Gurnam Charuni: The firebrand behind the farmers’ protests
The political challenge to the Modi government on three new agricultural laws would not have been possible without the staunch efforts of one man -- 60-year-old Gurnam Singh Charuni, the leader of the Haryana unit of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), a popular farmers’ organisation.
The two-month-long agitation by farmers, who say the laws will help corporate giants at the expense of growers, has morphed into a mass movement due to the grit of many well-organised farm unions, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. But Charuni has played an outsized role in it.
A firebrand, Charuni organised one of the first meetings in September in Haryana’s Pipli village to protest against the three laws. The next milestone came when the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), a coalition of over 200 farmer unions, gave a call for a march to Delhi on November 26-27.
The decision to forge a larger alliance took place at a meeting a month earlier, on October 27, at Delhi’s Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, which was attended by several farm union leaders, including VM Singh, a former convenor of the AIKSCC, 78-year-old Balbir Singh Rajewal, a veteran farmer leader from Punjab and Charuni, who was the face of the farmers’ agitation in Haryana.
“It was Charuni who went from village to village, day and night, and explained the need to make the agitation bigger and bigger. This was after it was clear that thousands of farmers would move to Delhi,” said Sandeep Topra, an aide to Charuni who leads the BKU’s youth wing.
Charuni contested the 2019 Assembly election from Ladwa constituency in Haryana’s Kurukshetra region, campaigning on a mix of farmers’ issues and matters of local development but had lost. His wife Balwinder Kaur had also fought and lost the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as an Aam Aadmi Party candidate.
Charuni’s election affidavit, a statutory requirement, described him as a farmer and a commission agent dealing in trade of farm produce.
Charuni’s native village, Charuni Jattan, lies in the Shahbad area of the Kurukshetra district. His derives his surname from his native village, a customary practice.
Charuni is an iconoclast. In the middle of the march to Delhi on November 25, farm unions had decided unanimously to sit peacefully on the Punjab-Haryana border due to resistance from the government and a harsh crackdown by Haryana police.
Charuni gave a war cry, defied the sit-in plan, and instead pulled apart barricades in Ambala to reach Delhi with thousands of followers.
On January 18, he broke ranks with the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the organiser of the protests, to mobilise political parties in favour of the agitation, much to the chagrin of other unions, who wanted to keep the agitation apolitical.
This prompted the Samyukt Kisan Morcha to issue a statement, saying efforts by Charuni to organise an all-party meeting on the farm laws were not “unauthorised” by it and this didn’t figure in its official agenda.
Charuni’s spokesperson Sandeep Topra said Charuni had not violated any protocol of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha. “If political parties reach out and come to Charuni for a meeting, how can he say no? He hasn’t shared any stage with political parties.”
The firebrand farm leader had no qualms in breaking away from the consensus, as long as it strengthened the farmers’ cause.
Thousands of farmers are demanding that the government scrap three laws to ease restrictions on farm trade, allow traders to stockpile large quantities of food stock for future sales and lay down a national framework on contract farming based on written agreements.
“These laws will break the backbone of farmers. They will lead to distress sale of farm produce and make us bow to big corporations,” Charuni said.
After thousands of farmers reached the borders of Delhi on November 27, the Union government asked the protestors to move to Burari, a designated site on Delhi’s outskirts before official talks on the farmers’ demands could begin.
Charuni staunchly opposed it, likening Burari to an open jail. Charuni is popularly described as a fearless farm leader adept at winning street battles on farmers’ issues. He has been at the forefront of a long agitation for timely payment of cane prices to sugarcane farmers.
Charuni was responsible for bringing Haryana’s farmers into the ongoing agitation, without which the protests could not have moved out of Punjab and grow into a mass uprising. The agitation has put to test the Modi government’s ability to push through economic reforms.
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