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Chandigarh: While there were several ups and downs during the year-long farmers’ protests, there were six major phases that defined the movement and kept it alive.
In June 2020, the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved three farm ordinances that later became Acts in September after they got cleared in both Houses of parliament.
The first phase marked the spread of the farmers’ protests in Punjab, soon after the Union government passed the ordinances hastily. Various factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in the state understood the potential impact of these three ordinances on the farmers in the country, and they were the first to begin a protest in the state that reached its zenith by October.
The protests took a concrete shape when different farmers’ unions formed the Sangharsh Committee, comprising representatives of 32 unions, in the state in September 2020 and started staging demonstrations in the form of the Rail Roko Andolan, blocking toll plazas, and holding dharnas against two of India’s richest corporates, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.
The first political fallout of the farmers’ protest was breaking of the alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its oldest ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). This also led to the acceptance of the farmers’ protest among all other political parties except the BJP.
Farm economist Sucha Singh Gill told The Wire that the first defining moment of the protest was when Punjab farmers’ unions realised that holding protest alone in Punjab would not serve their purpose as they needed to involve farmer leaders of other states in order to pressurise the Union government in withdrawing these farm Bills.
“Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) – that later stirred the protest at a national level – was born out of this effort during a meeting of over 300 farmers’ unions in Delhi in November 2020 and the rest is history,” said Gill.
SKM’s ‘Dilli Chalo’ call
The second major phase of the farmers’ protest occurred when SKM launched the ‘Dilli Chalo’ movement and asked all farmers’ unions from across the country to reach the national capital on November 26, 2020. A large number of farmers from Punjab began their march towards Delhi in their tractors and trolleys but were stopped at the Haryana-Punjab border by the police.
They succeeded in crossing the police barricades, and also faced lathi-charge but they did not stop.
Finally, the farmers from Punjab reached the Singhu border where they were stopped by the Delhi Police. The Delhi Police offered them Nirankari ground for a sit-in protest but farmers insisted on reaching Ramlila ground. As Delhi Police did not agree to this, farmers sat on a dharna at the Singhu border only, which later became the mecca of farmers’ protest in India.
Another contingent of farmers from Punjab led by BKU Ekta-Ugrahan, which took a different route to reach Delhi, were similarly stopped by Delhi Police at the Tikri border, which later became the second site of the farmers’ movement.
At the same time, the farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand led by Rakesh Tikait reached the Ghazipur border of Delhi, which became the third major spot of farmers’ protest later.
Days later in December 2020, farmers from Rajasthan led by Yogendra Yadav were stopped at the Delhi-Jaipur highway at Shahjahanpur, which became the fourth spot of farm movement.
“Within few days, the national capital was surrounded on all sides by farmers. Within a few weeks, farmers from other states joined the farmers at these locations and this truly turned into a nationwide movement,” recalled Yogendra Yadav.
During this phase, the SKM mainly focused on mobilisation of farmers and arranging logistics for long overhaul at the Delhi borders. The primary focus of the mobilisation, according to Gill, was on villages in Punjab, Haryana, UP and other states where volunteers were selected to ferry the protesters to the protesting sites on a regular basis.
These volunteers then also looked after the families of those who had left for the protesting sites on a permanent basis. This had a cascading effect in urban areas as well from where a large number of government employees, students and professionals came out in support of the movement and engaged with it through physical presence and also through social media, said Gill.
Centre-farmer talks failed
As the protests went global from the borders of Delhi, the Narendra Modi government was forced to begin the process of negotiations with them by constituting a three-member committee comprising Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Narendra Singh Tomar and Som Prakash.
There were 11 rounds of talks between the Union government and the farmers between December 3, 2020 and January 22, 2021, but farmers’ unions showed utmost unity and patience as they insisted on repeal of the laws.
Even as the Modi government made several offers to make suitable amendments to the farm laws, farmers’ unions stayed firm in their demands to repeal the farm laws.
It is at this stage when farmers’ unions for the first time clubbed other demands including a legal guarantee to minimum support price (MSP), removal of anti-farm provisions in the Electricity (Amendment) Bill and criminal provision against farmers for stubble burning. They stayed on with these demands till the last day of the protests.
At that stage, there was an opportunity for the Modi government to end this protest by revoking these laws but it had something else in mind.
When negotiations did not proceed further, the farmers announced a major mobilisation programme in the shape of a tractor rally in Delhi on January 26 to put further pressure on the Union government. This was the next major phase of the farmers’ protest that forced SKM and other farmers’ unions to change their strategy to convince the Union government to listen to their demands.
This, according to several SKM leaders, was the first major setback for the farmers’ movement when the tractor rally ended up in clashes between farmers and police personnel.
Aftermath of farmers’ Republic Day clash with Delhi Police
SKM leader Yogendra Yadav told The Wire, “I look at the incident from the organisers’ point of view. Once we knew that lakhs of people would come (in SKM’s call for the tractor march in Delhi), we needed much better protocols. We needed much greater volunteer force. We needed much greater discipline.”
“But having said that, there is clear evidence that when tractors were going towards the Red Fort, no one stopped them. When they reached its gate, no one prevented them from entering the premises that too on Republic Day when security in Delhi is at an all-time high. Policemen were even seen taking selfies with the protesters,” he said.
He said the January 26 incident remained the most intriguing and mysterious link of the protest, which makes one suspect that the state might have been involved in scuttling the protest. During the whole movement, the disruptors were found to be photographed with BJP leaders right from the Red Fort incident to the killings at the Singhu border involving Nihang leaders.
He further said that what happened on the night of January 28 at the Ghazipur border, where police started throwing farmers out, it was a clear attempt to end the movement forcefully.
