INVOKING sedition charge for the first time against farmers protesting over the new farm laws for the past eight months, the Haryana Police Thursday arrested five of them in pre-dawn raids.
Farmer leaders say they had come to know on July 13 that around a hundred of them had been slapped with sedition charges over a protest against Haryana Assembly Deputy Speaker Ranbir Singh Gangwa in Sirsa on July 11, that had turned violent. Only two people were named in the FIR, Haryana Kisan Manch leader Prahlad Singh Bharukhera and 70-year-old Harcharan Singh Panjuana, the faces of the farmer agitation in Sirsa. Panjuana has been running a langar in Sirsa for Delhi-bound protesters for seven months.
Around 4 am on Thursday, in coordinated action, police raided homes of five of them in Sirsa district. By 9 am, the five had been produced before a court from where they were sent to judicial custody, before other farmers got a whiff of what was happening, or could gather. Later in the day, they held a protest in front of the Sirsa SP’s office.
“In some cases, policemen even scaled the wall of the farmers’ houses to arrest them in the wee hours, as if they were terrorists,” said Bharukhera. Questioning the sedition charge, he added, “It has been lodged to suppress our voice, but that is not going to happen.”
Sirsa SP Arpit Jain said they had followed due procedure, and arrested the five after analysing video footage of the July 11 incident and identifying them. Police said more people present near the site had been identified and could also be arrested.
“We have video clippings of the July 11 incident. Stones were thrown on our vehicles. Had a stone hit somebody’s head, he could have died. A policeman was hit with a vehicle,” Jain said.
Those arrested Thursday include Balkar, 26, and Balkor, 35, farmers with 6-7 acres of land each in Faggu village. Balkar’s uncle Raja Singh said, “At 4.30 am, as many as 15-20 policemen, a few of them in civil dress, entered our home by scaling the wall. Balkar’s father insisted that he be allowed to at least dress properly before he was arrested.” Singh denied that farmers were behind the July 11 violence. “We were briefed by our leaders to maintain peace.”
Balkor had earlier joined the agitation on at Delhi border against the farm laws. His brother Sandeep Singh said, “Balkor’s photo had appeared in the local media because of an injury on his hand, and that may be the reason for his arrest. He was not involved in any stone-pelting.”
Harcharan Singh’s youngest son Gurvinder Singh said their family runs a langar on NH-9 for farmers going to Delhi to join the agitation. Calling the sedition charge against him baseless, Gurvinder said, “My father walks with the support of a stick. He did not hit anybody or give any inflammatory speech on July 11.”
Bharukhera, 42, has been active in the farmer movement for 21 years. “I even left two government jobs to fight for farmers,” he said.
The Samyukta Kisan Morch (SKM), that is spearheading the farmer agitation, said the charges were “false” and lodged under the instructions of the “anti-farmer” government of Haryana. “The SKM shall assist all farmers in contesting these charges in court and assure the Haryana government that struggle against its terror shall be met by intensification of the struggle and protest by farmers.”
Demanding the release of the arrested protesters, farmers sat on a day-long dharna in front of SP Jain’s office. Bharukhera announced that they would burn effigies of ruling BJP-JJP leaders in all villages of Sirsa district Friday, and on Saturday, gherao Jain’s office “if the farmers are not released and the sedition charges dropped”.
Farmer leaders also claimed that “a few elements were planted by our political opponents to defame the agitation”, and were behind the July 11 violence.
Gangwa was emerging from a meeting of the BJP’s Sirsa district executive that day when farmers camping outside tried to stop his car. A video clipping of the incident shows stones being hurled at Gangwa’s car, smashing his windscreen. Police had surrounded his car to escort him out. While four people had been arrested for the incident the same day, police had to release them late evening after farmers blocked roads in protest.
The state government had taken a serious view of the incident, replacing Sirsa district police chief Bhupender Singh with Jain, and suspending an Inspector-rank official.
Police records show that 6 minutes from midnight on July 11, an FIR was lodged against nearly 100 farmers, naming just Bharukhera and Panjuana, under Sections 124-A (sedition), 307 (attempt to murder) and 120-B (conspiracy). Sirsa district welfare officer Sushil Kumar, who was deputed at the site of the July 11 protest as duty magistrate, was the complainant.
The FIR says: “Harcharan Singh Panjuana, Parhlad Singh Bharukhera and 90/100 unknown anti-social elements have revolted against the government by creating obstruction in government duty, committing murderous attack on public representatives and damaging government property.” Kumar also accused farmers of raising slogans of “revolt”, though he didn’t mention any such slogan.
Asked about the arrests, BJP Sirsa district president Aditya Devi Lal said, “Those who indulged in the violence (on July 11) were anti-social elements, not farmers”.