Rise and Rise Of Farmers Protest: A lesson in people's resistance

How did the farmers’ protest start and gain momentum before reaching Delhi borders?

Credit : Shubham Patil

The organisational skills and development of farmers’ protest is a tale of inspiration and school of education for people's struggle. It is uplifting to know the rise and rise of farmers' protests. Here is an insight into how the protest started from villages of Punjab and hit Delhi.


Preparations During Lockdown

The preparation of a large protest started from the very day the news came out that there is the formation of new farm laws by the Central Government with its possible impact on Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). It was the month of June 2020 when a nationwide lockdown was imposed and insecurity and fear were widespread among citizens regarding the Coronavirus pandemic. In such an unprecedented black swan event, farmers' organisations and small units decided to form a campaign around the strategy of the Central Government.

Their campaigning began in June during lockdown when mobile phones and WhatsApp groups were primary sources of connection. It was clear to farmers then and there that they had to march together and protest on the streets. According to a few farmers from the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), their entire villages had decided to lead the protests. The resolution and announcements were made from the village Gurudwaras, and farmers were asked to hoist flags on their roofs if they were ready to organise protests against the proposed farm bills.

Rakesh Singh, a farmer from Mugga recalls the day, such flags were hoisted. “There were flags on many houses of the village. Everyone was asking others to join protests. Farmers were determined that they would march the rallies and bring tractors to the protest. It was the beginning of bringing tractors on highways. It started immediately as soon as unlocking was announced by the Central Government. We were prepared for a long struggle since then.”


Tractor: A symbol of the agitation

There were mass agitations with tractor marches in Haryana and Punjab. The ‘Kheti Bachao Yatra’ from two states got a huge response and the tractor became the chief symbol of aggression and agitation of farmers. In the month of October, these rallies became so popular that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi joined one of the tractor rallies, driving a tractor with a sofa on it.

The tractor is the household equipment of farmers in Punjab and Haryana. In over 12,000 villages of Punjab, tractors are the multipurpose equipment used by farmers. There is almost a record sale of tractors in Punjab every year (with no exception for this year too, as December 2020 again has set the highest record of tractors with 43 percent growth in sales.) This heavy vehicle machinery has become a crucial instrument for farmers against the State.


How hindi heartland peasants were mobilised?

Aadatis and APMC stakeholders were the first among all who realised the possible adverse effects of these laws. As class contradictions are present in the movement, there was an immense task of educating, politicising and involving farmers against these laws. Aadatis are finding it most problematic against their business as private mandis will automatically surpass the functioning of government owned mandis, and subsequently end the government procurement. The centre had written a letter to the Punjab Government if it can already cut down MSP from government mandis, as Centre is in favour of the open market. Thus, implementation of the MS Swaminathan Commission report was the main demand of Aadatis, just like the farmers’ organisations.

Dhuri, Mugga and Faridpur districts have big kothars (storehouses), made available by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) on rent. If the Essential Commodities Act is passed, Ambani and Adani can store farm produce in these kothars in unlimited amounts. People realised this. There are 23 crops that have MSP, however, mainly Wheat and Rice gets considerable MSP as the government procures it. When corn prices failed last year, people had seen a direct example before their eyes.


Lesson from the landless labourers of Bihar

From Bihar, labourers travel to Punjab. The pattern of migration is familiar to Pujabi farmers since 2005. These labourers live in adverse conditions and face huge difficulties in periods of lockdown. Just as in any other state, the Bihari workers were walking along the road. According to these farmers, Bihari labourers are forced to migrate because there was an amendment in APMC act by Bihar Government. In 2005, the Nitish Kumar government repealed the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act in Bihar state just a few months after assuming office.

Farmers thought they would be as poor as Bihari farmers if APMCs in Punjab were demolished. The migrants from Bihar were living monuments of what could happen when MSP is demolished, as per Punjabi peasants. This point was highlighted by many farmer organisations while convincing the farmers. The labourers working in their very land became lessons for farmers.

As many of the migrant labourers had left Punjab during lockdown, and there were hardly any workers available, the farming season of 2020 was badly hit by pandemic. This event agitated farmers more and gave them another reason to rise against the government.


Bitter Encounters with MNCs in the Past

Punjab had an early exposure to contract farming for a very long time. The farmers had had experience from the Bhavanigadh factory of PepsiCo for many years. The contract farming industry of Punjab started in 2002 and the amendment of 2003 made it legal in India by the Vajpayee government. PepsiCo began with a new farming policy of 2007 and expanded their scope. In 2017-18 there was a Model Contract Farming Act for each state, but only Tamilnadu implemented it. The model act was not forced upon the states like the current farm laws, it had a basic template of how contract farming law should be amended by states.  Punjab had its special contract farming act of April 2013. 

