Reports suggest that a faction of the ruling party, opposed to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, may have had a hand in the protests by the Patidars of Mandsaur district in MP’s Malwa region, who have been demanding an increase in the minimum support price for their crops.
Speculation has been fuelled further by the reluctance on the part of BJP’s Malhargarh MLA, Jagdish Devda, to visit the area in his constituency where five protesting farmers were killed in police firing on 5 June.
The killing of the five farmers has sowed seeds of suspicion in the influential community against the ruling dispensation.
They seethe in anger in their homes even as the charred remains of vehicles – near Bahi Parasnath and Pipliya Mandi villages on the Mandsaur-Neemuch stretch of the state highway – bear testimony to the storm that blew over several parts of the district immediately after the police firing.
“We were pressing our demand for a hike in the MSP between 1 and 4 June. A bandh call was given at Pipliya Mandi, but the Baniyas refused to abide by it,” said Modiram Patel, the septuagenarian chief of Balaguda village. Balaguda is 7 km from the spot where trucks, carrying brand new Bullet Enfield and Hero Honda motorcycles and other goods, were overturned and torched by thousands of Patidars.
The agitating Patidars took umbrage at the baniyas at the mandis – in Pipliya Mandi, Barkheda Panth, Takrawat, Chilod Pipliya, Aardi and Nayakheda – who opposed the bandh and refused to comply with the diktat that they must express solidarity with the farmers.
Balaguda villagers said the Patidars roughed up the trading class of baniyas. In response, the baniyas banded together to beat up some of the farmers.
“This caused passions to be inflamed among the Patidars who then went on a rampage in the mandis,” said Kameshwar Patidar, a resident of Bahi Parasnath.
As word of the “insult” to the Patidars spread, angry crowds of farmers began to converge on the state highway. “When the situation was seen to be getting out of their hands, the police opened fire,” Kameshwar said, adding that he has “video clips of the thrashing that some Patidars got from the baniyas”.
Both the Patidars and the trading class in Mandsaur have traditionally voted for the BJP.
Today, as tension continues to prevail across Mandsaur and at least four other districts in the Malwa region, the Patidars are dismayed by the conspicuous absence of the BJP’s Malhargarh MLA Jagdishi Devda and MP Sunil Gupta.
Local BJP leaders in Malwa suspect that Devda’s “silence and non-appearance among the Patidars in this time of crisis” indicates that he “remains unhappy with Chouhan’s decision to remove him from the state cabinet.”
Devda was stripped of his jail and transport ministry portfolios in 2016.
Many of the Patidars of Mandsaur and its adjoining districts in the Malwa region, are affiliated to the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (RKMS) which is led by an Indore-based former RSS leader Shivkumar Sharma. Sharma was thrown out of the RSS some 15 months ago but continues to be popular among the Patidars and has been spearheading the farmers’ agitation in the Malwa region.
Sharma did not respond to The Quint’s phonecalls. RKMS general secretary Gajendra Singh Jat said:
The farmers’ repeated demands for hiking the MSP for certain farm produce, including soybean and pulses, have been falling on deaf ears.
The violent incidents of 5 June reflected “official apathy” towards the Patidars’ demands, Jat alleged.
Chouhan’s Biggest Challenge Yet
A host of state BJP leaders, including former CM Babulal Gaur and the party’s national General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, have come down heavily on the Shivraj Singh Chouhan regime over the police firing.
Chouhan now faces the gravest political crisis of his 12-year-long stint as MP CM and with the assembly polls scheduled for 2018, ‘camps’ opposed to him have become active.
However, RKMS leaders claim that the Patidars’ anger against the regime over the police firing deaths, and their frustration over having the government “ignore” their demands, may not yet be “decisive enough reasons” to turn the tide against Chouhan.
“There is still over a year left for the polls and by that time the state BJP would be able to find a solution to the deepening challenge of farmers’ distress in MP,” a senior state cabinet minister said. The minister’s comments came even as some party MLAs, chafing at Chouhan’s “inept handling” of the agitation, have turned wary of the Congress’ potential to take political advantage of the crisis.
The “farmers’ anger against the administration has grown over the last several months,” Jat said, adding:
This upsurge should not be interpreted as a shifting of the political ground from under Chouhan’s feet as this storm too shall pass.
How Will It Affect the 2018 Assembly Polls?
The Patidars of Balaguda are not sure whether the Congress would be a viable alternative by next year.
Bhanwarlal Patidar, who owns 10 acres of farmland where he cultivates a range of crops – including soybean, fenugreek, wheat, coriander and opium, looks questioningly at other residents of Balaguda when asked who the Patidars will vote for in 2018.
However, there are small pockets in Balaguda, such as the family members of Gopal Patidar – who is on the run from the police – who swear loyalty to the Congress. The family says they will stand by the Congress even though the party remains disorganised at the village and block levels.
Gopal’s 23-year-old daughter, Pooja, who holds a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree, does not bat an eyelid when asked about her choice for the 2018 assembly polls.
Humara pura khaandaan Congress ko vote daalta hai.
The crowd of vocal Patidars that had gathered in the village square, under an early evening sky darkened by clouds, said little by way of support for Pooja. At the moment, they only seethe in anger against the administration.