‘Farmers, freeloaders, separatists and Biryani seekers’ get ready to negotiate

Heavily armed jawans on one side and the unarmed ‘ Kisans’ on the other continued to stare at each other on Thursday as both sides gear up for crucial negoitiations later in the day

Farmers eating food during their ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march against the Centre’s new farm laws, at Singhu border on December 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Farmers eating food during their ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march against the Centre’s new farm laws, at Singhu border on December 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Ankur Dang

Gurnam Singh, Haryana state president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), says “Haryana government has slapped 31 FIRs against farmers on charges including breaking barriers. Some of the FIRs are for attempt to murder. But we are here to protest and we will not relent.”

Lal Bahadur Shastri’s rousing slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ seemed to mock at the scene. During the drive from Ghaziabad to Central Delhi, people can see heavy police and para-military presence around the border areas. Uniformed jawans with rifles in their hands clustered around heavily armored vehicles, as jeeps upon jeeps carrying protesting farmers waited to cross into Delhi on the other side.

The city has looked like a dystopian war zone with hands that protect the country raised against hands that feed the country—all of this while Prime Minister Narendra Modi took time off to visit an archeological site in Sarnath, Varanasi, where he also enjoyed a light-and-sound show in the evening.

Meanwhile, on social media, armies of right-wing trolls have attacked the protesting farmers and their sympathizers with insulting epithets like ‘Khalistani,” “Two rupees protestors,” “anti-national,” and “terrorist” among others. Certain personalities from the film industry also joined the trolls in mocking the protestors on Twitter by accusing them of being paid performers and freeloading biryani seekers instead of genuinely aggrieved farmers.

Prominent journalist Barkha Dutt conducted an interview with Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu who has joined the farmers in their protests. The 36-year-old, who is also related to actor Sunny Deol, was asked more questions about the Khalistan movement and long-dead Sikh separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale than about the ongoing protests. However, he chose to engage with the issue at hand and insisted that he had joined the protests to support the farmers as he too was from an agricultural family. And that the Khalistan movement was irrelevant to these protests.

Unsurprisingly, his refusal to give in to Dutt’s baiting acted as a confirmation for right-wing narratives that indeed, the farmers’ protests were sponsored by “anti-national” elements to fuel Sikh separatism and that the problematic nature of the three controversial farm bills hastily passed in September this year, was of no consequence.

Another contentious photograph doing the rounds on Facebook is that of the hammer-and-sickle symbol on the flags carried by some farmers. These have been dismissed as “Maoists and commie troublemakers.” And the food supplied by local mosques to the protesting farmers, has been morphed into biryani, an “anti-national” food to invalidate this mass movement.

Among all this noise and the demonization of farmers, we must ask what is the “correct” image of a farmer in India? How must an Indian farmer be? Perhaps, it is the image of a sweet old Sikh tending to his crops in some field in Sangrur. Or maybe it is a sketch of the wretched-but-noble Hori from Premchand’s Godaan. Or maybe it is the alarming statistic pertaining to farmer suicides that has remained consistently steady in the last 20 years.

In a statement in 2017, the Centre told the Supreme Court that over 12,000 farmers die by suicide in India every year. The Centre promised the Supreme Court that it would take steps to alleviate farmers’ suffering and double the income of farmers (with a special focus on small and marginal farmers) by the year 2022.

The farm bills however prohibit states from levying taxes on buyers who do not buy from mandis. A mandi is a notified APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) market meant for bulk-buying of produce. This means that the mandis, where farmers come to sell most of their produce, will become eventually redundant. And the state and the Mandi Board will lose revenue heavily.

The role played by the arhityas (traditional negotiators and commission agents for agricultural produce) will be destroyed. Currently, a single arhitya is attached to 50-100 farmers and his job to ensure the best price for their produce. In times of hardship like crop failure or delayed monsoons, arhityas also help the farmers financially. The relationship shared by the arhityas and the farmers is more than just transactional and goes back decades if not centuries. The removal of the arhityas (so-called middlemen) will place the farmers directly at the mercy of the corporates.

It doesn’t need too much imagination to see that feudalism by another name will regain its space in India’s caste-riddled villages, exposing the most vulnerable farmers to risks like high interest debt traps, land grabs, share cropping, and even actual physical violence.

The farmers, often seen as an uneducated lot, romanticized by sepia filters in films, are aware of this.

Despite the government’s assurances that the bills will usher in a new era of modernized agriculture, double income for farmers, and the elimination of “corrupt” middlemen, agricultural unions across the country are unconvinced. In fact, fears of corporatization of agriculture and over-centralization of the farming sector have been brought to the forefront.

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