Addressing a press conference on Saturday evening, 12 December, the coordination committee of 32 farmers' unions accused the Narendra Modi government of trying to create divides among them and weaken the ongoing farmers’ protest.
However, the unions stressed that they are united in their aim – a total repeal of the three farm laws passed by the Centre.
This article will try to answer three questions:
- How has the government allegedly tried to divide the unions?
- Why it may have tried to isolate the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan)?
- How has unity been maintained despite differences?
How Govt Allegedly Tried to Divide Unions?
The selective invitation to certain union leaders for the meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah earlier this week is being seen as one of these attempts to create divides.
The biggest farmers' organisation – BKU (Ugrahan) – was left out of the meeting, causing a brief misunderstanding.
The BKU (Ugrahan) expressed its displeasure and said that the representatives shouldn’t have gone because all unions had not been invited. The outfit also pointed out that the government had invited it separately for talks in November, but that didn't happen as the BKU (Ugrahan) wanted all the organisations to be included.
However, the organisations, whose leaders did attend the meeting, clarified that they didn't know that the BKU (Ugrahan) wasn't invited and found out only after gathering for it.
The unions say that they are all on the same page, regarding the demands as well as the future course of action.
The other attempt was when Union Minister Piyush Goyal alleged that the protest had been "infiltrated by Maoist elements" and was "hardly a farmers' protest".
At an event at FICCI on Saturday, Goyal said, "The demands raised on a farmers’ platform to release the so-called intellectuals and poets clearly demonstrates that the efforts to derail farm law improvements is probably in the hands of certain elements, not for the good of India.”
The reference was to BKU (Ugrahan), showing posters of activists who have been arrested, to mark the Human Rights Day.
However, the outfit's chief, veteran activist Joginder Singh Ugrahan, explained: "These intellectuals and writers have been arrested for criticising this government. Why should we not talk about them?"
Another way the Centre has tried to divide the unions is by pushing the narrative that the government has made several compromises, but it is the unions who are being rigid. It expects that at some point, some of the farmers' outfits would be compelled to settle for amendments and withdraw from the protest.
Why Has Govt Tried to Isolate BKU (Ugrahan)?
The Ugrahan group is not part of the coordination committee formed by 32 outfits from Punjab. However, the committee and the Ugrahan group’s leadership have been coordinating their efforts as their demands are the same, as has been the case with farmers’ groups from outside Punjab as well.
"They are not part of the committee of the 30 organisations. But our aims are the same, so we work together. Our only demand is the repeal of the three laws," Kisan Sangharsh Committee's Kanwalpreet Singh Pannu said during a press conference on Saturday.
Many other union representatives have said that there's no disagreement regarding the calling for the release of incarcerated activists, while also maintaining that it's not a part of any formal demands.
BKU (Ugrahan) faced criticism from outside the Kisan Union quarters for not including Sikh activists booked under the UAPA in Punjab.
Importance of the BKU (Ugrahan)
It is important to understand why the government may be singling this group out.
The Ugrahan group is the biggest of the Kisan unions – according to estimates it has over a lakh protesters camped at Delhi's borders.
The group is also known to pursue more aggressive methods. Its cadres were actively involved in the gherao of BJP leaders in Punjab and the demonstrations outside Reliance and Adani-run establishments. Some of the other unions also adopted the same methods in their areas of influence.
These tactics proved to be extremely effective, leading to the resignation of a large number of BJP functionaries in Punjab.
In the past, the Ugrahan group has also closely coordinated with the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, which represents farm labourers. This helped expand the base of protests.
The group is known to create solidarity with diverse outfits even on non-agrarian issues – be it the anti-CAA movement or the protests against the revocation of Article 370 – because it believes that those at the receiving end of the government's "arrogance" need to be supported.
The huge numbers and aggressive methods makes BKU (Ugrahan) the most dangerous union for the government, and this may have been a reason why it has tried to isolate this group.
How Has Unity Been Maintained?
There are both short-term and long-term reasons why the efforts to divide the unions haven't succeeded.
These reasons mainly stem from the energy of the protesters themselves. The farmers’ deep resentment with the government has pushed the unions to stay united, strive towards common aims and coordinate their efforts.
For instance, BKU (Ugrahan) wasn't keen on coming to Delhi and wanted to continue protesting in Punjab. But, it was the enthusiasm of lay protesters that compelled it to follow suit.
Then, another farmers' outfit is said to have been open to accepting the government's suggestion to protest at the Nirankari Grounds in Burari, but other unions and many lay protesters decided to stay put at Delhi's borders.
It is because of the protesters' drive to get these three laws repealed that any possible diversion is being avoided. So, while on one hand, the 32 unions has sidestepped the Ugrahan group's demand for the release of political prisoners, on the other, actor Deep Sidhu had to apologise for making negative comments about communists.
Furthermore, it is for the same reasons that so far no union has openly expressed willingness to settle for anything less than a complete repeal of the three laws. Anyone who does that may run the risk of being called out by protesters.
Basically, the lay protester doesn't want the movement to weaken at any cost, until the demands are met. Why that is the case stems from long-term reasons.
It must be remembered that the farmers' resentment isn't only due to the three laws but also because of a larger neglect by the government of agriculture.
In Punjab, an added reason for the agitation are Sikhs' concerns with the forward march of Hindutva and federalist fears due to an expanding Centre.
Coming back to farmers, with debt and costs increasing for farmers across the country and very little help coming from the government, many are finding agriculture increasingly unviable.
In this context, the MSP and the Mandi system is the last layer of protection for many farmers.
Therefore, for them, the repeal of the laws is the middle path and not an extreme demand as the government and parts of the media are presenting it to be.
Harmeet Singh Kadian of the BKU (Kadian) says, "These laws are a death warrant for farmers. If they aren't repealed, it would be the end for us. That's why we have to struggle till these laws are repealed.”
It is this sentiment that has attracted thousands of farmers from Haryana to what was initially a Punjab-led protest.
Even farmers from outside these two states, who aren't dependent on the MSP system, have joined in because many of them are also reeling under debt and government’s apathy.
From the point of some unions, too, there are important long-term reasons.
The BKU’s dominance over Punjab's agrarian politics came as a result of the Green Revolution and the rise of relatively prosperous farmers. This enabled the BKU to edge out Left unions.
However, the Centre clamped down on all kinds of political mobilisation in Punjab between 1984 and 1992, which affected both the BKU and Left unions. By the time this ban was lifted, both sets of unions were faced with a similar challenge – representing farmers' interests in the context of economic liberalisation and globalisation.
This created space for coordination between the BKU and Left unions as well as within the different factions of the outfit.
The Modi government's farm laws, which will completely make farmers vulnerable to corporate interests, are being seen by them as the final nail in the coffin. Hence, the united push to get them repealed.