On the evening of 28 January, 2021, Rakesh Tikait was in tears. The leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) sobbed, fearing imminent arrest. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had sent a crack police team to take Tikait into custody.
As images of Tikait crying went viral, a phone call from a Union minister stopped the UP police team in its tracks. The message from the Centre was terse: No arrest.
Within minutes, Tikait’s body language changed. A call went out to farmers from western Uttar Pradesh to come to where Tikait’s men had set up camp. By the next day the crowd of protesting farmers which had thinned swelled again. The government lost its nerve — and the opportunity to end the increasingly incendiary agitation.
Two days earlier, on Republic Day, thuggish elements within the farmers’ tractor invasion of Delhi had damaged Red Fort and unfurled a Khalistani flag. An infamous toolkit emerged as the blueprint for what was no longer a protest against three progressive farm laws but against the Narendra Modi government.
Tikait, who was supported by the Congress in his losing bid in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, wears three hats: Farmers’ union leader; politician; and businessman. The three roles are complementary.
Tikait doesn’t want to talk to the government about the three farm laws. He doesn’t want to talk to the Supreme Court-appointed panel of experts whose report endorsed the new farm laws with minor caveats. He does not want to talk to agricultural economists who also back the laws.
What exactly does Tikait want? On the face of it, a complete withdrawal of the three farm laws passed by Parliament.
But if the Modi government calls Tikait’s bluff and agrees to repeal the farm laws, Tikait will be horrified. That is not what he really wants.
What he really wants is to keep the farmers’ agitation simmering till the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. That is why multiple farmers’ unions have ignored the Supreme Court’s order suspending the new farm laws and refused to call off their agitation.
The protests serve a political interest that has nothing to do with the welfare of small farmers.
Tikait and other farmers’ union leaders are also fiercely opposed to allowing states to implement laws that mirror the Centre’s suspended farm laws. Many states have already implemented progressive clauses within the new farm laws.
That is why the farmers’ agitation, even after nearly a year, has largely been confined to Punjab and Haryana.
No farm union has blocked public access in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Pune or Hyderabad even though all these cities are in states run by political parties opposed to the Modi government.
Tikait and other farm union leaders refuse to debate the farm laws. They do not say which specific clauses they find objectionable. The broad brush complaint is that farmers are being sold out to corporates. That is nonsense for several reasons.
Agriculture is a protected business. Farmers pay no income tax even if their net income is over Rs 1 crore. The argument is that 94.7 percent of farmers have small holdings and eke out a subsistence living despite the minimum support price (MSP), free electricity, subsidised fertilizers and multiple loan waivers.
Yet over 10,000 farmers across the country die by suicide every year. That is a tragic statistic: A farmer committing suicide every 45 minutes.
Farmers kill themselves because the old farm laws favour the small minority of rich farmers and politician-middlemen in Punjab and Haryana.
The new farm laws are meant to level up the playing field, giving marginal farmers access to new farm technology and a nationwide mandi rather than being restricted to selling their crops in their district.
Rich farmers form 5 percent of all farmers but own disproportionate acreage of land. The last thing they want is a level playing field.
Fishing in troubled waters, Khalistani separatists supported from North America have infiltrated the farmers’ movement. It is now an agitation to fight not against the new farm laws but against the Modi government. This combination of politicians, separatists and wealthy farmers forms a toxic and combustible mix.
Violence has marked the farmers’ protest from the start. The image of the hardworking Indian farmer tilling his fields has been subverted by a group of wealthy farm land owners and commission agents. Violence and anarchy are their calling cards.
Funded by Pakistan’s ISI, Khalistani separatists infiltrated the farmers’ movement early on. The gruesome murder of a 35-year-old Dalit Sikh, Lakhbir Singh, by Nihang Sikhs at the farmers’ protest site on the Delhi-Haryana Singhu border, underscored the violent and anarchic atmosphere at the site. Local residents are routinely threatened by protesters, especially at night. Lawlessness abounds.
The government’s inaction over the past 11 months has emboldened violent elements in the farmers’ unions, particularly those in the BKU and the SKM. Tikait is a culprit but he is not the only one. Shooting off his shoulder are politicians, activists and rogue brokers.
They have no interest in improving the plight of 95 percent of India’s farmers who back the new farm laws and are not part of the protests. That is why the farmers’ agitation has not spread beyond Punjab and Haryana.
The attempt to weaponise the movement by politically affiliated farmers’ union leaders ahead of the 2022 UP Assembly election will continue as long as the government and the Supreme Court remain silent spectators. More violence could hurt the genuine cause of small farmers as public sympathy erodes following the brutal murder of Lakhbir Singh at the Singhu border.
On the night of 28 January, as Tikait sobbed, the government made a mistake it may come to regret.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.