Rich Punjab farmers must be shown their place

Is the protest of rich farmers from Punjab and Haryana, mostly of Sikh and Jat vintage, heading towards a violent confrontation? The possibility cannot be entirely ruled out. Both the Opposition and the nation’s internal enemies want a collision. Audio and video recordings of Khalistani adherents have been in circulation, and banners seeking the release of hardcore Islamists behind the vicious Shaheen Bagh sit-in and Delhi riots on display.

The Modi-Shah duo has so far ignored threats from farm unions to widen the agitation by flooding the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu and Tikri with more protestors. The initial threat was to encircle the capital, cut off supplies of essentials, and bring the government to its knees. If the plan has not been put into play it is either because the unions realize the consequences of pushing their luck too hard or wish to avoid over-stretching their resources despite the munificence of their financiers.

The agitation is largely funded by the 28,000 licensed commission agents (arathia) in Punjab and Haryana whose easy annual earnings of Rs 1,700 crore is under threat of drying up due to the new farm laws. Quite apart from running a lucrative money lending business, many are agents of local politicians. Generous funds are also being pumped into the protests from champions of Khalistan in Canada and Britain which have sizeable Sikh settlers.

The protest site at Singhu has in the last two weeks become a virtual picnic spot with gurudwara sponsored langars, tractors and trolleys carting vegetables, makeshift shops catering to every human need from milk, toiletry, mobile repairing kiosks, washing machines, medicines etc. Lavish tents with luxurious bedding, spa massaging chairs and heaters have been installed to help our richie-rich farmers beat the freezing cold.

Conspicuous by their absence are their poorer brethren who stand to gain the most from the new laws. That the agitation is basically a monumental sham is more than evident. The primary objective, as things stand, is defy the government and, in the words of Kashmiri Hindu refugee Sushil Pandit, show “the spectacle of a multitude investing so hugely in shivering and suffering and using that as an argument.” This, he says, takes the fight far away from the merits of the issue and pushes it into a zone of obsessive insistence, thereby deepening the impasse.

The farmers know they have no case. The government has upstaged them by keeping a low profile and hammering away that neither the Minimum Support Price (MSPs) nor the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) would be discontinued. The prospect of farmers’ losing their land to corporates verges on fearmongering. The new laws make it impossible for the Adanis and Ambanis, the favorite whipping boys of the Left and Congress (when out of power) to even think of it regardless of the circumstances.

A written assurance has been offered on the MSP, with suitable amendments to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act to accommodate the other minor demands. In fact, what was not asked for has also been ceded. Permitting states to impose a tax on private mandis makes a mockery of the reforms. Even this lollypop failed to have the desire impact. The misguided cultivators continue to insist on repealing the laws. They realize that since the government is ready to meet them more than half-way, mapping the Acts clause by clause on their merits would mean relinquishing their old demand: rescind or bust.

The PM put the unions on the mat by asking them at a virtual rally of farmers in Madhya Pradesh on December 18 to point out “which clause is a problem”? The previous UPA government had the chance to implement the Swaminathan Report, but it was the NDA which “dusted the files” and did so. Loan waivers were promised by the Congress in MP and Rajasthan, but never honored. “What should have been done 25-30 years ago is now being done…Our intentions are as pure as the Ganga and the Narmada.”

Upcoming farmer schemes, the PM said, would end up transferring crores directly into the accounts of farmers without any cuts. This would be much more than the Rs 50,000 crore disbursed in a lump before elections during the days of corrupt UPA rule. The cogency of the PM’s case fell on deaf ears. The unions insisted on batting on a pitch of their own making.

The multiplicity of unions, 35 by the most reliable count, involved in the agitation has only made the task of reaching out more difficult. Thirty-one are from Punjab, three from Haryana, and one from Madhya Pradesh. Ten of the 35 have political affiliations: six to the Left, two to the Akalis, and the rest to the AAP and Congress. They are the filibusterers in the pack. Thankfully, the largest, the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) is non-political. A stage, however, now seems to have been reached that not more than 8-10 will be invited to the negotiating table provided they give up their “yes or no” posturing. Failing which the stalemate will continue,  indefinitely. It is this eventuality from which stems the real danger.

Amit Shah will need to ensure that the anti-CAA Shaheen Bagh template is not allowed to replicate itself anywhere, least of in Delhi or its vicinity. The spectacle of ill-advised farmers flashing the tricolor in one hand and clutching copies of the Constitution on the other just cannot be permitted. The danger is not so much from the farmers as much as the Leftists and Islamists who are waiting in the wings to take over the agitation. Inaction anchored on the assumption that the protests will die out sooner or later cannot be risked. Miniature Shaheen Baghs had begun to sprout in other parts. It was mercilessly crushed by Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh but germinated in far off Chennai. The spread of the Chinese corona virus forced the Shaheen Baghis to close shop. Otherwise, the Modi regime would have found itself in one fine mess of its own making.

Reliance on the Supreme Court to break the deadlock is tricky given the proclivity of the judges to play to the gallery rather than take a decision purely on merit and in the national interest. CJI Sharad Bobde’s suggestion that the new farm laws be put on hold till the matter is resolved through a dialogue, court monitored or otherwise, is a surefire way to put the reforms in cold storage. Mercifully, the proposition was instantly rejected by Attorney General K K Venugopal at the December 17 hearing on three PILs though he promised to check it out with the powers that be. The A-G need not have volunteered to be a go-between because if the government is even remotely inclined to put the laws in abeyance, it would have voluntarily said so rather than do it under pressure.

More pointless and interventionist is the apex court’s unilateral bid to form a panel of all stakeholders as a way out of the logjam. Lost on the court is the utter superfluity of the move when the farm unions are not ready to budge an inch till the new laws are scrapped. Something similar had been broached by the government during the initial round of talks, and promptly rejected by the unions. Meddlesome political busybodies like Yogendra Yadav have been dinning into the unions that the court is within its rights to take a view on the Constitutionality of the new laws, but not their feasibility and desirability. That is strictly between farmers and elected leaders. Which it is, but only so long as the farmers realize the folly of heeding the opinion of nosy parkers like Yadav.  SC monitored negotiations, he tweeted, is the wrong path.

What you thus have is the perfect scenario for a winter of discontent which could extend to spring and gather heat during summer. Neither side has much to gain from the stand-off. But this is one political dogfight in which the government cannot afford to retreat any more than it already has. Time the bluff of the self-serving Punjab farmer lobby was called, and their oversized egos pricked.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.