As information trickles in from Lakhimpur Kheri, it has become increasingly clear that the vehicles of Ashish Mishra, son of a junior minister for home, were used as assassination weapons against protesting farmers. In videos that have now gone viral, it is evident the protestors were mowed down from behind by a Thar Mahindra jeep followed by a Toyota Innova, both travelling at high speed.
The counter narrative - that the BJP entourage was attacked by farmers pelting stones and wielding lathis - has evaporated in the face of fresh evidence. It is indeed naïve that some ministers and their sons believe a farmers’ movement can be crushed under the tyres of their luxury vehicles.
At the top echelons, the BJP government has failed to understand the depth and significance of the farmers’ movement. A little over a year ago, on 17th September, 2020, the government rushed through the 3 agricultural laws. There was a flourish about it; that these laws would usher in the second 1991-style reform of the economy. Instead, protests broke almost immediately as farmers saw these as a corporate conspiracy to dismantle the local ‘mandis’ and the minimum support price (MSP) regime for food grains.
BJP spokespersons see the spreading farm protests as signs of the movement having been hijacked for electoral gains. With the stay of the farm laws by the Supreme Court on 12 January this year, and the BJP government not very keen to have the stay vacated, these farm laws are as good as dead, these gentlemen opine.
So why don’t these protestors call it a day?
DEEP RURAL CRISIS
While the eye of the storm has been around Delhi’s borders since November last year, the battle has now swung beyond those boundaries. Those trying to understand the farm movement merely within the parameters of the farm laws will never understand where the resilience is coming from.
Agriculture is in deep crisis. The high input costs, the poor returns for the farmer for his produce and the inability of the state to support the market, has made farming an increasingly unstainable occupation. From agriculture supporting 77% of rural households in 1983, dependency on farming has declined to 50% in 2018-19. In sync, the agricultural sector’s contribution to employment declined from 81% in
1983 to 58% in 2018, according to the reports of the 38th round of NSS and PLFS (2018-19).
Meanwhile, rural income and wages tend to be inflexible, and therefore, inflation leaves less money in the farm workers’ hands. These trends have been accentuated during the Covid-19 lockdown. Migrants returned home only to find family resources drying up and few low quality jobs available. This has now set up a reverse migration. CMIE, tracking unemployment, said 8.7 million rural jobs were lost in August this year. Rural unemployment and the poor returns have created anger and bitterness all over the country.
Over the last 5 years, there has been pockets of protest all over the country. At least five farmers were killed and several injured in July 2017 in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district when police fired on protesters demanding better prices in the drought-ravaged region. Mumbai saw several ‘long marches’ in recent years from Nashik district. Is there a common undercurrent connecting them with the anti-farm law protests spreading in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh?
THE MARATHON MEN
There has been some misjudgment too by the government. The calculation was, as the unsuccessful talks wound across 11 rounds, that fatigue would set in and the farmers would return home. The 26 January protests in Delhi and the violence around the Red Fort was seen as the beginning of the end.
But far from fizzling out, the protests have become more organised. A loose alliance of several farmers and workers organisations have banded under the Samyukta Kisan Morcha to coordinate action. Besides the regular toll plaza and Delhi border blockades, success on local demands has given the movement a boost. For instance, in Haryana, the recent delay in procurement of paddy from 1 October to 11 October sparked a state-level outcry. The Manoharlal Khattar government finally buckled and agreed to procurement from 3 October.
Tactics too have been crafted for the long haul. At the blockade sites, there is rotating ‘protest’ with groups of farmers replacing those who are returning home. Villages have been kept ready in blocs of 1,500-2,000 protestors, who can be deployed in short notice when a minister is visiting or passing through a town.
The nature of their occupation trains farmers for long, grueling hardships. Planting is often done at night braving snakes and wild animals; crops are wiped out by drought or pestilence. The ability to withstand
long vigils at Delhi’s borders is thus part of the training, something the government has underestimated.
Elections are around the corner in UP, Punjab and 3 other states, and the farmers are not going to let the opportunity slip. The recent Rakesh Tikait-led Mahapanchayat at Muzzafarnagar (UP) was the signal that Western UP, once a strong BJP bastion built on communal politics, is now seeing a different wave. For the BJP, Lakhimpur Kheri could not have come at a worse time.