ONE gloomy afternoon this March, a disillusioned Dhanu Dhorde Patil, 43, sat watching his television in Dongaon village, about 2 km from Puntamba in Ahmednagar district, the heart of the recent farmers’ agitation in Maharashtra. On screen were reports of doctors striking work across the state in protest against the growing violence against them. Patil, upset by the dip in onion prices, threw an idea at his friends that evening, one that would take Maharashtra by storm. “Why can’t we strike work like the doctors have?” By then, Dr Sanjay Dhanvate, managing director of Puntamba’s Asha Kiran Paraplegic Center, was already thinking along the same lines. The state’s farmers had tried everything from fasts to railway blockades — with little success. “A strike would be the ultimate weapon — farmers would not grow or trade in agri commodities,” he says.
On April 3, the Puntamba Gram Sabha unanimously passed an eight-point charter of demands threatening a strike from June 1 if they were not met. “A single village on strike would hardly be news, so over the next few days we asked almost 200 villages to pass similar resolutions,” says Dhorde Patil, who was once associated with Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement. With Nashik and Ahmednagar villages leading the way, over 2,000 gram panchayats passed resolutions of a Shetkari Sampa or farmers’ strike on May 1, Maharashtra Day. Incidentally, it was local BJP leader Dhananjay Jadhav who took the lead in Puntamba. “A meeting was held in Pune on May 11 to form a core committee to spearhead the movement. Some villagers had reservations about the speed at which things were moving, but we followed Jadhav’s lead anyway,” says Suhas Wadane, a villager.
At the Pune meeting, additional power centres emerged. There was the Karad-based event manager Sandeep Gidde, Kamal Sawant of the Bhumata Sanghatana and Shantaram Kunjir of the Maratha Seva Sangh. “This core committee then began to travel across the state to spread the word of the plans for June 1,” Dhanvate says. Simultaneously, Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana party, an ally of the ruling BJP, had begun to openly express his unhappiness with the Maharashtra government’s intransigence on a farm loan waiver. By mid-May, even as Dhanvate and 20 villagers prepared to meet Fadnavis, Shetti was planning a padyatra from Pune to Mumbai. At their meeting with the CM, Dhanvate and team were willing to reverse the strike call. “But new leaders had emerged and several organisations decided to continue,” admits Dhanvate.
Days later, Shetti’s padyatra began, more or less independent of the other organisations. But the thousands of farmers who attended Shetti’s rallies along his route didn’t really see the two struggles as separate. The demands were the same. Shetti’s yatra, which he labelled as his ‘Atmaklesh Yatra’ — a self-professed repentance for supporting the BJP — should have set off alarm bells, but senior government sources say the administration failed to recognise its seriousness as for one, Shetti’s own party colleague, Maharashtra minister of state for agriculture Sadashiv Khot, had conspicuously stayed away.
Once the strike kicked in and the urban centres began to feel the pinch, with supplies squeezed, the core committee was called for a marathon discussion with Fadnavis in Mumbai on June 2. The committee and the CM announced the withdrawal of the strike before dawn on June 3, with the government agreeing to the Rs 30,000 crore loan waiver. But by then the movement had acquired a life of its own. Those in Nashik and elsewhere too refused to call off the strike — the assurances were not in line with their demands.
The core committee became the target of farmers’ ire. Gidde’s proximity to Khot, and the fact that top negotiator Jayajirao Suryavanshi had stayed back at Khot’s bungalow, incensed farmers who saw it as a betrayal. In Puntamba, where it all began, Jadhav’s ties with the BJP led villagers to declare that the government was trying to sabotage the movement. While Suryavanshi eventually had to apologise, Jadhav is still to return to Puntamba even though the strike was called off on June 8.
There was also a new core committee, with major political players in lead roles. Apart from Shetti, independent MLA Bacchu Kadu, president of the Kisan Sabha, Ajit Newale, veteran Shetkari Sanghatana leader Ragunath Patil and others were now picked to head the movement. It was this committee’s first meeting on Thursday that ended the strike, but with the new ultimatum that the state should hold talks by Monday, June 12. A strikingly similar chain of events unfolded in Madhya Pradesh. When Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan called the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) for talks four days after the farmers’ stir began on June 1, he was confident. The BKS, the largest farmers’ organisation in the state, is allied to the RSS and has in the past helped the Shivraj regime. In 2012, when angry farmers engaged in arson and beat up government and police officials in Bareli in Raisen district, the RSS simply sacked then BKS chief Shivkumar Sharma. The government slapped a slew of cases against Sharma while the RSS installed new leaders.
This time, seated next to the CM at the Ujjain Circuit House on June 5, BKS general secretary Shivkant Dixit announced that the strike had been called off, and that the state government had agreed to buy onions at Rs 8 a kg. But the gamble backfired. Farmers felt betrayed — the BKS wasn’t originally in the picture and appeared to have jumped on to the bandwagon only to derail the strike. As farmers’ bodies continued their protests, the government detained two office-bearers of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a little-known organisation that claimed to have started the protests. Officials believed the situation had been tackled effectively. But here too, the agitation had acquired a life of its own. When the five farmers were killed in Mandsaur on Tuesday, June 6, Chouhan, despite his ‘pro-farmer’ image, studiously avoided the historical town in the Malwa region even three days after the incident.
“The situation was bad due to low prices, and got worse after demonetisation,” concedes BJP MLA from Mandsaur Yashpal Singh Sisodiya. He says the violence was a fallout of a combination of factors — falling prices, demonetisation, difficulty in getting loans form cooperatives, anger against local policemen, involvement of anti-social elements and even liquor mafia and infiltration of the movement by criminals. According to Sisodiya, the police took on the liquor mafia after a local journalist was shot dead near Pipliya Mandi last month. Police had rounded up nearly 50 people, angering them, the MLA says.
Mandsaur’s Lok Sabha MP, Sudhir Gupta of the BJP, terms the violence as a conspiracy hatched by the Congress. While admitting there are issues with bank transactions and poor prices for produce, the escalation of violence, he says, was politically motivated. Some BJP leaders say the government failed to anticipate the scale of the protest, as was the case, they say, when Hardik Patel’s Patidar movement hit Gujarat. Hardik, however, has limited support in MP, where his community already enjoys OBC status.
“He is desperate to come to Mandsaur but I have persuaded him against doing so. I’m not sure if his presence will help or aggravate the situation,’’ claims the state chief of the Patidar Samaj, Mahendra Patidar, who was among the very few people allowed access to one or two families of the victims of Tuesday’s firing. Meanwhile, in both states, the farmers’ demands include a total farm loan waiver and adherence to the MSP regime. Neither government has so far come out with final announcements.