There must have been a moment, a point in the ongoing agitation led by Punjab farmers, when a line was crossed. When men and women began talking less about the three Central farm laws that sparked small dharnas at petrol pumps and toll plazas across the state and more about those who started travelling to Delhi’s doorstep to huddle together in the cold.
That moment, when the protests became a character in their own right, was missed by the BJP-led government at the Centre. That’s where it will need to go back to, to find a resolution.
What is more, as The Indian Express found in a week-long journey through villages and cities across Punjab’s three regions of Malwa, Doaba and Majha, talking to scores of farmers and their families, the image of the un-seeing Centre is compounded by the spate of name-calling.
The protests are “misguided”, it was said, driven by a “lobby” of Leftist Modi-baiters, professional malcontents. Or hijacked by the “Khalistanis”, who are always seen — and imagined — in the nooks and shadows of a state that fought and defeated extremism in the 1990s and lived to tell the tales.
But to many here, especially Jat Sikh farmers, at the centre of the economy, politics and culture of the state which has historically nurtured an anti-Centre streak, the Centre is again talking down to Punjab. And forcing its way.
“Nobody is a leader in these protests, everyone has minus-ed themselves and the farmer has taken centrestage”, says Balkar Singh, who retired as professor in Punjabi University, Patiala. “Look at them, sitting there in the cold. The person who is leaving behind his children and the comfort of home is not doing it at anyone’s bidding”, says Baljit Singh in Malwa’s Kotra Lehal village. “The government has a point”, says Amritpal Singh, a farmer who also runs a shop in village Dhesian, district Hoshiarpur, in Doaba region, from where the largest numbers migrate abroad and which is less roiled by the agitation than Malwa. “But how can it not listen to those who are sitting out in the open?”
And in Amritsar, Ginni Bhatia, president of a textiles traders association, marvels “Itna jazba, itni thand(such emotion, in such intense cold)”, and asks: “Why did you not ask the beneficiary if they want the reform in the first place?”
To get a sense of this agitation that is assuming a life of its own with every day that passes without a resolution, you could begin with two men and a woman.
Meet Sardara Singh Johl in Ludhiana, Bibi Jagir Kaur in village Begowal, and Narendra Modi in-the-Punjab-fray.
There’s no point arguing the merits of the farm laws now, says 92-year-old Johl, the grand old man of agriculture economics in the state. “I have supported the Bills, I can answer all the questions, but if I do it now, it will be Dr Johl versus Rest of Punjab”.
Over a storied 60-year career, the Padma Bhushan awardee has had one of the longest and most influential engagements with the issue of agriculture reform in Punjab — as vice chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.
His report on crop diversification in 1986 made “diversification” a part of policy lexicon. “I was looking ahead 50 years… government did not even turn the page (of the report)”, he says.
Johl speaks with regret about opportunities lost, being appointed to boards which did not meet, leading discussions that reached nowhere.
“My plan was that 1 million hectares of 2.6 million hectares under rice could be diverted to other crops to restore the water table… Rs 1,600 crore could be given to farmers to compensate for the shift (to oilseeds, among other crops, which would eventually cut down the oil and pulses import bill of up to Rs 14,000 crore)… There was a lack of interest in the political bosses and bureaucrats… I tried again but nothing happened”.
Today, “the question is not whether laws are good or bad. They (agitators) are saying ‘yes or no’. The old system they want to go back to is the one that pushed so many farmers to suicide. But now, government should withdraw the bills, begin again by bringing the farmers’ concerns into Parliament.”
A “trust deficit” stands in the way, says Johl. “These are serious laws, they affect the lives of people. What was the hurry? They should have put the bills in the public domain, through Select Committee… In the interest of the economy and of peace, the government must take them back”, he says.
At the sprawling and well-appointed Sant Prem Singh Murale Wale Dera that she heads in Begowal village of district Kapurthala, Akali Dal leader Bibi Jagir Kaur says: “We are all kisans (farmers), those who are sitting there are ours. The government is looking nirdayi (hard hearted). Things should not have reached this point, we need a quick solution”.
In November, Kaur made a comeback as chief of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the first woman to hold that position.
The SGPC, central to the management of Sikh religious affairs intricately entwined with Sikh politics, is contributing with “sewa (service)” at the protest sites, she says. “SGPC has set up continuous guru ka langar, put up waterproof tents, provided medicines and 250 mobile toilets…Four ambulances are working, our doctors are taking turns. We are giving Rs 1 lakh to the family of those who have died during the protest, and Rs 20-25,000 to those injured in accidents on the way.”
What Bibi Jagir Kaur won’t say is that both the SGPC and her party are playing catch-up.
But you can read between her lines: “I want to go there, but the first line of SAD leadership is not going to the protest sites, because we don’t want to do politics. The rest, from MLA to sarpanch, are going. The Stree Akali Dal went too… o assi haan (we are them, the protesters)”.
The SAD, which walked out of the NDA on the farm bills’ issue, tried and failed to be the “bridge” between the farmers and the Centre, she says. “Now the government should take the laws back, at least to begin with, so that people can come back to their homes.”
“Dhakka nahi karna chahida hai… dukh lagda hai, nuksan na ho jaye (there must be no force, we are apprehensive that things may not worsen)”, the SGPC chief says.
The term “dhakka” is commonly used in Punjab, and you hear it again and again in the context of this agitation — the Centre, many say, is trying to get its way, “dhakke naal(with force)”. But more and more, the “Centre” is replaced by “Modi”.
In the course of these farmers’ protests, PM Modi is on the ground and in the fray in Punjab in a manner in which he has not been seen to be in other states, even during an election.
One of the stand-out features of the Modi phenomenon has been his ability to establish his dominance by lifting himself above the fray — and therefore insulated from the tug and pull of accountability for failures and issues even where the BJP is the incumbent.
In Rajasthan, this took the shape of a slogan, “Modi tujh se bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi (We have nothing against Modi but we will not spare Vasundhara)”, in the election lost by the BJP and won by the Congress. Most recently, in Bihar, it was visible in the final tally that saw the BJP become the larger partner in the BJP-JD(U) alliance that was voted back to power.
In Punjab, however, most of those who speak of the Centre trying to impose the farm laws on the state — “dhakke naal” — take Modi’s name. The BJP is a smaller player in Punjab and the state never whole-heartedly participated in the Modi wave that swept other states in 2014 and then again in 2019.
Yet, in the battle of “anakh” (self-respect, honour, pride), the Jat farmer’s “zid” or insistence is pitted directly against Modi’s. The viral video of a song, “Fer dekhange (then we’ll see)”, in which a Modi-like animated figure clad in white and saffron is surrounded by youth on tractors and eventually forced to throw up his hands, speaks of larger things.