriculture, one is amazed that three-fourths of the resources go primarily as subsidies on things like fertiliser, power and irrigation, while only one-fourth goes into investment,” said economist Uma Kapila, editor of the series ‘Indian Economy Since Independence’.
Farmers in Punjab, who benefit heavily from the state-backed markets where government buys wheat and rice at assured prices, were weary. The move sought to change a system that had benefited them for long because the government was an assured buyer.
With the state playing an outsize role as buyer of crops and provider of big subsidies, there were little of growth-enhancing investments, either public or private.
A concrete step to launch a sustained agitation came when, under the aegis of the AIKSCC, several farmer leaders from Punjab and Haryana met at the Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, a Sikh temple in Delhi, led by influential farm union leaders such as Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Chaduni in October 2020.
“Instead of giving us relief, the government gifted us three anti-farmer laws,” said Gurnam Singh Chaduni, a farm leader.
These changes, however, riled farmers, who say the new laws will expose them to exploitation by big buyers. In Bihar, they argue, where farm trade is entirely in private hands, some similar reforms have already ruined farmers.
Bihar’s agricultural reforms of 2006, which saw the state liberalise agricultural trade by abolishing state-regulated markets, resulted in better prices for produce such as rice, wheat and maize, but the changes also brought greater price volatility, ultimately hurting farm growth, a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) showed last year.
The government has stated that these new laws would boost capital investment in the farm sector.
More than 100,000 farmers have been camping at key border points of Delhi since November last year, which marked the first phase of the protests.
A turning point came on a cold night of January 28 this year, when news began to spread that authorities in Uttar Pradesh would descend on Ghazipur, a protest camp on Delhi’s border with UP, to vacate the site.
The Ghazipur site was under the supervision of Rakesh Tikait, the son of legendary farm leader Mahendra SIngh Tikait who faced off with the then Congress government in 1986.
Tikait cried before TV cameras, saying he would rather die than give in, which steeled the resolve of the Jats, a landed agrarian community that had benefited from the Green Revolution of the 1970s. Overnight, groups of young Jat men assembled at the Bharatiya Kisan Union headquarters in Sisauli village, and marched to the Ghazipur protest site. It brought the Jats of western UP, who were until then lukewarm to the agitation, into the protest fold. That set off the second phase of the protest, which appeared to be losing momentum -- the protest camps around Delhi continue to thrive, though -- till Sinha’s comments and events in Karnal and Muzzaffarnagar galvanised the farmers.
They are now targeting the very core of the government’s economic agenda because they see a common threat: privatisation. “This government wants to sell off India. We have to give them ‘vote ka chote’ (hurt them with votes),” Tikait said in the September 5 rally.
“After attending a protest which the police quelled with force, a farmer had died. These strong-arm tactics are worsening the situation on the ground. The farmers see this as oppression, which it is,” said Sudhir Panwar, a professor with Lucknow University.