This law had provisions of seeing a commission and asking for the law amendments, as well as intervention by the District Collector between buyers and farmers. But the provisions were hardly implemented on the ground. It was simply implemented to promote the private sector within the farming sector of Punjab.

PepsiCo used to procure Potatoes from farmers, giving Rs 4 to 5 more than the Mandi system. But there was one loophole, PepsiCo had the privilege to procure according to their needs. They have their own setup for assessing the quality of Potatoes and determining their market price.

Many farmers had traumatic experiences with PepsiCo. MNCs used to assess the quality with their set of measures and criteria, with multiple cases of harassing farmers while grading the product quality and determining its price. Thus people knew from experience and from the provisions of the law that if any product is listed in the range of contract farming, there will be no protection of government mandis to them. They were convinced with the fact that contract farming meant farmers had to agree with all terms and conditions of MNCs. They were witnessing the earlier catastrophes of farm laws.

Other than contract farming, there was a provision from MNCs to facilitate fertilizers and pesticides and farmers only had to cultivate their farms as per guidelines of MNCs. This provision was for checking quality standards. It was engaged and determined by big corporations. The company had the right to say, "Your crop is not good. Pay back our money for fertilizer". Though this provision had alternative ways to go against MNCs to some authority, they were mostly not accessible. Finally, to pay back their dues, farmers had to sell their farms.


Role of Aadatis in Rural Economy

Adatis are the moneylenders and give loans to poor farmers, distributing the loans locally at multiple occasions. They were a crucial part. Aggregator is the landowner who is the biggest organiser of the ongoing farmers' protests. Aadati, which has a commission gathering role between farmer and buyer, lends the loan and gets a considerable amount of interest on such loans.

There is a possibility that the new laws will start new mediators and the negotiators will be just new Adatis of the system. The system was seen as a parallel amendment to the big corporations of colonised India. The contracts between the weavers, merchants and big corporations as Birla and Tata in the 20th century, known as Dadni system.

It was a contract system where similar deals were made with weavers for their labour and craft, however, it exploited the weavers to such an extent that the weaving industry within small pockets of rural India was crushed. Workers and craftsmen used to make products whilst big corporations used to send finished products to multiple countries. Though the system ended traditional mediators and Sudkhors, it was not a very secure option for weavers and farmers.

Such examples from history were cited in meetings of farmers while educating them on how the farmers' benefits are associated with the profit made by Aadatis. In hundreds of cases, Aadatis exploit the farmers and submerge them in heavy debts. Despite that, farmers were convinced that their future is inevitably associated with the benefits and debts of such Aadatis.


Previous Attempts of Intervention

Congress had begun to control the parallel banking economy run by Aadatis. The government filed FIRs against adatis and money lenders. Even amidst farmers’ protests, there were raids on few adatis' offices in Punjab.

But this stir was not very successful as the government eventually understood its social impact. There were radical agitations and reactions against the government on this move, many Mandis were closed in protest.

The Capt. Amarinder Singh and Congress government has always been inclined towards the free market and neoliberal policies. He started contract farming successfully for the first time in Punjab and was able to run it smoothly on a small scale with few corporations.

As the farmers’ movement was rising in Punjab, the State Government tried to suppress it a little, but it didn't work. The lockdowns were a big blow to farmers and they were already fighting against the small-scale corporations, operating in groups of villages. Microfinance institutions who already had a difficult relationship with farmers, bore the brunt of their anger after farm bills were proposed for the first time.


Gathering the Arsenal: Funds and Food

Adatis were ready to strike in Delhi and gather farmers. They knew the struggle was inevitable and most important for their survival. The day when tractor rallies and Kheti Bachao Rallies kick-started in Punjab and Haryana, there was tremendous rain in Punjab. The organisers were paranoid and concerned about the number of farmers who would show up. Contrary to their fear, an unexpected number of farmers gathered on the streets. It was the beginning of October when things were starting to move in Punjab. There was a complete shutdown in many towns of Punjab. In even smaller places, people were protesting in thousands.

Every dharna was funded by many people, peasants, organisations and huge donations. One of the organisers of such a rally, was able to collect Rs 50,000 from small cities. Farmers were marching with their tractors in large numbers. Eventually, many toll plazas were removed from Punjab, and farmers gathered with flags of all colours. Petrol pumps and malls owned or operated by the Reliance group were made to shut shop by the crowds in Punjab.

Starting from October, the railway tracks in Punjab were jammed till November 26th. Initially blocking the trade routes through Punjab seemed to be the only way to express dissent against the Central Government, but it triggered the shutting of many industrial areas in Punjab. Punjab is one of the largest importers of pesticides and fertilisers, provided from different states via railway. So, railways resumed as there was an immense need for fertilizers and other commodities for cultivation.

