Late on Monday evening, the Centre announced that it had invited representatives of the protesting farmers for talks on Tuesday afternoon.
Farmer leaders said they would consider the invitation “positively”, but would take a decision on attending only on Tuesday morning.
With the farmers camping on highways outside Delhi refusing to back down or move to the site designated for the protest, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar met Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday morning.
The Ministry of Agriculture said in the late evening release that Tomar’s meeting with farmer leaders that had been originally scheduled for December 3 had been advanced to December 1 in view of “the cold and Covid”.
All those farmer organisations who had been invited to the previous meeting had been invited to the one on Tuesday, to be held in Vigyan Bhavan at 3 pm, the release said.
Jagmohan Singh, state general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda), Punjab, confirmed that the government’s invitation had been received.
“We will positively consider the invitation for talks from the government. We have called an emergency meeting of the 30 farm unions of Punjab at 8 in the morning tomorrow (Tuesday). The final decision (on attending) will be taken in that meeting,” Singh told The Indian Express over the phone.
Hours earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that his government had no intention of deceiving the farmers, and that the new farm laws were meant to give them “new options and legal protection”.
The Prime Minister once again accused the Opposition of misleading the farmers.
“I know that decades of falsehood does create apprehensions in the minds of farmers… I want to say this from the bank of Mother Ganga — we are not working with the intention of deceiving. Our intentions are as holy as the water of the Ganga,” Modi said in Varanasi while inaugurating a project to six-lane the 73-km Varanasi-Prayagraj National Highway.
“Earlier, decisions of the government were opposed, now there is a new trend… Rumours have become the basis for opposition. Propaganda is spread that although the decision is right, it can lead to other consequences, about things that haven’t happened or will never happen. It’s a game that is deliberately played by those who have fooled the farmers for decades,” Modi said.
He reiterated his commitment to the cause of the farmers, a constituency the BJP has been nurturing, and from whom it has received significant support in recent elections.
“Farmers are being empowered by giving them options for a bigger market. Reforms are being done in the interest of farmers, which will give them more options. Shouldn’t a farmer get freedom to sell his produce directly to those who give them better prices and facilities?” Modi asked.
The new open market system will not end the traditional mandis and minimum support prices (MSP) fixed by the government, Modi said. “If someone thinks that the earlier system is better, how is this law stopping anyone, bhai?”
The Prime Minister’s fresh attempt to convince the farmers of the advantages of the controversial farm laws come at a time when the BJP is struggling to manage the optics of thousands of farmers camping at the gates of Delhi. Party sources said the Prime Minister has instructed senior ministers and party leaders to “handle the issue sensitively without hurting the sentiments of the farmers”.
BJP leaders have said that the agitation could “dent the BJP’s image as a farmer-friendly party”, something that it cannot afford. The government, sources said, has instructed I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar to see that the “right message is conveyed”.
Until Monday evening’s announcement, the government had said that while its doors were open for talks with the farmers, its “condition” was that the farmers should vacate the highway and go to the Sant Nirankari Samagam Ground in Burari.
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The reason, a government source said, was “logistics”: “The ministers want to talk to the farmers, but they cannot be talking to them at four places. If they are at one place, it would be easier for the ministers to hold talks with the farmer leaders.”
In Monday’s discussions among ministers, it was decided that Tomar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh would get in touch with the leaders of the protesting farmers. Farmer leaders of the BJP too, would try to initiate talks with those leaders of the protesters who may be willing to engage with the government. “The idea is to get them to start talking, because some of them are adamant that there should be no talks unless the laws are withdrawn,” a source said.
While a section of BJP leaders have alleged that “Khalistan” elements have hijacked the protests, the government on Monday released a booklet describing its special relationship with Sikhs on the occasion of Guru Nanak Dev Jayanti.
The 44-page booklet, which was released by Javadekar and Urban Development Minister Hardeep Puri, mentions FCRA registration for Shri Harmandar Sahib, making langars tax-free, justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, etc.
Its old ally the Shiromani Akali Dal having walked out of the NDA in protest against the farm laws, the BJP is seeking to expand its own base in Punjab.
Hanuman Beniwal, the MP from Nagaur and chief of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, an ally of the BJP in the NDA, on Monday appealed to Home Minister Shah to withdraw the farm laws and announced that if the government did not respond, he would have to reconsider being part of the alliance.
In Patna, Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar, with whom the BJP has just won the Assembly election, said: “I hope the Centre will explain to the farmers that procurement is not going to be hit, and the system of MSPs will not be scrapped.”
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