Massive show of strength at farmers’ UP mahapanchayat
Hundreds of thousands of farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra gathered for a kisan mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar on Sunday, months ahead of assembly polls in the first three states, demanding that the central government roll back three contentious farm laws passed by Parliament a year ago.
Addressing the event organised by protesting farmers’ umbrella body Samyukt Kisan Morcha, Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait said the Morcha would take the movement against the three farm laws to the entire country and seek a legal guarantee on minimum support prices for crops.
Speaking in Bengaluru, Union minister Anurag Thakur said the central government not only increased the MSP and procurement but also built more mandis and is working towards increasing the income of the farmers. He said the Centre held discussions with farm union leaders on the new laws but no consensus could be reached because of their hard stance.
“Senior ministers of the government of India held not one but 11 rounds of meetings with farmers. Detailed discussions were held on the issue,” he said.
Tikait called upon farmers to “keep their tractors ready as they could be needed any time”.
“These meetings will be held across the country. We have to stop the country from getting sold. Farmers should be saved, the country should be saved; businesses, employees and youth should be saved — that is the aim.”
“The struggle for independence continued for 90 years, so I have no idea for how long this movement will go on,” he said. On the issue of further discussions with the government, Tikait said: “We will go when the central government invites us for talks.”
Invoking communal amity, he raised the slogan “Allahu Akbar” from the stage and the participants responded with “Har Har Mahadev”. He said his father Mahendra Singh Tikait often used these two slogans from the stage to infuse a joint sense of purpose. “They will divide but we will unite people,” he said, hitting out at the ruling BJP.
Underlining the political significance of the event, Tikait said “Mission UP” had begun with the mahapanchayat.
The state BJP termed the mahapanchayat an “election meeting”. The BJP’s Kisan Morcha head and MP Rajkumar Chahar said in a statement that it was politics and not concern for farmers that drove those behind the mahapanchayat.
“This was very much a political and election meeting. The opposition and these farmer union leaders have been using the shoulders of farmers to engage in politics,” he said.
Tikait criticised the recently announced monetisation scheme and accused the BJP government of selling the country’s assets. “This will lead to an acute crisis of employment for the youth,” he said, adding that it was getting difficult for farmers to protect their land and crops.
Only khap chaudharis (clan leaders) and farmer leaders were allowed to share the stage at the mahapanchayat from which leaders of political parties were kept away. Morcha leaders Yogendra Yadav, Darshan Pal, Gurnam Singh Chadhuni, Balbeer Singh Rajewal, Satnam Singh, and social activist Medha Patkar were among those who addressed the gathering.
BJP MP Varun Gandhi described farmers as “our own flesh and blood” and suggested that the government should re-engage with them in reaching common ground. His remarks drew support from RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) demanded the Centre to accept the demands of farmers who have been protesting for nearly nine months against the three farm laws. BSP spokesperson Sudhindra Bhadoria supported the kisan mahapanchayat and said it is a democratic right of every citizen to have a peaceful protest.
Large langars (free food stalls) were organised to feed the crowds that started forming by 9am, transforming the area into a sea of white Gandhi caps with strips of green, Muslim skullcaps and Sikh turbans. Muslim volunteers could be seen distributing food and water to people arriving from outside. The show of religious unity put up by the protesters was a political statement in the western UP belt that bore the brunt of bloody communal riots in 2013 between Hindu Jats and Muslims, the scars of which have not healed but were willingly put aside for a common purpose.
“Things really went bad after the riots. Even though there was no violence reported as such, one could still feel differences in the way people of the two communities behaved with each other. However, it looks like the protest has brought people together,” said Salim Baliyan, a farmer from Hasoli village in Muzaffarnagar.
Raghunath Singh, a farmer from Mimlana village, said: “At the end of the day we are all farmers and we have shared economic interests. The protest has made people realise that.”
Farmers in attendance said the problem of stray cattle damaging crops, pending sugarcane payment dues, and heavy electricity bills were their other big worries.
“Stray cattle has become a major menace and the government must do something about it. The protest should take up the issue especially in the light of the election ahead. It will definitely make an impact,” said Ankur Panwar, a Jat farmer who had come to the congregation from Fikheda village, around 10km from Muzaffarnagar town.
Punitive action over stubble burning was another sore point. On August 25, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced that the government would withdraw cases against farmers and revoke fines imposed on them for burning crop residue in the fields.
“The Haryana government had done that too ahead of the assembly elections in the state but now they have started fining farmers again,” said Rajan Singh, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut.
Several groups of farmers from faraway states such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal were also part of the event.
“This event has the potential to revive the ongoing protest. Western Uttar Pradesh is a highly polarised region and the choice of Muzaffarnagar for a congregation like this is clearly symbolic. There is a possibility that some farmer leaders are testing the waters ahead of the assembly polls,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow with the Centre for Policy Research.
Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, said: “The event could signify the revival of the social coalition for political purpose, but religious divide in the region is too deep to be bridged in such a short time. Religious solidarity is a fragile thing in this region and may witness A rupture as political campaigns get charged up ahead of the assembly polls. So it is a bit early to draw concrete conclusions on that at this point.”