ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Farmers’ Solidarity in the Wake of UP Elections

Recognising social and political fissures amidst a call for unity is essential.

 

Muzaffarnagar, a district town in Uttar Pradesh (UP), recently witnessed the Samyukt Kisan Morcha’s mahapanchayat, where reports suggest that between 1 lakh and 4 lakh farmers came together in one of the single largest gatherings since the farmers’ protests took centre stage in 2020. This also follows the recent brutal lathicharge in Karnal, Haryana against farmers who were protesting a public visit by the state’s chief minister. For the last nine months, the farmers remain steadfast in their call to repeal the three farm acts passed by Parliament in September 2020. Despite 10 rounds of talks with the farmers, the government appears to be content in letting the agitation fade away, unwilling to accept any call for repeal, instead offering a pale compromise through specific amendments to the laws. However, the massive turnout at the mahapanchayat indicates that the momentum has not waned, and with the elections in UP due in 2022, this show of strength assumes significance. Farmers from west UP, Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan, along with representatives from other states, have announced a Bharat bandh on 27 September and an aggressive campaign to publicise their demands at the district level across the country. How this nationwide campaign will turn out is difficult to gauge owing to the current uncertainty on the pan-national character of the farmers’ movement; but the direct announcement of the Mission UP–Uttarakhand directed at ousting the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, especially in UP in 2022, demands attention.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in UP, led by Rakesh Tikait who has been the face of the current protests, is primarily concentrated in the Jat-dominated sugar belt in west UP, in the districts adjoining Delhi. The infrastructure of agricultural markets and state procurement in west UP is not as elaborate as in Punjab and Haryana, and farmers are forced to take their wheat produce across the Yamuna into Haryana to claim minimum support price (MSP). Unlike the MSP, sugar grown in this region is procured by the state government on a fixed price based on the fair and remunerative price set by the union government, which leaves farmers dependent on the vagaries of sugar prices in the market. Hence, many farmers in the region have suffered due to unpaid dues from sugar cane mills. Further, under the current state government, farm electricity rates have seen a massive spike that has hurt households.

Therefore, the demand to repeal these laws comes from a genuine thrust to expand the MSP regime as well as alleviate rural distress and articulate a grammar of resistance that resonates with the electorate. This is required to tap into areas beyond west UP, mainly central and east UP, as well as marginalised social groups within west UP who have historically been agrarian workers. The integration of the agrarian workforce into the movement has been incomplete and fragmented, and caste and religion seem to complicate this further. Interestingly, immediately after the mahapanchayat, the state government in coordination with the union government announced a pilot scheme for a farmers’ database to coordinate immediate welfare benefits for farmers. How will this be taken forth, and who will benefit? In fact, this raises the question of how these farmers’ protests reveal a diverse set of contextual demands that seem to emerge as different states go in for elections.

The mahapanchayat also saw calls for communal and social harmony with slogans of different religions being raised, with the local leadership aware of the need to showcase a broader social unity considering the looming memory of the tragic Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. In fact, one of the prominent Muslim leaders of the farmers’ movement addressed the gathering which is seen as portraying a spirit of reconciliation and unity. Irrespective of whether this strong anti-communal stance will bring together the Muslim vote, one cannot exclude the need to acknowledge the deeply divided caste and socio-economic profile in the region and how it underlines who suffered most during the riots.

Notwithstanding these generous overtures, the electoral arithmetic as projected seems to focus on ensuring a consolidated Jat vote in the elections. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) has been trying to take the mantle of this leadership and have supported successive mahapanchayats. In fact, the first meeting for reconciliation under a call for bhaichara (brotherhood) was overseen by the late Ajit Singh of the RLD. However, if the task is to challenge the social calculus that the BJP has stitched over the last few elections, both the BKU and the RLD would need to manage and harness non-Jat communities to rally around a possible Jat consolidation which entails reaching out to Dalits and backward castes.

The slogans and momentum that the mahapanchayat generates need to be recognised. The call for farmers’ unity that has sustained at the protest sites at the Delhi border points at a steadfastness in retaining the momentum of the existing protest. Engaging in a direct political contest is ripe with possibilities. There is an obvious clamour and scrutiny as regards these developments. What does the entry of farmers groups into the political game in UP entail? And, whether this would mean a direct political entry or else which political forces will they rally behind? If the horrors of the 2013 riots are an indication of this deeply challenging situation, there is now an overtly communal political dispensation ruling the state. Any attempt at covering this communal and caste divide needs to acknowledge a politics of deliberation and accommodation. Recognition of fissures is as much a part of such political moves as showcasing unity. The announcement by the mahapanchayat will seek to balance this, and the coming days will give us a sense of how this will unfold.

 

Updated On : 11th Sep, 2021

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