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Chandigarh: A former solider, a doctor, a psephologist, a Jat leader, a women’s rights activist are just some of those who brought the mighty Modi government to its knees.
Some of them played a key role in sustaining the farmers’ protest for close to a year. This, in turn, has redefined public movement in India and it will keep inspiring all future movements.
Their leadership helped bridge the left-right political divide, and paved the way for farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to assemble on a common platform and fight the long battle.
Harinder Bindu, Jasbir Kaur Natt and the sizeable presence of women
One of the most defining aspects of this protest was the large presence of women. Two leaders in particular – Harinder Bindu and Jasbir Kaur Natt – were at the forefront, to make sure that women have their voices heard.
Women drove tractors, sang songs of rebellion and made highways their new home despite several challenges like the lack of separate toilets and so on. Many sociologists saw a new gender awakening in an otherwise patriarchal and male-dominated society.
Harinder Bindu, who is the in-charge of the women’s cell of BKU Ekta Ugrahan had a major role in engaging women from rural Punjab and motivated them to join the farm protest. She herself was at the site for months.
“Seeing the participation of women in Punjab farm organisations, our counterparts in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh too were motivated to bring women to this protest, which was a great achievement,” she said.
Jasbir Kaur Natt, who is among the leading women farmers’ leaders in Punjab, was a palpable leader as well.
If one visited the stage of the Sanjha Morcha, a joint organisation of 30 farmers’ unions in Punjab, at the Tikri border, Jasbir could be seen managing the stage, motivating the crowd, and taking care of women protesters.
Natt is the state committee member of the Punjab Kisan Morcha. A Dalit rights activist since her college days, the plight of women in the agrarian society motivated her into activism.
Her daughter Navkiran Natt too played a vital role as one of the founder members of the Trolley Times that became the newspaper of dissent during the protest.
Both spent a large chunk of the last year at the protest site.
Rajinder Singh, a young leader from Kirti Kisan Union, too enthused energy into the protest and has become one of the emerging leaders of tomorrow.
Dr Darshan Pal
Not many know that Darshan Pal who helped unify various farmers’ unions under the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha and gave it ideological shape is a Doctor of Medicine in anaesthesia.
Pal left his job with the Punjab Civil Medical Service in early 2000 and began participating in the activities of farmers’ unions before he joined the Krantikari Kisan Union in 2016 and later became its state president.
Before taking up an active role in this movement, he had been working to secure compensation for the families of those farmers who have died by suicide. Securing loan waivers for farmers was also something Pal had been campaigning for. His is among the first few organisations which had started protesting against the Central farm ordinances in June, 2020.
Pal is also a member of the working group of the All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC). Pal has played an important role in taking this agitation beyond Punjab and towards Delhi.
AIKSCC members then mobilised farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Maharashtra to arrive outside Delhi’s borders in Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri.
Balbir Singh Rajewal
Balbir Singh Rajewal, another prominent name in SKM, was among leaders to steer the farmers’ movement first in Punjab, then in Delhi.
Rajewal has been associated with the movement in Punjab the since early days of undivided BKU, of which he is among founding members.
He currently heads BKU (Rajewal). His experience in mobilising farmers within the state over various issues played a key role in creating the environment for the farmers’ protest.
Since the days of the ordinance, he began holding protests and tractor rallies, which later took bigger shape when the protest shifted to Delhi.
Rajewal once had close ties with SAD in Punjab. If farmers decide to form their own political outfit, his role will be crucial and he is thus being keenly watched. A while ago, there had been rumours that he was keen on joining AAP, but he denied it.
Rajewal and Pal are also crisis managers of SKM who tackled challenges that the protest faced.
Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a former Army man who returned to farming after retirement and went on to form his own offshoot of the BKU in 2002, is the head of the lef- leaning BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), which played a key role in steering the farmers’ movement in the Malwa region of Punjab where the movement was truly alive for nearly a year.
Former professor of sociology Manjit Singh told The Wire that BKU Ugrahan has its base among small and marginal farmers and the largest membership among farmers’ unions. The fact that they are well organised has helped in a major way in mobilising farmers to the farm protest both with in Punjab and Delhi.
If the SKM had set up its morcha outside the Singhu border, then BKU Ugrahan kept the protest alive at the Tikri border, said Manjit Singh.
On the role of Joginder, he said that while his organisation was not part of the SKM, he had a important role in giving full cooperation to SKM but at the same time maintained its identity.
He had an understanding with SKM that his organisation will follow the common programme for farmers. He did not let their ideological differences hamper the uncompromising stand on rolling back the controversial farm bills.
Rakesh Tikait, a Jat leader from western UP is yet another big name that played a key role especially in reviving the farm movement.
Political analyst Ashutosh Kumar told The Wire that Tikait had not been in the limelight even months after the farm protest shifted to Delhi from Punjab and Haryana.
He, however, played a crucial role when the farmers’ protest almost fizzled out after the Republic Day episode. His emotional appeal charged up farmers and since then, the protest grew stronger.
Ashutosh said that the fact that he comes from a politically active family from western Uttar Pradesh has helped him to connect with farmers in the Hindi belt and charged them up.
His father Mohinder Tikait was a tall farm leader, who once brought the Union government to its knees in the 1980s. Also, he belongs to the dominant Balyan Khap that has considerable influence in western UP and parts of Haryana, said Ashutosh.
Tikait has held several mahapanchayats, blurring caste and religious divisions in the protest.
According to Ashutosh, how Tikait expands his political ambition after this protest remains to be seen, but his contribution to this movement was crucial.
It will not be wrong to say that Yogendra Yadav was the spokesperson of the movement.
“A psephologist and activist, Yadav promoted the protest narrative especially to the English audience,” said political commentator Harjeshwar Pal Singh.
Yadav’s TV interviews took the protests to its global audience and whenever the protests came under a cloud, he clarified its stance through media interviews. “His role with in SKM as a strategist was significant too,” said Harjeshwar.
He said that Yadav had his share of controversies but these are immaterial for a larger cause.
According to professor Manjit Singh, since Yogendra Yadav had been active in similar public movements and was also an active member of AIKSCC, he engaged with the movement even before it moved to Delhi’s borders.
Gurnam Singh Chaduni
In Haryana, BKU leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni was a significant face. He fell out with SKM many a time over controversial statements but his organisation, BKU (Chaduni) made Haryana’s presence felt in a protest that could have otherwise been easy to have been perceived as Punjab’s alone.
Haryana farmers had equally important role in keeping the protest alive, and Chaduni had a key role to play in it. He may have been politically active but he was not the only farmers’ leader with old political links.
Manjit said that his aggressive style also helped keep the passion of the protest alive.