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Explained: How the SAD is seeking to ride the new wave in the farmers’ agitation

The violence and unprecedented events of January 26, during which a group of protesters raised the Nishan Sahib on the Red Fort, dealt a blow to the protests, whose greatest strength thus far had been its non-violent character.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh |
Updated: February 5, 2021 9:53:44 am
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal met Tikait on Sunday (January 31), and presented him with a ‘siropa’ and ‘amrit’ from the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, and assured him of his party’s support.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which had been on the fringes since the protests against the three farm laws started in Punjab and moved to Delhi, made an entry into the agitation after the main focus swung to Ghazipur to the east of the national capital, and the farmer leader from western Uttar Pradesh, Rakesh Tikait, took centre stage.

SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal met Tikait on Sunday (January 31), and presented him with a ‘siropa’ and ‘amrit’ from the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, and assured him of his party’s support.

On Thursday (February 4), the SAD’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal was among a group of 15 Opposition MPs who went to Ghazipur border to meet the farmers. After the delegation was stopped from proceeding past the barricades, Harsimrat posted on Twitter: “.@Akali_Dal_ joins hands with like minded parties & MPs who are visiting #ghazipurborder to condemn atrocities being inflicted on farmers. Even MPs are not being allowed to meet peacefully protesting farmers. This is truly a black day for democracy!”

Jan 26 violence and the entry of SAD

The violence and unprecedented events of January 26, during which a group of protesters raised the Nishan Sahib on the Red Fort, dealt a blow to the protests, whose greatest strength thus far had been its non-violent character. The situation, however, started to change rapidly in the evening of January 28, when police launched a crackdown on the protesters, and a video of an emotional Tikait in tears spread like wildfire.

Amid a groundswell of sympathy for Tikait, fresh mobilisation began, and the protests were revived. Tikait, the younger son of the legendary farm leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, emerged as the main leader of the protests, the epicentre of which moved to the Ghazipur border in UP’s Ghaziabad district.

The SAD chose this moment to involve itself with the agitation. Sukhbir began by testing the waters, sending the party’s Rajya Sabha MP Balwinder Singh Bhunder and the chief of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), Manjinder Singh Sirsa to meet Tikait.

Buoyed by the response Akali leaders got, Sukhbir himself went to honour Tikait. He invoked the contribution of their fathers — Mahendra Singh Tikait and Parkash Singh Badal — in taking up the issues of farmers. The SAD has now set up helpline numbers in Delhi to provide assistance, including legal aid, to farmer families whose men have been reported missing since January 26, or have been arrested and jailed.

Among unions, caution and suspicion

The Punjab farmer organisations who have always argued that their agitation is apolitical, have reacted cautiously to the attempts by the SAD to insert itself into the protests.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) general secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan said, “Our eyes and ears are wide open. Be it Tikait, Sukhbir or any reference to ancestral leadership, no one can take any call (on the way forward) on their own. It will be joint decision by all farm organisations.”

Tikait, Kokrikalan said, had been left with no choice but to take a position. “It was just like Harsimrat Badal had to resign (from the Union Cabinet on September 17 last year) following a massive build-up of the agitation.” The SAD leadership had tried earlier to enter the farmers’ agitation by “even seeking to sit in the last rows of the gathering”, Kokrikalan said. “But we ensured that the agitation remained apolitical. This huge groundswell of support it received was because it was apolitical.”

Darshan Pal, leader of the Krantikari Kisan Union, who is also a member of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), said Sukhbir Badal was “not allowed to share the main stage” when he went to meet Tikait. “We raised the issue of Sukhbir Badal meeting with Rakesh Tikait with Yudhvir Singh, a leader of Tikait’s group, and he (Yudhvir) told us that Sukhbir was not given access to the main stage,” Pal said.

“As far as my knowledge goes, the Tikait group welcomes all leaders,” Pal said. “But we have a different culture.” The agitation remains “an apolitical movement”, he said.

SAD’s attempt to seek ‘political space’

Agriculture economist Prof Ranjit Singh Ghuman said SAD has been trying to find “political space” for the last three months. “It (the efforts to insert itself into the agitation) is a sort of continuation of a sequence in which Bathinda Member of Parliament Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned on the issue,”

However, Prof Ghuman added, “Even though she resigned, Harsimrat Badal’s resignation did not benefit the SAD as people thought that she was very much part of the decision-making (on the farm laws) as a Union cabinet minister.” Reaching out to Tikait, Prof Ghuman said, was a “political opportunity (for the SAD) to restore (its) credibility among the farmers”.

Prof Jagrup Singh Sekhon, a former professor of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, said, “SAD is desperate to get the political space, but it is not going to make any difference.” Sekhon added, “Not only the Akali Dal, leaders of various parties have gone to the Ghazipur border after the events of January 26.”

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From the point of view of the party

A senior SAD leader said the turn in the agitation following the developments of January 26 was a “boon for SAD”. According to this leader: “It happened all of a sudden. The narrative of the agitation did not change much, but because people had started coming back, SAD asked it cadres to move back to Delhi. It was a window of opportunity for SAD, and the party rightly and tactfully availed it.”

“Also”, this leader claimed, “farm leaders thought they need the support of political parties. The centre of gravity of the andolan shifted towards the UP leadership after January 26, and Akali Dal grabbed this moment. The opportunity to enter the agitation that the SAD could not get at Singhu and Tikri borders, they got at Ghazipur.”

Secretary general of the SAD Kisan Wing, Gurpartap Singh Wadala, said, “Being the legitimate representative of farmers, Akali Dal had to stand on this to show that it was actively supporting the famers. The party will continue to support farmers in future also. Akali Dal is standing like a solid rock with all the farmers of India.”

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