In November 2020, thousands of farmers peacefully marched towards the national capital to demand a complete repeal of the Centre’s three controversial farm laws. Their collective anger was perfectly captured by the song “Aelaan” — the word means “a declaration” — and is used both in Urdu and in Punjabi. On the morning of November 19, as soon as PM Narendra Modi announced that the three laws would be repealed, the chorus of the Punjabi song, “Faslaan de faisley kisaan karuga” (only a farmer will have the final word on his crops), dominated public discourse around farm distress and the farmers’ agitation, which would have completed one year on November 26.
A rallying cry for the protesting farmers at three popular protest sites along Delhi’s borders—at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur—Kanwar Grewal’s song became a celebratory message and a greeting that marked Guru Nanak Jayanti on the same day.
Just like “Aelaan”, scores of protest songs and dissent poems took birth from the womb of the almost year-long farmers’ agitation. On November 19, as the farmers celebrated their “hard-won victory” at Delhi border protest sites and across Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh, the songs triggered strong memories about the struggles of determined farmers including old, infirm, women and children who braved adverse weather conditions, physical attacks by the rival groups, media conspiracy theories and police crackdowns.
The farmers had started their agitation against the Modi government’s “agricultural reforms”, saying that the set of controversial laws would benefit private players at their expense. While the government tried to discredit the protest and every attempt was made to dislodge the agitation, it had started to relent in the recent months, possibly in view of the ensuing state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The results of the recently held by-elections to three Lok Sabha seats and 30 assembly constituencies, which were held on October 30, had also indicated the anti-BJP and anti-Centre mood that is building up in northern and western India.
Sensing trouble, long-time NDA partner Akali Dal also pulled out its lone minister, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, from the ruling NDA due to growing differences over farm laws. Then, just a few days ago, Akali supremo Sukhbir Singh Badal ruled out the possibility of a tie-up with BJP in the upcoming Punjab assembly election.
In an address to the nation, PM Modi said the laws would be repealed in the upcoming session of Parliament. Even though he didn’t acknowledge the deaths of the farmers who died during the agitation, PM Modi apologised to the country for withdrawing the three laws.
In the middle of protests, during a public speech, he had coined a new term—Andolanjivi—to describe people who supported the farmers’ agitation. His decision, however, has set off speculations if the announcement was aimed at the Centre’s image makeover. Many radical supporters of the ruling party even wondered whether the government’s pragmatism was going to soften its stand on contested decisions regarding Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Article 370—that revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019, and divided it into two centrally administered Union Territories, next, in the wake of growing public protests. The development has certainly revived hopes of many working in the human rights and civil liberties sector. Both the anti-CAA and farmers agitations have seen people deeply polarised across the country.
Since it’s beginning, the farmers’ protest had been an eyesore for many. A dominant narrative in the media and social media was persistently painting the protests as a representation of the concerns of the arthiyas (middlemen) and not the small and marginal farmers. But a recent study conducted by two economists associated with the Punjabi University at Patiala, disclosed that the majority of about 600 farmers who reportedly died during the protest were either landless cultivators or marginal farmers with less than three acre land holdings.
The study—which has been co-authored by Lakhwinder Singh, former professor of economics at Punjabi University, and Baldev Singh Shergill, assistant professor of social sciences at Punjabi University’s Guru Kashi Campus in Bathinda—maintained that harsh weather conditions contributed to the maximum number of deaths during the farm protest.
Notably, the protests started last year when north India was in the grip of a severe cold wave. In makeshift shelters, the protesters stood their ground on the outskirts of Delhi all through rains and then scorching heatwave in the summer, while the harsh winter is again round the corner.
The study, which was based on data on 460 of the 600 farmers who died in the last 11 months of protest, also pointed out that the food prepared in the makeshift kitchens might have failed to fulfil the nutritional needs of the protesting farmers.
While the average age of the deceased farmers was found to be 57, the study held police actions and road accidents responsible for the deaths. On October 28, for example, three elderly women from Mansa district in Punjab were run over by a speeding dumper truck at the protest site on the Tikri-Bahadurgarh border.
Even though the farmers had been much maligned and demonised after January 26, when a group of farmers stormed Red Fort in Delhi, government’s misadventure three days later infused fresh life in the farmers’ agitation. On January 29, the tears of Rakesh Tikait, who is the son of legendary farm leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, reinvigorated the protests, evoking widespread public sympathy. The Bharatiya Kisan Union spokesman was down with fever when thousands of Uttar Pradesh Police personnel and CRPF jawans clamped down on the protesters at the Ghazipur border. Tikait, who had been slapped with charges of violence during the tractor rally on Republic Day, amidst the mayhem, went to the podium and declared with tearful eyes during a media briefing, “they want to destroy the farmers. I’d prefer to die rather than calling off the protest”. The statement was strong enough to move a million hearts across western Uttar Pradesh and in the rest of the country.
As the movement progressed, earlier in October, a viral video had shown Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar accusing the protesting farmers of pursuing a political agenda. Speaking at the BJP’s Kisan Morcha meet, Khattar was even heard promulgating violence to quell farmers. He cut a sorry figure as the video emerged on media.
The subsequent incident, in which Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra’s car mowed down protesting farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri, also shocked the conscience of the nation. While the highhandedness of the government supporters galvanised support in favour of the farm protests, it led to the registration of FIR and eventually the arrest of Ashish Mishra. The farm unions had threatened to intensify their protests in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the state assembly polls.
Amid deepening polarisation, days after the incident, Swaraj India leader Yogendra Yadav was suspended from Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) for a month following his visit to the deceased BJP member’s family in Lakhimpur Kheri, who was allegedly lynched by the farmers in a retaliatory action. Yadav had tweeted, “While returning from the Shaheed Kisan Shradhanjali, I visited BJP worker Shubham Mishra’s house. The family was not angry at us. They only asked with an aching heart, are we also not farmers? What was the fault of our son? Why did your colleague say action-reaction? His questions are ringing in my ears.”
By the October-end, Delhi Police started removing concrete barriers, concertina wires, and spikes barricades from near the farmers’ agitation spots in Ghazipur at Delhi-Ghaziabad border and Tikri at Delhi-Haryana border, for fully restoring vehicular movement after more than 11 months.
The police action debunked the media myth that the borders had been blocked by the farmers. “Police had fortified the protest sites by placing huge cement boulders, multiple layers of metal barricades, and sand trucks across the roads, apart from fixing spikes on the road. As part of the latest narrative that they are trying to spin, partial removal of these barricades has been taken up, ostensibly to impress the Supreme Court…,” SKM, an umbrella of around 40 farmer groups, had said in a statement.
In the aftermath of Red Fort march of farmers, the Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh polices had invoked the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition charges against thousands of protesters. But it remains unclear whether police will file closure reports or chargesheets in these matters. Previously, several farm unions had lamented notices being served by the National Investigation Agency on supporters of their ongoing agitation.
After Prime Minister’s announcement on Guru Purab, SKM in a joint statement—which was issued by prominent farmer leaders such as Balbir Singh Rajewal, Dr Darshan Pal, Gurnam Singh Charuni, Hannan Mollah, Jagjit Singh Dallewal, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Shivkumar Sharma ‘Kakkaji’ and Yudhvir Singh—said, “(we) will wait for the Prime Minister’s announcement to take effect through due parliamentary procedures.”
“If this happens, it will be a historic victory of the one-year-long farmers’ struggle,” it said, claiming that “nearly 700 farmers have been martyred in this struggle”. It accused the “central government’s obstinacy” responsible for the “avoidable deaths”, including the murders at Lakhimpur Kheri.
Even though the Punjab government has announced Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the farmers who lost their lives during the protest, the demand that the Modi government must also provide financial assistance to the aggrieved families has also started gaining momentum. D Raja, general secretary of Communist Party of India, said the “Government of India should compensate the families of the martyred now”.
Raja wondered as to why it took the PM the loss of lives of 600+ farmers and the brutality of Lakhimpur Kheri before he could revoke the set of controversial laws. “Farmers of the country have shown that a united struggle against the government can force it to yield, and to strengthen democracy,” he said, adding, “It is time to learn from this struggle and intensify our fight against CAA, NRC and new labour codes.”
