Thousands of farmers marching towards Delhi as part of the Bhartiya Kisan Union’s “Kisan Kranti Padyatra” were stopped at the Delhi-UP border. This led to violence, with police using water cannons and tear gas shells, injuring several of them.
This, and opposition parties’ criticism, prompted the central government to send Union home minister Rajnath Singh to directly talk to the stir leaders. Three hours of talks resulted in an official statement of intent on action but it did not seem enough to end the protest.
The farmers’ padyatra began on September 23, from Haridwar’s Baba Tikait Ghat, named after the once-famous farmer leader of western UP, Mahendra Singh Tikait. It passed through the main sugarcane and wheat growing belts, including Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, before reaching Ghaziabad on Monday.
UP’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had met the protesters in Ghaziabad late in the evening but could not satisfy them. BKU’s march came almost 30 years after farmers led by Tikait brought central Delhi to a standstill for a week and was the first big national protest by BKU since Tikait died in 2011. Today’s protest was led by Naresh and Rakesh Tikait, sons of legendary farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait. Though a shadow from its heydays of the late ’80s and early ’90s, BKU still has considerable influence among farmers of western UP, particularly Jats.
They are demanding lower petrol and electricity bills, legal status to the Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism and its full implementation in line with the Swaminathan committee’s recommendation. Also, full waiver of all crop loans, changes in Kisan Credit Card (KCC) norms and directing the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to lift the ban on the use of diesel vehicles which are more than 10 years old in the National Capital Region that has impacted farmers who use tractors. Plus, widening the Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme (PMFBY) to include damage from stray animals and immediate payment of all sugarcane dues, along with raising the MSP to Rs 40 a kg for sugar.
The Delhi Police had imposed a ban on assembly in the city's east and northeast on Monday itself. However, thousands of farmers tried to break the police cordon around the Ghazipur border, prompting use of water cannons and teargas. The police said seven of their people, including an assistant commissioner, were injured after a section of crowd turned violent as police tried to persuade them not to break the barricades.
The agitation found support from none other than M S Swaminathan. The eminent agricultural scientist in a Twitter post said Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan slogan, to which Atal Behari Vajpayee later added Jai Vigyan. Considering all these, farmers had chosen a correct occasion (Gandhi Jayanthi) for their mega rally.
Centre steps in
With the situation threatening to go out of control, Union home minister Rajnath Singh, himself from western UP and with some influence over the region’s politics, decided to meet the agitating farmer leaders, along with minister of state for agriculture Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, and two ministers from the UP state cabinet.
After nearly three hours of talks, the Union government issued a statement that the majority of the demands had been discussed and a plan prepared to meet these. The Centre will file a review petition at the NGT to lift the ban on diesel vehicles over 10 years in use. And, have farmer representatives on the committee of chief ministers to link MGNREGS, the rural jobs scheme, with farming.
Center will also approach the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council to fix no more than a five per cent levy on items used in agriculture. And, work with states to ensure full implementation of MSP, ban import of such farm goods which are in excess production in the country and have a panel underminister of state Gajendra Shekhawat to solve the problems related to PMFBY and Kisan Credit Cards, and include attacks by stray animals into PMFBY on an experimental basis, went the statement.
Armed with the Centre’s assurance, MoS agriculture Shekhawat and the UP ministers met the protesting farmers at the Ghazipur border and till this report was filed, the working committee of BKU was discussing the proposals.
“We have got the response from the government but will continue with our agitation and dharna, while talks with the government are still on," a BKU leader told Business Standard.
BKU’s agitation is the latest in a series of farmers’ protests that has rocked the country in the past few years, highlighting the growth in agrarian distress.
Earlier this year, the CPI-M affiliated All India Kisan Sabha organised a Kisan Long March, where 35,000 farmers marched from Nashik to Mumbai to gherao the Maharashtra legislature. They wanted the implementation of the Swaminathan commission’s recommendations, higher MSPs and a blanket loan waiver, among other things.
In June, a 10-day strike was called by the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh in Madhya Pradesh and adjoining areas, to protest against police firing in Mandsaur. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a conglomeration of over farmer groups, had organised a march in protest against the Centre’s alleged backtracking on MSP.
Opposition parties criticised the government for what they described as "brutal police action" against thousands of farmers marching towards the capital, with the Congress alleging the "Badshah of Delhi Sultanate was drunk with power". The Congress is planning to send seniors to join the agitationists on Wednesday, as a mark of solidarity with them.
"On International Day of Non-Violence, the BJP's two-year Gandhi Jayanti celebrations began with the brutal beating of farmers peacefully coming to Delhi. Now, the farmers cannot even air the grievances coming to the capital!" tweeted Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Hindi.
The Congress Working Committee, the highest decision-making body of the party, adopted a resolution strongly condemning the police action. And, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, "We strongly condemn this action and atrocities on farmers. This once again demonstrates the anti-farmer attitude of the Modi government."
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav also extended his party's support to the protestors and alleged the farm community had been hit hard by rising fuel prices, GST rollout and demonetisation. The All India Kisan Sabha condemned the police "brutality".
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said preventing a protest march of farmers from entering the national capital was "wrong". "Delhi belongs to all. They should be given entry. We support their demands," he told reporters on the sidelines of an event held at the Delhi assembly to mark Gandhi Jayanti.