From United Front to Divided Visions: Will Farmer Unions Reunite Under SKM?

Though the umbrella body was successful in getting the three farm laws repealed, fissures have emerged about the decision to enter politics – even as several issues remain pending.

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Jalandhar: From getting the three contentious farm laws repealed with dogged unity, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – the umbrella body of 32 farmer unions which led the yearlong farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders – has today become a picture in contrast.

Eight months ago, the SKM was a united front that acted as a strong opposition force to the Union government’s pursuit of making sweeping changes to the country’s agricultural system. Their refusal to deviate from the demand to repeal the laws and protect the minimum support price (MSP) regime ultimately forced the Narendra Modi government to withdraw the laws.

However, after the farmers returned home, the SKM was riddled with dissent after some unions decided to enter electoral politics. This forced other unions to part ways with the SKM, weakening the joint body.

But several issues that the farmers had raised during their protest remain pending. Among them are the right to an MSP; justice in the Lakhimpur Kheri case; and opposing the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022. Therefore, efforts are being made by the SKM’s core committee to bring all factions together again. In a bid to present a united front, the SKM held a protest at Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh on August 18.

However, alarmed over the growing rift, the SKM called a meeting of its general body at Gurdwara Rakabganj, Delhi in this regard on September 4, from where it began its journey during the historic farmers’ agitation.

Farmers stand atop a tractor as they take part in a three-hour road blockade as part of protests against farm laws on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi, February 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Dissent within SKM

The first flashpoint within the SKM came soon after the farmers’ protest ended and Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU-Rajewal) president Balbir Singh Rajewal announced his political front, the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) to contest the Punjab assembly elections.

When Rajewal announced his political front, 22 farmer unions declared their support but nine retreated within days, leaving the leader’s political fortune in limbo. At present, Rajewal as leader of the SSM is holding separate protests on various farmer issues in Punjab.

Following his political innings, Rajewal was expelled from the SKM for violating the body’s core principle of staying apolitical. Opposition to him gained momentum after he was routed in the Punjab assembly polls.

Among those who revolted publicly against Rajewal was BKU Ekta Sidhupur president Jagjit Singh Dallewal. In against, he formed a new outfit – SKM (Apolitical). Last month on August 22, Dallewal led a protest march against pending farmers’ issues at Jantar Mantar, Delhi.

After the meeting at the Gurdwara Rakabganj on September 4, Dallewal and his close associate Shiv Kumar Sharma Kakka were expelled from the SKM.

Similarly, the Haryana-based BKU Chaduni faction led by Gurnam Singh Chaduni also formed a political party, the Sanyukt Sangharsh Party (SSP).

Chaduni’s move was also opposed and many farmers parted ways with the union and constituted different ones in Haryana’s Karnal, Ambala and Kurukshetra districts to name a few.

Notably, after the repeal of farm laws, the SKM was divided into three groups – one group supported the SSM, the second group didn’t join the SSM but declared indirect support while the third stayed away altogether.

In Photos: Eight Months After They Went Back Home, Farmers Protest in Delhi Again

‘We are fighting alone’: Balbir Singh Rajewal

Talking to The Wire, BKU (Rajewal) president Balbir Singh Rajewal poured his heart out and said that it was his ‘mistake’ to not identify the credentials of ‘some farmer union leaders’ who were part of the protest.

“I feel pained that at the fag end of my life, my image has been tarnished. The Union government was desperate to beat the SKM and they did it. Today, my union is alone. We are fighting alone. I am ready to chalk out my path alone with like-minded people but I don’t want to join those people, who have been speaking lies against me,” he said, emphasising that he was not bothered about what the SKM was doing.

However, when questioned about the SKM losing ground because of infighting, he said, “They (SKM) have created a mess because of their ego and dishonesty, which they will never reveal. SKM is not everything. SKM was a united forum, and that phase is over,” he said.

Interestingly in an interview with the Indian Express in June, Rajewal stated that the SKM’s was important.

However, when asked about Jagjit Singh Dallewal’s allegations against him, Rajewal accused Dallewal of usurping Rs 56 lakh that was raised through different sources during the farmers’ protest. “Dallewal has not returned this money. After the farm laws were repealed, I asked all unions to deposit the cash with Harmeet Singh Kadian, a member of the SKM finance committee, to distribute it evenly among unions for farmers’ welfare. But, when all SKM leaders went to the Golden Temple to pay obeisance after the protest, Dallewal went alone with Shiv Kumar Sharma Kakka, who is a known RSS leader. It is Dallewal who should clear his position for creating this mess.”

Notably, Rajewal had even termed Dallewal as an RSS agent. They have not been on the same page ever since the farmers’ protest came to an end after the repeal of the laws.

Further, Rajewal lashed out at AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal for ditching him at the last moment. “I had an offer from Arvind Kejriwal to announce me as the chief ministerial candidate of AAP in Punjab. BKU Kadian leader Harmeet Singh Kadian was assigned the duty of seat sharing. It led to fissures among farmer unions,” he added.

“While the Left unions refused to go with Kejriwal, we were forced to form the SSM. Initially, seven out of the 22 farmer unions refused to go with us. Later, when the SSM was formed, everybody started protesting against me. Elections were announced. We had no choice but to contest and we lost,” he said.

On the MSP Panel, which the SKM rejected, Rajewal said that the Modi government had approached him to join the committee. “I refused plainly,” he said.

In a retort to other farmer union leaders raising questions against him, Rajewal said, “Of my 80 years, I spent 52 working for the farmers’ rights. I don’t need anybody’s certificate to prove my credentials. Had politics been my only interest, I could have joined any party during all these years. Farming is my family’s honour and avocation and I am happy being alone.”

