BS READS: Farmers' protest -- Anti-corporate agitation takes anti-Modi turn

Topics BS Reads | farmers | Punjab

Farmers raise slogans during a protest against the farm laws at Singhu border in New Delhi.
On the Haryana side of the historic grand trunk (GT) road that connects Bangladesh to Afghanistan through Delhi, a siege of unprecedented scale is underway. Thousands of farmers from every district of Punjab have trickled in the past week, blocking off access to the crucial National Highway-44 from the Singhu and Tikri border posts in Delhi. 

Punjab’s farmers have mounted entire villages on their tractor trolleys, with supplies that would last a few months, to launch the blockade. Trolleys have been converted into community sleeping places, with heavy quilts and woollen partitions to protect the elderly from the biting cold. There are refrigerated trucks and water tankers in tow to ensure the siege continues uninterrupted. 

Young Sikhs among the protestors have brought their woofer systems mounted atop open jeeps and tractors that blare popular songs inspiring Jat Sikhs to keep their morale high till their demands are met. Every tractor trailer proudly displays the name of the village it comes from and the farmers' union under whose banner it has mobilised. 

Every village has set up community kitchens in the open, continuously churning out piping hot langar of simple dal, vegetables and roti. Volunteers from local gurudwaras, including Delhi’s Bangla Sahib gurudwara, come several times a day ensuring a steady supply of drinking water and more luxurious meals like saag-paneer and hot rice. A langar organised by UK-based British Sikh Council blares an anti-Sangh Parivar tirade on loud speakers, proclaiming (translated): “You eat cow dung and drink cow urine. You want the farmers of this country who feed the nation to become cow urine drinking slaves. Shame on you.” 

A group of Sikh farmers is seen marching under the banner of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). All of them are moving a few kilometres down the road to the Singhu border, where a battalion of Delhi Police has been preventing them from entering the national capital.

Ever since October, when Business Standard reported the widescale farmer protests over two new farm legislation and sweeping amendments to another one in Punjab, the sentiment seems to have transformed to more anti-Modi than an anti-Ambani/Adani stance earlier. When the protests started, the anger was at large corporates with some hope of redress by the centre. Now the hope seems to have dissipated and the anger has become multi-dimensional.

More importantly, Punjab’s farmers who peacefully targeted Reliance outlets, Adani silos and private toll roads seem to have marched to Delhi loaded to the hilt and well prepared for a long fight against the central government’s legislation. Surprisingly, they marched through two states in huge convoys without being either stopped or questioned, barring a stray incident of police assault in Panipat in Haryana where a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is in power. What sets this protest apart is the sheer scale of synchronised movement from virtually every part of Punjab meticulously planned to last several months and executed with precision relatively unhindered.

Sikh farmers who protested through the night catch a nap on national highway 44.

“Around 80 people from my village came here in four trolleys. We have enough food to last us until April. People from all walks of life have helped us with expenses to fill fuel in our tractors and constant repairs to batteries and punctures,” says Karam Singh, an elderly farmer from Bhaini village in Sangrur district of Punjab.

“Till Panipat, we ate at local gurudwaras. After the police incident at Panipat, Jaats from Haryana came to help us with fresh milk, curd, fruit juice packets, water and fresh vegetables. They are constantly helping us with fresh milk and vegetables daily. Around 20 people from my village came in two trolleys. We are stocked up for six months. We won’t move till the Narendra Modi government completely scraps the farm laws," says Rashpal Singh, who came from Anshali village in the Fatehgarh district of the state.

Makhan Singh from Kamalpura village in Ludhiana says: “Around 15 of us, including women, came from my village in two trolleys. Today 15 more people will arrive with additional food and bedding. We had already done most of the wheat sowing before coming. We also do sugarcane farming in my village whose sowing will start in December. My children are taking care of the sugarcane sowing. Some of us will go back to help. But more people will arrive as replacements than the ones who go back. We came with ration for three months. With support of locals we will be able to sustain our protest for a much longer time.”

Makhan Singh along with an elderly from his village in Ludhiana at farmers protest at Delhi border.

“The Modi government is only interested in protecting the big corporates and traders. They didn’t take us seriously when we started protests against the farm Bills in Punjab. One of the Bills will finish off government mandis by setting up private markets. There is no guarantee of a minimum support price (MSP). Cheap wheat from Bihar is already being dumped in Punjab below the MSP. Where will we go then? The other Bill makes us slaves of corporates who want to do contract farming. The contractor has the power to terminate the contract but the farmer does not. We will become slaves of corporates," says Meher Singh Their, vice-president of the BKU (Punjab) who is at the protest with 10 people of his village near Mohali.  

“Modi has finished off the Essential Commodities Act. Big corporates and traders will hoard essential commodities and make a killing. We get barely Rs 5 for kg of potato which is sold for Rs 50 in cities. If big companies with huge storage start hoarding our produce and with government procurement finished, who will we sell to every season. The corporate will dictate prices to you and the farmer will have to dump his produce on the road or be forced to sell at prices that don’t even cover his costs. Modi will turn us all into labourers of corporates on our own land,” says Sarabjit Singh from Dera Baba Nanak, a village on the border with Pakistan through which the historic Kartarpur corridor was built last year.   

As farmers continue to dig their heels and a second round of talks is scheduled for Thursday, the central government seems to have gone on the defensive. PM Modi in his radio programme sought to tackle the protests more by emotionally appealing to the Sikh religious sentiment than through a pointed clarification on each of the farmers grievances. He made references to the restoration of a historic gurudwara in Gujarat following the earthquake and how the work had been honoured by UNESCO. Modi further added, “Opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor in November last year was historic. I will cherish this lifelong in my heart. It is the good fortune of all of us that we got the opportunity to serve Shri Darbaar Sahib once more. It has now become easier for our Sikh brothers and sisters abroad to send contributions in the service of Darbaar Sahib. With this step, the Sangat, the followers all over the world have come closer to Darbaar Sahib.”

To many Sikhs at the protest site on Delhi’s borders, the Kartarpur achievement mattered little in front what they perceived as a threat to their and their children's survival in the times to come. All wanted something that the government had flatly refused to do – scrap the farm Bills. 

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel