Business Standard


The 2020 agitation, despite Covid, won a stupendous victory. The 2024 has been a different story. What changed?

- SANJEEB MUKHERJEE New Delhi, 10 April

In November 2020, just when the winter chill was setting in around the National Capital of Region of Delhi, farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and some other states began to pitch their tents on the NCR borders after being denied entry into the capital. Their opposition to three new farm laws, driven by the fear that the Acts would dismantle the mandi system and take away their land, had brought them together.

Within months, the agitation grew in size and scope to encompass not only more farmers, but also civil society activists, poets, singers, and cine stars. Between November 2020 and January 2021, the farm protests reached their zenith — even deadly Covid-19 waves would not deter the protestors – peaking on January 26, 2021, when the farmers tried to storm the Red Fort while fighting pitched battles with the police in other parts of the national capital.

The agitation continued doggedly for nearly a year, culminatin­g in the Central government’s decision to repeal the three Acts. It was perhaps the first time disparate farmers’ groups from several parts of the country had come together on the common platform of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), which negotiated with the government and devised strategies for the agitation.

Cut to 2024.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana once again marched towards Delhi, demanding fulfillmen­t of their pending demand for legalising the Minimum Support Price (MSP), along with other demands that included higher wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and action against the culprit of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, in which four farmers were killed —and also a journalist — while protesting against the farm laws in 2021.

The tractor trolleys tried reaching Delhi in February this year, just as they had in 2020, but were stopped at the borders, where they have stayed put. Reports say tractors and temporary hutments have occupied a 5-km stretch on the Sambhu and Khannauri borders between Punjab and Haryana, and there is no sign of a letup. The protestors say their agitation continues as per plan, and it won’t end until their demands are met.

However, three months into the latest agitation, weariness seems to be setting in. The barricades on the NCR borders and on the roads connecting the national capital to Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have become less daunting. The mainstream media is no longer running banner headlines on the agitation. The government held a few rounds of discussion­s with the protestors, and put forward a compromise proposal to the demand for legalising MSP, and maintains it is ready to discuss anything.

S Mahendra Dev, former director and vice-chancellor of IGIDR, Mumbai says the agitation has died down as Lok Sabha elections are round the corner. Moreover, he says, legalising MSP is not a problem, but the cost on which it is calculated is problemati­c. In Haryana and Punjab, there are reports of farmers preventing the entry of leaders of some political parties into their villages, which can also be attributed to the fallout of the agitations.

According to R S Ghuman, Professor of Eminence, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, “This time, the government was better prepared both in terms of men on the ground and they also had an offer in hand.”

So what really changed between 2020 and 2024?

Not Samyukt anymore

The united front the farmers presented in 2020, with SKM as their sole voice, is no longer there. SKM has splintered into two major factions, with the one leading the current protests calling itself SKM (non-political); the original SKM has refrained from actively participat­ing in the latest agitation.

“Last time, the issue was different as the farmers’ unions managed to convince the farmers that their lands could get displaced if the laws came into force. Their second demand was related to MSP and government purchases. This time the protests have been launched by a faction of the original SKM, which to my understand­ing does not have a very strong linkage with farmers’ unions from other states unlike the old SKM,” Ghuman had told Business Standard a few weeks ago.

The division had occurred within months of the repeal of the three farm laws. Some insiders say dissent has always been a part of SKM, which shows its democratic nature. But the tug of war seen after the laws’ repeal had not been witnessed during the 2020 protest. Back then, any dissent or discord was quickly brought under control.

This was remarkable, given that SKM never had a common leadership. Though some groups within SKM, such as the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), had more people and resources, all the groups came together for the common cause of opposing the new farm laws.

Surprising­ly, it is in Punjab itself that cracks first started appearing in SKM. First, just before the Punjab assembly elections in March 2022, two of the core committee members of SKM, Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Chaduni, formed their own political outfits to capitalise on the success of the agitation. Rajewal and Chaduni were among the most vocal and visible faces of the farmers’ agitation.

Rajewal formed the Samyukta Samaj Morcha, which claimed the support of 22 farmers’ unions, and Chaduni the Sanyukta Sangharsh Party to fight the Punjab polls. The two joined hands ahead of the polls and entered into a seat sharing arrangemen­t.

Neither managed to make a sizable impact on the outcome of the elections. But they angered the remaining constituen­ts of SKM, which had vowed to keep the formation apolitical. In fact, political leaders, even those sympatheti­c to the farmers, were seldom allowed to share the stage with the agitating farmers. The SKM leadership announced in Delhi in January 2022 that farmers’ groups taking part in the Punjab polls were “no longer” part of SKM.

Thereafter, the organisati­on split again, with two more of its core committee members – Jagjit Singh Dallewal and Shivkumar Sharma ‘Kakkaji’ – holding a convention of 30 farmers’ organisati­ons. The duo said their effort was to “depolitici­ze” SKM, and announced a parallel grouping: SKM (non-political).

The latest agitation is being spearheade­d by this “non-political” avatar of SKM.

It is not just SKM, even Bhartiya Kisan Union of Rakesh Tikait, which led the agitation at Delhi’s borders with Uttar Pradesh, has split, with the breakaway section calling itself BKU (apolitical).

Mobilisati­on matters

Ghuman believes the mobilisati­on last time was much better.

For instance, in 2020, a group of writers, artists, activists and university students came out in support of the farmers' movement to bring out a journal, “Trolley Times”. It was not the official mouthpiece of SKM, but captured the "protesters' stories" and of the estimated 95,000 "trolleys lined up" at NCR’S borders.

This time, sources say the team behind the effort has been less than enthused by the disparate nature of the current protest.

“We had set up our team when the farmers reached Delhi in the winter of 2020. On this occasion, they are still at Shambhu border, unlike in 2020 when they had reached Delhi's Singhu, Gazipur, and Trikri borders. The

jatthas are far fewer in numbers than they were the last time,” says a member of the Trolley Times team, who does not want to be named.

Some experts say the entire agitation this time was politicall­y motivated to achieve a certain goal, whereas in 2020 it was a spontaneou­s expression of resentment.

“Always remember, in 2020 the farmers were trying to salvage their pride and land, and feared that their livelihood­s were at stake due to the Acts that were already in public domain. This time, their demand is more of an aspiration, with no precedent,” says an expert.

Sardara Singh Johl, agricultur­e economist and former vice-chancellor of the Punjab Agricultur­e University had told Business Standard a few weeks ago that legalizing MSP for all the 23 crops was impractica­l and not implementa­ble.

The tractor trolleys tried reaching Delhi in February this year, just as they had in 2020, but were stopped at the borders, where they have stayed put

 ?? PHOTO: BLOOMBERG ?? Farmers protest near the Haryana-punjab state border in Rajpura, Punjab on February 16, 2024
PHOTO: BLOOMBERG Farmers protest near the Haryana-punjab state border in Rajpura, Punjab on February 16, 2024
 ?? ?? Farmers protest at Tikri border near New Delhi, on January 26, 2021
Farmers protest at Tikri border near New Delhi, on January 26, 2021

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