Ismat Ara, The Wire

New Delhi: While announcing the repeal of the three contested farm laws, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made no attempt to hide his emotions. In his characteristic style, he spoke about his tapasya to improve the lives of farmers but regretted how, despite all his efforts to convince them of the benefits of the laws, he could not get “a few farmers” on board. 

The decision to withdraw the laws was a rare political retreat by the Prime Minister – his hand forced by the year-long farmers’ agitation, centred at Delhi borders but anchored among various farming communities across the country. 

The farmers braved police cases and authoritarian district administrations; they were branded “Khalistani separatists”,”terrorists” and the “tukde-tukde gang“ by BJP leaders and the pro-government media. Yet, through Delhi’s scorching summer and harsh winter, the farmers remained resolute. 

In his live address, he said, “…shayad hamari tapasya mein hi koi kami rahi hogi jiske kaaran diye ke prakash jaisa satya kuchh kisan bhaiyon ko hum samjha nahin paye” (there must have been some deficiency in our efforts that we were not able to explain the truth, like the light of a lamp, to the farmer brothers.)

His use of the Sanskrit word ‘tapasya’ (literally, penance) indicates a singular, meditative focus. But does the record bear this out?

The Wire looks at ten aspects of the farmers’ protest and Modi’s claims of unique effort.

1. Modi dubs protesting farmers ‘andolanjeevis’, ‘parjeevis’ 

In his Lok Sabha speech on February 8, Modi coined the terms andolanjeevi (one who protests for a living) and parjeevi (parasites) to describe the protesting farmers. He said, “A new class of people has emerged in recent times who can be seen in all agitations and protests. These are ‘andolanjeevis’. States will agree with me as they, too, are encountering the emergence of this section. They are actually ‘parjeevis’, feasting on agitations and protests.” The irony was not lost on anyone.

He also added that he considered the farmers’ protest sacred, but claimed that there are “terrorists, Naxals and communal elements” involved in the movement who want to destroy the sacred protest for their own benefit.

2. Tens of thousands of farmers booked, most in criminal cases 

More than 170 cases have been filed against more than 35,000 farmers throughout the protest, according to Bhupendra Chaudhary, member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s (BKU) Haryana wing.

“The police has booked farmers in severe criminal cases with charges including attempted murder, spreading disharmony and even sedition,” he said. He further added that the farmers’ demand that these cases be withdrawn is an important one since they affect the lives and livelihoods of many young farmers.

After singer Rihanna and 18-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted about the farmers’ protest, the Delhi Police’s cybercrime cell even filed an FIR over developments related to their posts and the supposed ‘toolkit’ which came to light, imposing charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting hatred. 

Shortly after, Union home minister Amit Shah, on February 3, tweeted that India stood united to achieve progress and that no “propaganda” can deter its unity.

During the ‘Dilli Chalo’ march against the farm laws in November last year, a young man from Ambala, Navdeep Singh, climbed onto a police water cannon targeting protesters and turned it off. He was hailed as a hero on social media as the video went viral. Later, he was charged with IPC section 307 (attempted murder).

3. ‘Dilli Chalo’ path lined with expired tear gas, police barricades

In November, after failing to get the support of their state governments, the farmers decided to march to Delhi and put pressure on the Union government. They ultimately set up protest sites at three of Delhi’s borders: Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur.

This ‘Dilli Chalo’  movement was met with water cannon, batons and tear gas by the Haryana police on November 26, on the orders of Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar.

Haryana police had also dug trenches to prevent farmers from reaching Delhi, used layers of barricading and sand barriers and reportedly even used expired tear gas shells on the protesters, leading to at least three casualties.

Dhanna Singh (45) died due to an overhead collision of his tractor with a truck full of sandbags being used by the Haryana police to block the roads; Janak Raj Aggarwal (55) died after his car caught fire and Ghajjan Singh (55) died of a heart attack; all three succumbed to their injuries at Delhi’s borders. 

4. Farmers brutally beaten in Haryana CM’s own constituency

On August 28 of this year, ten protesters were severely injured during the lathicharge by Haryana police to stop protesting farmers on their way to Karnal to demonstrate at a state BJP meeting. According to the farmers present, one farmer, Sushil Kajal even died due to injuries sustained from police lathicharge.

A viral video of the then Karnal sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Ayush Sinha (who was transferred after the incident) telling police personnel to “break the heads” of anyone who tried to cross their barricades resulted in another huge protest gathering at Karnal, with threats to gherao the district’s mini-secretariat.

“Utha-utha ke marna peeche sabko (‘Hit them hard’). We shall not allow this cordon to be breached. We have enough force available. Mere paas ek bhi banda nikal ke nahin aana chahiye. Agar aaye toh sar foota hua hona chahiye uska (‘No one should break the cordon and reach me. If someone does, make sure he has a broken head’),” Sinha was seen telling the policemen in the viral video.

5. While the Union government was holding talks with farmer unions, its ministers kept discrediting the protests

Even as the government was holding talks with the farmers’ union, look at how its union ministers spoke about farmers. 

On November 27, 2020, Amit Malviya, national convener of the BJP’s IT Cell tweeted a video titled ‘Khalistani agenda behind farmers protest in Punjab”. This was one of the first instances of a ruling party leader equating the protesting farmers with ‘Khalistanis’.

