What Comes Next for the Farmers’ Movement?

As farmer leader Balbir Singh Rajewal takes the plunge into electoral politics, different farmer unions have their own perspective on the move.

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It is now nearly a month since the farmers ended their year-long protest at Delhi’s borders. Their conditions for doing so included the withdrawal of police cases against peacefully protesting farmers, the dismissal of Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ as Union minister of state for home for his son’s alleged role in the killing of farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, and the establishment of a serious committee to discuss the modalities of making minimum support price (MSP) a legal right.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the coordinating group of 32 farmer unions which led the protest, will regroup in Delhi on January 15, 2022, to take stock of the situation and will determine its next course of action. 

The big news at the moment, however, is the formation of a new political party called the Samyukta Samaj Morcha (SSM) under the leadership of Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the senior leaders of the SKM. The SSM has announced it will contest all 117 assembly seats in Punjab. While some farmer unions have decided to lend their support to the newly-formed party, others are sharply critical of the move.

Many who have been part of the movement believe that joining electoral politics is tantamount to the betrayal of a protest that deliberately kept politicians at arms’ length for a whole year. Ravi Azad, a youth leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Haryana says, “Haryana ke kisan raajneeti ko zeher maante hain, par kisaan netaaon ko bhagwaan. (The farmers of Haryana believe politics is poison but they venerate farmer leaders.)”

Rajewal’s decision to contest electoral politics, he feels, is a fall from grace.

Balbir Singh Rajewal has announced that he will enter electoral politics with the formation of the Samyukta Samaj Morcha. Photo: Facebook/Balbir Singh Rajewal

“Farmers who respect SKM for breathing new life into people’s movements in India are now hurt at the decision of some senior leaders to fight elections. Our fight is not electoral. It is a deeper battle against neoliberal capitalism which is impoverishing India. This decision to form SSM was made suddenly and without consultation with the rest of us, so, frankly, we view SSM the same way we view the other political parties.”

Gurnam Singh Bhikhi, a senior leader with the Punjab Kisan Union also feels it was a mistake for members of the SKM to enter electoral politics. He feels it is best for now to continue the movement in protest mode instead of election mode. 

Ashish Mital, the general secretary of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, and a member of the SKM, however, points out that the umbrella body consists of farmer unions that have always had political affiliations, direct or indirect. There is nothing intrinsically unnatural for some to be pulled into electoral politics, he says. He feels that as long as certain fundamentals of the movement are adhered to, there should not be talk of disciplinary action against those leaders who wish to contest elections. After all, the leaders of many farmer organisations have fought electoral battles before.

Having said that, he goes on to state that many organisations, including his own, will not be contesting elections and his appeal to all members of the SSM is to take back their decision to contest elections in the interest of preserving the farmers’ unity.

Mital makes an interesting point about the genesis of the SKM.

“The SKM was not formed by some traditional group which laid down a charter of rules. It was formed because of pressure from the farmers. Let’s also be very clear that it was the pressure of the farmers that kept it united, and forced it to make certain crucial decisions during the protest like marching all the way to Delhi’s borders instead of camping at Burari like some leaders wanted. Let us also not forget, leaders don’t make movements, movements make leaders.”

Even so, Mital says there are also some red lines that SKM leaders may not cross, the main one being that the ‘Samyukta Kisan Morcha’ name may not be used by any newly formed political parties which as far as he can see, has not happened. 

“If you are part of the SKM, you have a commitment to the farmers of India and as long as you stand by that, you are free to do what you want. But of course, if you start getting close to the BJP (or Congress, or AAP or Akali Dal for that matter) then it will not be looked on too kindly by the farmers who have been let down by all these parties, and there will be a price to pay for that.”

Both Ravi Azad and Ashish Mital point out that while the formation of the SSM is getting the lion’s share of attention in both mainstream and social media at the moment, there is also a deep, tangible shift happening in rural India that cannot be ignored. 

Mital says that the sense of despondency and hopelessness that hung over UP’s villages has lifted and the humble farmer has hope again. There is celebration in the villages as people have realised that the all-powerful, government-backed corporates can be pushed back after all. Instead of sitting back passively, villages are now actively working to find solutions. The farmers’ protest has birthed a number of other smaller but significant movements such as a movement by kitchen cooks, the Pragatisheel Rasoiya Adhikar Manch in Bijnor, a movement for MNREGA in Hissar, and a call for action against the murder of a Dalit family in Prayagraj, to name just a few.

But Mital laments the fact that opposition parties have not taken up people’s and farmers issues as they could have, because they know that if they do, it will cost them the support and patronage of the corporate houses. The opposition, he says, tends to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Photo: Rohit Kumar

Ravi Azad also talks about the sense of jubilation in the villages of Haryana and Punjab and how those who went to the borders, or who provided langar or went to prison for taking part in the protest are being honoured in their villages and towns. He points out that while the protest may have moved away from the borders of Delhi, the farmers’ unions are keeping very, very busy.

“We are collecting data about all our brothers and sisters who have been either injured, imprisoned or martyred during the year-long protest and are making sure everyone gets justice or compensation. We are also fighting to get adequate supplies of urea for our farmers who are facing an acute shortage, even though the government insists there is a surplus. And we are preparing our cadres at both block and state level for the next stage of our peaceful protest.”

Azad lists the many victories the year-long protest has brought about, such as the newfound unity between traditional rivals such as Haryana and Punjab, and Jats and Muslims.

“We have learned how to conduct a long movement, and how to fight for our rights. Most importantly, with the repeal of the three farm laws, we have stopped Modi’s supposedly unstoppable rath, and the message has gone out clearly to the government that while they may have a majority in parliament, we have the majority on the ground.” 

When asked about the SKM’s unity, he says, “We will sit together on January 15 and work it out. We have talked things through before and we shall talk them through again.”