Seventy-three-year-old Saminder Singh of village Kalewal in Kapurthala district of Punjab is seated with ten other farmers inside a makeshift tent at Delhi’s Singhu border. Next to the tent are parked their tractors and a car. And just a few inches away is the first layer of chained barricades set up by Delhi Police and various other armed forces.
If the Samyukt Kisan Morcha leadership takes a call to march towards Delhi, in case their talks with the Centre fail, Saminder Singh and a “frontline warriors” group of twenty farmers aged between 23 and 80 years will be the first to face the heavily-armed Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel. The RAF have formed the first layer of armed forces keeping an eye on the protesting farmers. Should the eventuality arise, and the farmers do manage to breach this first layer, they will then have to encounter the Border Security Force, whose men have formed the second layer to prevent the farmers from marching into the Capital.
“We are only following the brave traditions of our ancestors,” says a confident and calm Saminder. “If our leaders decide to move further from here, we would be the first to face the armed men. We will do so without resorting to any violence and try to clear every obstacle to make the way for the farmer brothers behind us. These kinds of mass movements seek sacrifices and if the government wants to beat us, shoot us, use tear gas against us, we are ready for it.”
About 90,000 farmers, women and children from different parts of the country are said to be protesting against the three farm bills at Singhu Border since 27 November.
Listening patiently is fifty-year-old Sarwan Singh Baupur, president of the Kisan Majdoor Sangharsh Samiti in Kapurthala district. Sarwan, who is leading the twenty-member jattha (or squad) says passionately in a high-pitched voice, “We are sitting here and our resolve is firm. Our samiti has instructed us not to take the law into our own hands. If the government plans to take brutal action against us tomorrow, it can go ahead and do so today itself—but we will not retaliate.”
Sarwan says his inspiration is Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru, who was imprisoned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1606. Arjan Dev refused to embrace Islam on Jahangir’s insistence, and he was tortured for five days before he was killed.
“Look at our history and you will find we always enter a battleground well-prepared. We are determined to get the three farm laws repealed and are willing to pay any price for it. We are also the frontline of the protest and will be the first to face any government action,” says Sarwan.
Samyukt Kisan Morcha is the umbrella organisation of over 40 farmer unions and it has demanded the three farm-related laws, the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Agriculture and Promotion) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance which relates to contract farming and one more law on pricing of essential agri-commodities, be repealed. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government passed these laws without any consultation when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, through ordinances. And the government is now insisting that these laws are revolutionary and game-changers for Indian farmers.
“The laws are unconstitutional,” P. Sainath, founder-editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India or PARI and former rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper, tells this author. “Agriculture is a state subject in the Constitution and the Centre cannot legislate on it—certainly not without the consent of and consultation with states. Second, they seem to have been designed for, by and of the corporates.”
At first glance, it seems the farmers are fighting for Minimum Support Prices only. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that MSP and the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees would remain in place, but there is also a trust deficit between the farmers and the government. In fact, MSP does not figure at all in the laws, and that is one more problem for the farmers: the new laws change the existing system of agricultural production and procurement, but there is no guarantee that the MSP system will stay put, and the verbal assurances of the PM or other ruling-party leaders are not acceptable to farmers.
Interestingly, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2011, Modi had chaired the Working Group on Consumer Affairs. The report he submitted to the central government had said that the government must “Enforce MSP: Since the intermediaries play a vital role in the functioning of the market and at times have an advance contract with farmers. In respect of all essential commodities, we should protect farmer’s interests by mandating through statutory provisions that no farmer-trader transaction should be below MSP.”
Farmers camping at the four borders that Delhi shares with its neighbouring states, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, have been demanding what Modi, as Chief Minister, had demanded in 2011.
Guaranteed procurement is another big issue for farmers. “MSP and guaranteed procurement have to go together,” says Sainath. “Declaring a high MSP means very little if you do not procure. Governments often declare high MSPs and then do not procure, so the two have to go together,” he says.
Sainath believes these laws are a death warrant for farmers. “Let me put it this way—they are new milestones in the highway to agrarian hell.” Yet, if they are withdrawn tomorrow, it does not mean India will have solved the agrarian crisis. “It simply means we are back to where we were before the laws were passed, which was not a nice place. But not repealing the laws means a serious aggravation of the existing crisis.”
Sainath elaborates that the laws do not just impact farmers—they seriously demolish every citizen’s right to legal redress.
When on the evening of 5 January, the Home Ministry ordered the BSF to guard the second layer of barricading at the Singhu border—while the RAF stand across the chained-locked and barbed-wired cemented barricades with tear-gas, AK-47s and rifles—this writer asked some personnel whether they think force could be used against the protesters and what arms they are carrying—bullets, pellets or rubber bullets?
“We do not use rubber-bullet guns or pellet guns,” said a sub-inspector handling a BSF unit that has been patrolling the border and is stationed just behind the RAF.
The BSF is known for operations against terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir and along India’s border with Pakistan. However, the police could not stop these farmers from breaching the obstacles created by the Haryana government to reach Singhu Border on 27 November. Today, a month and ten days later, the battlelines remain drawn and the outcome of this confrontation, especially if talks between the government and the farmers fail, is anybody’s guess.
The author is a freelance investigative journalist. The views are personal.