On December 11, Union cabinet minister for Food and Consumer Affairs Piyush Goyal linked the farmers’ movement with “Maoists” and “anti-national elements.”

A day before, Narendra Singh Tomar, minister of agriculture and farmers’ welfare, who has been leading the government’s talks with the farmers, had tweeted, “In the guise of farmers, anti-social elements are conspiring to spoil the farmers’ movement. I appeal to the farmers to be vigilant and not provide their platform to such anti-social elements.”

On December 13, erstwhile law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in an address in Bihar said that “tukde tukde log (people who want to break India)” were using the farmers’ movement to break the country. He went on to say that a “sinister design” was responsible for the failure of the talks between the farmers and Union government.

He had said, “Narendra Modi ji respects the farmers a lot and the farmers of the country also respect Narendra Modi ji a lot – we are winning everywhere. But if the people who want to break India under the guise of the farmers’ movement – tukde-tukde people – try to shoot from the shoulders of farmers, very strict action will be taken against them.”

Even Prime Minister Modi, in a speech in Gujarat on December 15, alleged that the farmers were being misled as part of some conspiracy.

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath went so far as to say that people who had “flopped” in other areas of their lives were using the farmers’ protest to further their agenda.

In an interview aired on TV channel CNN News 18, he reportedly said, “There is no doubt that some people who have failed and flopped in other areas, who have nothing to do with agriculture, are training their guns from the shoulders of gullible farmers.” 

6. Union government’s claims to have consulted farmers falls apart

The farmers’ mistrust of the BJP began with the very way in which the contentious laws were passed. The government ignored the demands of opposition leaders to refer the farm Bills to a Parliamentary Committee in the Lok Sabha or a select committee of the Rajya Sabha for review. 

An RTI application filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj, seeking the details of the supposed consultation with stakeholders, including farmers, before the laws were passed revealed that there was no record of any pre-legislative consultations on the three bills, according to the response by the Union agriculture ministry. The ministry could not provide any dates on which the consultations were done, who the attendees were, minutes of the meetings or lists of the states, experts and farmers groups who had been consulted. 

This contradicted Tomar’s repeated claims that wide-ranging consultations were held on the three laws and reinforced the farmers’ claims that they were never made a part of the decision-making process.

7. Farmers’ deaths cross 700

By the time the Prime Minister announced that the laws would be repealed, the number of farmers who died in the course of the protests went up to around 700, according to the BKU.

In an official statement to the press, the BKU said that the Union government as well as Modi’s ego were to blame for these deaths.

Besides the people who died, the BKU has also said that several thousand cases have been slapped on protesting farmers. The withdrawal of these cases was one of the six demands made by the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) at the kisan mahapanchayat held after the repeal was announced.

8. Restrictions on farmers’ social media handles

A Facebook page called ‘Kisan Ekta Morcha’ which identified itself as the official page of the farmers’ movement was temporarily removed by the company in December, 2020. However, this was only the first of many social media handles associated with the protest that were ordered to be blocked by the Union government.

‘Kisan Ekta Morcha’ is a prominent account with over one lakh followers, used by the protesting farmers to publish protest updates, videos of speeches given by farm union leaders and also counter purported fake news spread to malign the protests.

Another major incident occurred in February 2021 when Twitter blocked several hundred handles at the government’s behest. The government had claimed that these handles had posted “false and provocative content” related to the ongoing farmers’ agitation.

The step was based on a legal request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Close to 250 handles were blocked, including the official handle of the Kisan Ekta Morcha (@Kisanektamorcha), Tractor to Twitter (@Tractor2twitr) and that of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Ekta Ugrahan faction (@bkuektaugrahan.)

The Caravan magazine’s handle was also blocked in the wake of the tractor parade organised on Republic Day and the violence that ensued in which one farmer lost his life.

Recently, reports have even emerged of fake social media handles posing to be Sikh and spreading divisive, communal statements and false narratives. These handles, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were being used to promote Hindu nationalist agendas and pro-government narratives.

9. No action against Union minister Ajay Mishra

On October 3, in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, eight people were killed. Four of them were farmers who died after having been allegedly mowed down by the convoy which Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son, Ashish, was a part of. The others who died were a reporter, a driver and BJP workers.

Mishra, in a speech on September 25, referred to the protesting farmers and said, “Sudhar jao. Nahin toh samna karo aa ke hum aap ko sudhaar denge. Do minute lagega keval (‘Mend your ways. Or else come and face us, we will fix you. It will only take two minutes.’)” The farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3 were protesting this very speech. Ashish was arrested on October 9.

Since that time, farm unions have been demanding that Ajay Mishra be removed from his post as Union minister of state for home affairs, even calling for his arrest, which was included amongst the SKM’s demands put forth after the laws were repealed.

The Wire’s conversations with several farmer leaders reveal that the farmers have lost far too much during these protests to not have all their demands met before they leave the ground. 

Most farmers feel as if they’ve lost more than they’ve gained over the past year. Yet, they show no signs of leaving the protest sites at the Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur borders until all their demands have been met.

They have done the real tapasya, they say.

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