As November dawned, farmers sitting on dharna at railway tracks made agreements with train authorities, allowing goods trains to pass from the state. On the other hand, Punjab was closed since October, with no presence of the BJP workers and leaders publically in the protests and rallies. Many farmers are still standing in railway parks, protesting against authorities outside government offices in Punjab. Latest reports from Punjab have also stated that several of them have started marching towards Singhu and other Delhi borders to support the protesting farmers in face of the police brutalities and attacks from the groups identifying themselves as ‘locals’.

A migrated entrepreneur (born in Pakistan before partition) SP Oberoi had donated Rs 20 Crore for the protest during COVID-19 pandemic. He has publicly confirmed that ‘he is ready to donate as much as needed to the protest, even if it is everything that he has. Many Punjabis from the world have been donating to the cause.



Protest was to last Two Hours

Eventually, it was decided that surrounding the national capital will be the only option to pressurise the Central Government and make them realise the demands of farmers. The identity of Delhi in Sikhism and the history of Punjab served the farmers' protest to a large extent.

The first storm of marching farmers reached the Singhu border on October 1. There was a plan to march to Delhi with a small group of activists and farmers. In India, it is common to close the highway for an hour or two while protesting in India, and then submit an application to the authorities and conclude the protest. This was an obvious routine for the police and highway authorities at Singhu border, familiar business as usual.

Around 50 to 70 farmers were present at Singhu border on October 1. It was decided that they will move to Delhi, but their Delhi march and Kheti Bachao Rally were halted at the Singhu border. So the farmers planned that they will make Chakka Jam and Raasta Roko at the Singhu border with the farmers that will gather in the next couple of days, and thus the Rasta Roko was scheduled on October 3rd. It was supposed to last for just a couple of hours. Eventually, not 70, but 1,500 Punjabi farmers stormed in protest, joining the Rasta roko from various regions of Punjab. They were not from any political organisation or affiliated to any unit as such. They had taken whichever flag they found, reprinted the flags and joined the dharna.

Then they decided to close the highway. Since then, the highway has been captured by those farmers, including the first 1,500 farmers with lakhs of others from various regions across the country.

On condition of anonymity, one of the officials of United Farmers Morcha said that still many people are asking for flags and closing the Reliance petrol pumps by themselves. Toll plazas and railways were already closed in Punjab. Farmers and organisers had no idea that they could close Delhi. No central body was formed until November 2020.

There was demand from the public that they had to come together for the cause. Members of various organisations were asking their leaders to march to Delhi but the organisers thought they couldn't manage it then. It was harvest season, after Beejai (sowing), thus farmers were supposed to be in farms and busy with their work. But the agitations reached almost every village of Punjab and larger solidarity was built. “We had thought BJP will stop us in Haryana. We were ready to sit at the Haryana border. But they undermined the numbers and it helped a lot to shape the gathering as the biggest protest in the world,” said the leader.

That night, eventually farmers from Haryana broke barricades and police were on backfoot. Our protest started to gain momentum since then. The big unions are getting cheques of large amounts and we are afraid to encash. Rs 25,000 is our everyday collection from toll plazas just through public voluntary donations from strangers. We have no lack of money, we need more people with us. The food is arranged by union, it started eventually from the langar seva and Gurudwaras.”

1783 was the year when the Red fort had the Khalsa flag - the holy Nishan Sahib on it. The story inspires the politics of Punjab and creates momentum among farmers, setting a precedent that should be followed over the period. Many Hindutva organisations celebrate the day and appreciate the fact that the Mughals were defeated by Sikh and praise Punjabis for the same. The day of victory against Emperor Shah Alam II is still celebrated as Delhi Fateh Divas. Thus, capturing Delhi has its own significance and relevance in the history of Punjab and Sikhism.

It is a household story in Punjab, how the Mughal throne of ‘Shah Alam II’ from Delhi was roped by Khalsa soldiers with horses and brought to Punjab. Sikhs admire the Akal Takht, built deliberately at a higher place than the throne of Delhi court, signifying that the ultimate authority belongs to Sikhism, not any emperor at Delhi. Even when the British had built a clock tower higher than Akal Takht near Golden temple, Sikhs demolished it ruthlessly in the British era itself. The eventual downfall of the Khalistani leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was associated with the Akal Takht.

‘Dilli Maari te Billi maari’ is a common saying in Punjabi which means ‘A Sikh can kill a cat and conquer Delhi with the same ease’. The culture and history of Sikhs has been against Delhi, and it fueled the sentiments among farmers. Sikhs from Jharkhand and other states joined the protest naturally. The march is not only political but at the same time, a symbolic expression of the farmers. The urge to oppose Delhi comes from the symbolic 'recapture and reclaiming' Delhi.

