Listen to this story:
Early on Monday, December 14, around 25 farmer leaders gathered on a stage set up at the Tikri border between Delhi and Haryana. Armed with water bottles, they began a hunger strike, promising not to touch a morsel of food till 5 pm.
After two relentless weeks of protest against the Narendra Modi government’s new farm laws, the farmers at Tikri have one more reason to be angry with the Centre: they believe it’s trying to use a divide and rule strategy.
“They’re trying to find different ways to tear us apart,” one of the farmers at Tikri told this correspondent. “But it’s not going to work with us.”
The anger stems from comments from sections of the media and the government on how the protest has been “infiltrated” by “Maoists”, and how there’s conflict between different factions of the farmers. But, as one of the farmers put it, they’re ultimately all part of the same fight.
No ‘rift’ between farmers
While the protest at the Tikri border is smaller in comparison to the one at Singhu, it plunged into headlines on December 10. At that time, alongside demands seeking the repeal of the farm laws, the Tikri protest was dotted with posters and speeches seeking the release of political prisoners like Umar Khalid, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Sharjeel Imam, and others.
The protest at Tikri.
The programme, organised on the occasion of Human Rights Day, was hosted by the BKU (Ugrahan), a faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Joginder Singh Ugrahan. Ugrahan, who previously served in the army, now fights for the rights of small-scale farmers in Punjab. Over the last two weeks, he has emerged as one of the leaders of the protest.
The posters and speeches on December 10, however, received pushback from other farmer leaders. Two days later, 32 farmer unions which said the BKU (Ugrahan)’s function had “no relation” to the farmer protests. Those who distanced themselves included the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, said farmer-activist Ramadeep Mann, even though they’re all “part of the same fight”.
“They have the right to say what they want. But right now, we are here to make sure the farmer laws are repealed,” Mann said. “If we were to take up human rights issues, there are thousands of them.”
However, the central government was quick to seize the BKU (Ugrahan) programme as an example of a “sinister design” by the “tukde tukde gang”, of union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. This was supported by other union ministers like Narendra Singh Tomar, Prakash Javadekar, and Piyush Goyal, who was being “infiltrated by Leftists and Maoist elements”.
Right-wing blog OpIndia wasted no time in that the protesting farmers support “urban naxals” and “left-wing terrorists”. Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami that the protest had been “infiltrated by a nexus of non-farmers” who possibly have “hidden corporate agendas”. He also cited “intelligence inputs” to claim that extremists groups are “hijacking” the protest.
Mann told Newslaundry that none of this is true. The government and sections of the media are misreporting what’s happened over the last few days, he said. After all, it’s only natural that differences surface in such a large protest with so many leaders, but they “remain united” in wanting the three farm laws repealed.
“And we are not shy about talking about our differences,” he added. “But one thing is clear: there is no internal rift or any sort of infiltration going on here. Of course, they will use anything to divide us now. All these claims are being made to dilute the issue. This is a small internal disagreement and it has already been resolved.”
Protesters in Tikri told Newslaundry that this is why they “don’t allow Godi media to come here”. They brushed off the ministers’ allegations as attempts to “distract people” and “create new headlines”.
It should be noted that Mangatram Langowal, a member of the core committee of the All India Kisan Federation, said that the BKU (Ugrahan) is “holding their own speeches and talks” 10 km away from the main stage in Tikri.
“We appealed to them in person and from the stage to come join us many times,” he said. “But they didn’t show up.” The BKU (Ugrahan) also in the hunger strike, saying it had not been consulted.
‘No, small farmers are not happy’
Ever since the farm laws were passed, prime minister Narendra Modi has emphasised that the small and marginal farmers with the new laws, even if large land-holding farmers are not.
Farmers at Tikri said that Modi is wrong, that he’s trying to “mislead” people.
Newslaundry met Leelaram, 42, a farmer from Haryana’s Haris district who owns 90 acres of inherited land. At Tikri, he sat on a charpoy near his tractor trolley. Behind the charpoy was his neighbour Satish, 38, squatting with a cup of tea. Satish owns two acres of land in the same village as Leelaram; both of them came to the Tikri protest on November 25 on Leelaram’s tractor.
Satish and Leelaram.
Satish speaks only Haryanvi, so Leelaram translated on our behalf. Satish said he grows wheat on his land and sells it at Rs 1,300 per quintal at the mandi in their village.
“Even now, it’s difficult for me to ensure that my entire produce is sold,” he said. “What will happen once the mandi disappears? Is this the ‘acche din’ Modi promised us?”
Satish cited the example of Indian telecommunications company Jio, founded by the Reliance group’s Mukesh Ambani.
“Look at Jio. Initially, they made us believe that they will offer cheap services. But once they made sure people are hooked to them, they became more expensive over the years,” he said. “That’s what will happen to us too. Initially, they will buy from us at a profitable price, and once the mandi disappears, we will be dependent on corporates and will have to sell at whatever price they quote.”
Satish said he worries that he will become a labourer on his land. When asked whether he and Leelaram have similar or different issues with the farm laws, he said that as of now, both small and large farmers are against the laws.
“Modi is trying to mislead people by saying that we small farmers will be happy. My fear is the same as that of large farmers,” he said.
After a pause, he continued: “Actually, I might be more at risk than them. At least some of the large farmers are rich and might have savings in case they incur loss one year. I have no savings. The aadti (middleman) was the one who used to help me out. But now, if the aadti becomes obsolete, then who will help me?”
This links back to another source of the farmers’ anger: that Modi said the new laws will “” the farmers from the aadti.
“These are service providers, not middlemen. They help us with packaging and billing our produce and for this, they get a 2.5 percent commission,” Leelaram said. “They also lend us money whenever there is an emergency. We don’t need saving from them.”
Leelaram and Satish plan to stay in Tikri until the laws are repealed.
“They will try different ways to divide us,” Satish said. “Right now, the Centre is trying to say that the laws will benefit small farmers, just to make us turn against our own brothers who own large farm lands. That’s not going to happen.”
As I wound my way through the protest, I was stopped twice.
“Please show us your identity card and what kind of coverage you’ve been doing of our protest,” said Jagroop Singh, a farmer. When I showed him YouTube videos of Newslaundry’s coverage, he and other farmers agreed to speak.
“Do you see any ‘tukde tukde gang’ here?” one of them asked. “Why are Zee News and Aaj Tak showing wrong things?”
Iqbal Singh from Bathinda.
This is something the farmers have been saying for days: that they’re tired of the protests being misreported. Iqbal Singh, 65, also asked me to show him YouTube videos of Newslaundry’s coverage before he agreed to speak to me. “Sorry, sister, I have to check,” he said.
Singh said he had arrived at Tikri on November 25 from Punjab’s Bathinda. However, he went back home for a couple of days to check on his field before returning to the protest site on Monday.
“I watched all the news channels when I went back home,” he said. “It was shocking, the things they’re saying about us.”
On why he was checking a media house’s coverage before speaking, he said: “One day you’ll call us Pakistani, one day we’re Khalistani. One day you will say all of us are Congress party workers; another day, you will say we’re Maoists or Naxals. To the Centre, we are everything except farmers asking for our rights.”
He added: “We know what they’re doing. They [the Centre] want to provoke us so that we start fighting amongst ourselves. They will sit back and call us mad and unorganised.”