Sanyukta Samaj Morcha chief ministerial candidate Balbir Singh Rajewal with party leaders. Photo: Facebook.

Rajewal met Telangana CM KCR

Rajewal hinted at a possible national-level role ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, as he met Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. “KCR had invited me to Telangana recently. I am impressed by the kind of welfare measures he has taken for the sake of farmers and Dalits in Telangana. One should support those leaders, who are honest and doing good work”, he said.

He said, “Though there was no strong farmers’ union in north India, we still have two years before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections to decide something big.”

Dallewal remains defiant

Speaking to The Wire, Jagjit Singh Dallewal appeared adamant on many issues, particularly on Balbir Singh Rajewal and argued that when the SKM was constituted in 2020, its core principle was to stay ‘apolitical’.

He also rejected Rajewal’s accusations about “usurping” money, saying the latter has no right to speak about him.

“At no cost, SKM can be made political. I have been strongly protesting against this move. The SKM had ousted Rajewal from the SKM on January 15, 2022 when he announced his political party. The BJP started targeting us. On July 3, we held a protest against the SKM when it decided to include Rajewal in the joint front again. As nobody listened to us, we parted ways with the SKM,” he said.

Dallewal questioned that if the SKM didn’t share the stage with any political leader during the farmers’ protest, how could they accept this change now? “This is the reason why I formed SKM (Apolitical). I have been getting a good response from farmers across the country”, he said.

Talking about Balbir Singh Rajewal’s political innings, Dallewal said, “If people wanted to see the SKM as a political front, then those who contested elections would have won with a thumping majority. The fact is that people wanted to see the SKM as apolitical and we should stick to it. The need of the hour is to regain the trust of the people by staying apolitical, which the farmer leaders are not bothered about.”

He also lashed out at Yogendra Yadav for being a part of the SKM and running a political party. “Yogendra Yadav attended the Bharat Jodo program of Congress. He was with congress leader Rahul Gandhi. How come such leaders can be a part of SKM?” he questioned.

Yadav has since resigned from the SKM’s coordination committee.

Farmers union leader Jagjit Singh Dallewal of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Sidhupur.

Bringing SKM together again is not hard: Joginder Singh Ugrahan

Joginder Singh Ugrahan, the president of BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) faction, emphasised the need to shun differences and reunite the SKM.

An ex-army man known for his disciplined union, he said, “When big protests take place, one should not panic about small incidents. If farmers from different ideologies, political backgrounds and regions succeeded in getting the three farm laws repealed, then bringing the SKM together again is hardly an issue. The SKM should reunite to address the pending issues of farmers – the MSP, the Lakhimpur Kheri case and Electricity Bill (Amendment Bill), the problem of stubble burning and many more.”

Ugrahan said that many farmer unions who had quit Rajewal’s SSM during the initial days of elections came back to the SKM fold. “If that was acceptable, I don’t see any reason why Rajewal should be singled out,” he said.

On Jagjit Singh Dallewal forming a new union and his stand against Balbir Singh Rajewal, the senior leader said that the SKM should keep its ambit large. “If our organisation BKU (Ugrahan) could come together with Yogendra Yadav, who heads the Swaraj Party and has been involved in politics on the common minimum program, why can’t others? I still feel that Dallewal should rethink and come back for the sake of the farmers because the Union government’s intentions and approach are neither in favour of farmers nor the common people,” he added.

SKM will reuinte: Darshan Pal

Krantikari Kisan Union president Darshan Pal said that the SKM’s strength remains the same. “The SKM would not be affected if some people want to walk out of it. However, by forming a separate group, Jagjit Singh Dallewal will surely be isolated,” he said.

“The fact is that many farmers who went away from the SKM want to come back. We are making efforts to bring them together,” he said.

Darshan Pal emphasised that even in wars, different sides come together to fight a common enemy. “The SKM will reunite. In protests, one has to ignore certain issues to achieve the big target. After all, we are not puritans and have our shortcomings,” he added.

Another leader, Gurnam Singh Chaduni, asserted that despite all the differences, farmer union leaders will unite under the SKM. “We will make efforts to reunite the SKM for the sake of the farmers, the youth and the country’s larger issues that directly affect the public,” he said.

Farmer leader Darshan Pal. Photo: Yaqut Ali

What experts feel

The senior journalist from Punjabi Tribune Hamir Singh said that the genesis of the farmers’ protest was from Punjab – and the SKM, comprising 32 farmer unions, came into existence later.

“Even now, if the SKM leaders are really serious about reuniting, then they should first chalk out their common minimum agenda. It is the farmer unions from Punjab which should first come together and decide the future course of action,” he said.

Hamir Singh said the problem is that earlier the SKM leaders were deliberating upon the minimum agenda of farmers’ issues. Now, they were fighting among themselves. “Their internal fights over who joined politics and why have become public, hence weakening the SKM. Their difference of opinion is exactly what the government always wanted,” he said.

To take the SKM ahead, the senior journalist said, “SKM should focus on fundamental issues like ‘federalism’ and ‘corporate model’ in the country, which can help them in regaining pan-India support.”

He emphasised that until the Punjab farmer leaders do not bridge their gap, they won’t be able to unite the SKM. “It is unfortunate that the same SKM which scripted history by getting the three farm laws repealed stands divided today,” he said.

Renowned Punjabi author and journalist Amandeep Sandhu, who closely observed the farmers’ agitation, said, “If you look at their journey before the farmers’ protest, they were never together. They used to fight even then. Now, because they have nothing to do, they are fighting among themselves, which I think is seasonal. It is sad to see them fighting publicly but it is not a permanent situation. I think many of them will reconcile if something big is planned. Ironically, like the government, even the SKM does not solve its issues.”

However, Sandhu also cautioned, “If the farmer union leaders will not reunite, they will lose their significance.”