It legitimised violence against the state, reclaiming that the government has a different set of ethics and values from the country. The protestors danced before the water Canon, they searched YouTube for how to jam water cannons. NRIs helped the protestors with various techniques of protest, including how to close the shelling and water canons. Wet Sack (Gilli Bori) has become a common word as there is provision of sacks at various points at Singhu border that are used when tearshells are thrown at the crowd. The hockey culture and Khalsa Dal sticks, which are a peculiar identity of Punjab, were also seen at various places when protesters were playing hockey with the smoke shells.


The leadership of the People

The protests were led by people themselves. Unlike any other protests in recent years, there was not any chief organiser or face for the movement. It is a collective effort of the farmers, and decisions were made collectively by the crowd. Everything that was happening at the protest site was controlled and managed with the consent of the youth. Decisions were driven from the organic intellect of commons, thus the aesthetics were developed from the perspective of all participants.

A rage against capitalism too was seen when a group of farmers captured the large KFC building at Singhu border and shifted the acronym of KFC to ‘Kisaan Food Corner’. They captured the Hindustan Petroleum Pump to start a separate Free Kisan Mall for women with products for menstrual health and undergarments. There were two such incidents that happened when people showed the top leaders and organisers, who is the ultimate authority and decision maker in the process.

The protest site is a gathering of youth from all corners of Punjab, and thus all singers and icons of younger generations are propelled at the protest site. It has become a voluntary act of celebrities from Punjab to support this protest. Many singers had started separate parallel rallies. Such singers were barred from performing at protest sites. Gurudas Mann, one of the most famous singers in Punjab and Bollywood was barred from speaking at Singhu border by farmers.

It was shocking even for the organisers how youth can stop the legendary singer from performing, but then the immediate reason was cited that when said, “It is must that one nation should have one language.” Narrating the incident, one of the protesters said, “He was the most famous and beloved singer for us till then, and next day he was none.” The command was entirely in the hands of people. Even when stage managers tried to calm them down, Gurudas Mann was not able to hold mic before the protesters.

Bhartiya Kisan Union-Ugrahan were against breaking borders and remained at the Haryana border. This organisation has its unique way of dealing with the farmers' protest, and it is one of the few organisations which was vocal about the demand for the release of political prisoners from jail. Ugrahan is one of the famous and largest farmers’ organisations of Punjab. They were criticised by their members on this topic and pressure was built on their leaders to march towards Delhi. Local workers and members left their flags and went towards borders. Thus Ugraha had to change their role and follow their members. Leaders are walking behind the members, getting them at the Tikri border and setting their tents with them.


Failed Attempts of the liberal approach

Few of the farm leaders went to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah for backdoor meetings and were criticised by farmers within an hour. Previously, whenever there were such mistakes with political correctness, people would criticise the leadership and go home. It has changed now and leaders are in an aggressive stance. Leaders are the ones almost caged by farmers. They have held their leaders as mere spectators of their face as representatives with the government. This started a new precedence where leaders have to conduct a press conference before and after every meeting and then conduct the further talks. They are very vocal and can be seen saying ‘kill us if we get anything less than repealing of the laws’.

The BJP tried to divide Haryana and Punjab by using the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL), which had started a water clash previously among these two states. But Haryana farmers took a very different stance and started saying ‘we don't need water, what to do with it when there will be no land’. Pakistan made songs for Punjab 'Chadhate Punjab ke saath, Ladta Punjab bhi aayega' stating that Pakistani Punjab is in solidarity with Indian Punjab. The song is very popular among youth. It connected Haryana and Punjab regions of both sides.

Now dharna tourism has started at the protest sites. People are getting married with the Kisan Union flag. They are printing flags by themselves, irrespective of donation from farmers’ organisations. Flag prices got high up to Rs 100 as there was a crunch of flags due to high demand.

The farmers’ protest has turned a new page in the history of people’s movements. Once condemned as ‘grammar of anarchy’ in the Constitutional assembly of India, the protests on streets outside the periphery of elections that are not led by mainstream political parties are politicising the contemporary art, culture, songs and spaces that were trying to be apolitical before. For the youth pouring in from across the country, the ongoing protest is a short term crash course on anarchist studies and a lesson for the movement. It has started some discourse on the agrarian issues and on the internal contradictions in rural society. The supporting and opposing arguments about the protest are pivotal for upcoming discourses, for and against the government. It is trying to answer the conflicting questions that existed long before the Indian society was finally brave to confront. Now, there is at least an attempt made to answer these questions such as ‘to what extent, the use of violence from State and the protesters is legitimate’, ‘are farmers and agriculture a homogenous class and identity’, ‘role of religious sentiments in movements of the working class’ and ‘role of mainstream media and their alternatives’.