“The government started from Ghazipur thinking it was a weak link and also they could turn the movement into a Hindu versus Sikh issue. But things changed dramatically on that night because of the bravery of Rakesh Tikait, and finally, we were back on track,” he added.
Was there any change in strategy after the January 26 incident? “One clear change in strategy was that the SKM stopped organising programmes with big crowds because everyone had a clear view that they did not want another ‘26 January’,” he added.
He said the focus then shifted on organising small functions. The programmes with large gatherings were then shifted outside Delhi. When we planned something in and around Delhi, it was done in a more disciplined manner.
Jagmohan Singh, general secretary, BKU (Dhakunda), and one of the SKM spokespersons, told The Wire that after the January 26 incident, there was a feeling that this protest would be over soon since there was such a deep-rooted conspiracy to kill the movement. The protesters were targeted from all fronts – be it the use of excessive police force, turning locals against the protesters or giving a communal colour to the protest.
“It was God’s grace that we were back on track. All thanks to our brothers and sisters from UP who turned the table and put us back into the protest. We then started calling more and more people and regrouped our whole protest,” he said.
He said the SKM also strengthened trust with villagers in and around main protest sites at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur. “We held medical camps to help villagers and won their trust back.”
“One major achievement after the January 26 incident was that all those forces who wanted to give a communal colour to the protest could not sustain longer and automatically separated from the protest,” he said.
Bhupinder Singh Longowal, convener of the young wing of Kirti Kisan Union, part of the SKM, told The Wire that all key leaders did not sleep for four days after the January 26 incident.
“We had to fight hard to bring the movement back on track. We were fighting at multiple levels. First, it was important to provide adequate security to SKM leaders since their lives were at risk. Second, we had to stop anti-social elements from causing further damage to the protest. Third, we had to stop farmers from going back to their homes by making regular appeals day and night. At the end, we somehow managed and revived our protest,” he said.
SKM’s anti-BJP campaign
One key reason why the farmers’ protest remained alive for long and was highly successful is because it remained apolitical and did not let politicians use the SKM platform to their advantage.
SKM’s decision to launch a political campaign against the BJP was the fifth phase of the farmers’ protest that hit the saffron party hard.
Yogendra Yadav said that it was a very tough decision, given the stand that the farmers’ protests remained apolitical till then.
“But we made our protocols clear. First, the SKM decided that it will not campaign for any candidate. Second, it will not support any political party. Third, its message would be clear, limited and negative, that is to hold a campaign only against the BJP because of the obvious reason that it was the BJP which brought the farm Bills without even consulting the stakeholders,” he said.
“Our action was political but in a limited sense. It was well-targeted and achieved results too in denting the [results of] the party in the West Bengal state elections and other state bypolls,” he added.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, another key leader, said that SKM had no intention to campaign against the BJP in the Bengal elections. “We were forced to take extreme steps because of the negative attitude of the BJP government against our demands,” he said.
“When SKM leaders landed in West Bengal for the first time, we had no preparations at all. We just had two tractors on rent and a handful of Punjabi supporters. There was not much of a crowd on the first day of our campaign. But I was surprised when people from Bengal started coming with us. Then I realised that there was no chance we would lose now. Days later we held several packed rallies and ultimately made the BJP defeat there,” he said.
He further said that after West Bengal, SKM began its UP mission. “Our first rally in Muzaffarnagar was highly successful despite communal tension in the area. You would be surprised that more than 500 langars were organised by Muslims in the area. The crowd was overflowing in the rally. There was a huge crowd spreading over several kilometers,” he said.
“It was not without a reason that the Modi government started thinking of revoking the laws as the SKM began hitting them politically,” he added.
Lakhimpur Kheri and aftermath
The sixth and the last phase of the farmers’ protest can be attributed to the circumstances emerging out of the killing of four farmers in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident in UP. The protesting farmers were killed by a VIP convoy allegedly including Union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra, who was arrested a week after the incident.
The brutal killing at the Singhu border was seen as another attempt to malign the farmers’ movement, but it could not derail the protest.
Weeks later, the prime minister on November 19 finally repealed these three controversial farm laws. Later on December 9, it sent another letter to the SKM, giving assurance to resolve other pending demands of the farmers, thereby paving the way for the farmers to suspend their historic protest.
“No prime minister in this country wanted to be remembered as anti-farmer and that must have been one of the major considerations of Modi in finally succumbing to the pressure of the farmers. Second, Modi must have assessed that things in the border state of Punjab were turning delicate due to the farmers’ protest. No prime minister could afford to face another trouble in the backyard when problems in Kashmir valley will be prolonged for years to come due to the decision of the BJP government to read down Article 370,” Yogendra Yadav said.
He added, “Finally, I think BJP’s internal opinion polls in UP finally forced Modi to announce the repeal of the farm laws. In this decision, the Lakhimpur Kheri incident had a huge role to play. This blatant episode earned them such bad publicity at all-India level that they had to defend themselves at all costs.”
He also said that the role of the media during the farmers’ movement played an important role and should be discussed. He said the entire mainstream media had ganged up against the movement and ran such shameful stories that it will go into the textbook of journalism on how not to do journalism.
“The farmers’ movement was so strong on the ground that instead of affecting the movement, mainstream media ended up affecting its own image. A middle-class movement would have been finished with the kind of lynching the media attempted during the farmers’ protests. But in this case, it failed miserably and ended up affecting its own credibility in a very serious manner,” he said.
He said it will now take them years to recover from it. The fact that the common people have started using the term ‘Godi Media’ is proof of it.