Ashok Dhawale, president of All India Kisan Sabha, described the development as a “historic victory for united anti-corporate kisan struggle against aggressively pursued neoliberal economic policies of the Modi government”. However, he said, “the other fundamental demand of this historic farmers’ struggle—a Central Act to guarantee minimum support price (MSP) to all crops of all farmers—still remains unaddressed. It is the failure to address this demand that has aggravated the agrarian crisis and led to the suicide of over four lakh farmers in the last 25 years, of whom around one lakh farmers have ended their lives in the last seven years of the Modi-led BJP regime.”
Notably, the BJP, headed by PM Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, when its promise to improve farmers’ lives earned it a landslide victory against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). One of the biggest grouse that farmer leaders including Rakesh Tikait have against the BJP is what they see as the party’s failure to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission—something both BJP and Congress have promised to do in the past. Set up by the UPA in 2004, the commission had recommended a guaranteed MSP for most food crops among several other policy initiatives.
Sharply reacting to PM Modi’s statement, Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “with satyagraha, the food growers of the country have made the arrogance bow down”. The Congress leader retweeted his old video clip predicting, “Mark my words. The government will be forced to take back these farm laws.”
Reiterating the demand of AIKS regarding deaths of farmers during the agitation, Ashok Dhawale said “The Prime Minister and the BJP government must take responsibility for the loss of hundreds of lives due to their insensitive and obstinate position, and apologise to the nation. This is the second defeat for the BJP government led by Narendra Modi at the hands of the united kisan movement. They were earlier forced to put on hold the Land Acquisition Ordinance in the wake of united protests led by farmers.”
Many independent political observers draw parallels between the anti-CAA movement and farmers’ agitation. “Both democratic protests have been successful. Even after two years, the government is yet to frame and notify rules that will govern the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. In the face of popular protests, ultimately, the government will have to withdraw the CAA and NRC decisions as well,” said political commentator and former head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel.
“Whether it was fear of losing (Uttar Pradesh) or finally facing up to conscience @BJP government rolls back farm laws,” Mahua Moitra, Trinamool Congress MP, wrote on Twitter. “Just the beginning of many more victories for people’s voices,” she added.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), meanwhile, reminded PM Modi that the agitation of farmers was not just restricted to the repeal of the three laws, but also for a statutory guarantee of remunerative prices for all agricultural produces. “This important demand of farmers is still pending. So also is the withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill. SKM will take note of all developments and announce further decisions,” it read.
Reacting to the repealed farm laws, All India Trade Union Congres said, “The laws were a part of the total subversion of the egalitarian direction of our economy as enshrined in our Constitution. The four labour codes and all-out privatisation plan, including the National Monetisation Pipeline, are other aspects of the subversion plan.”
Calling for withdrawal of such policy measures too, it further added in a statement, “The Parliament, the Indian Labour Conference, the fora for open healthy discussions, be used, rather than the rampant use of coercive apparatus of the State.”
Dr Swaiman Singh, a US-based cardiologist who provided free medical services to the protesting farmers for several months, described the Modi government’s decision as a “victory of farmers’ unity and jazba (determination)”. Dr. Singh, however, had a word of caution for the farmers, “Although you have scripted history, but remember one thing when you return to your villages, don’t forget what you have learnt at the protest sites—the ability to question the people in authority. Do maintain this unity and jazba.”
“In place of these three laws, the government can eventually come out with six new laws. It will not dare to do anything like that for the next 15-20 years at least,” he said, and went on to add, “but nothing to worry. Our tractors are ready (to march)”.
Devinder Sharma, noted agricultural economist, also saw the Centre’s November 19 retreat as only “half the battle won”. As farmers across the country continue to sell their produce much below the government approved MSP, Sharma said, “As long as MSP is not made a legal right for farmers, there will be no end to agrarian distress.”
Amid all the hoopla surrounding “victory of the farmers”, Rakesh Tikait, said the agitation will continue until the agricultural laws were repealed in Parliament. “Besides MSP, the government needs to discuss other issues of farmers as well.”