Was Farmers’ Tractor Rally Hijacked?

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Ron.

Braving chilly weather and heavy rain, tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping on the borders of New Delhi for more than 2 months in protest against a set of new farm laws which they believe will leave them vulnerable and at the mercy of large corporate firms. They have been demanding the repeal of these laws and a legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price (MSP), which the government is adamant about eradicating.

What are the three farm laws?

  • The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act

This law provides for setting up a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produces outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Any license-holder trader can buy the produce from the farmers at mutually agreed prices. This trade of farm produces will be free of mandi tax imposed by the state governments.

  • The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act

This law allows farmers to do contract farming and market their produces freely.

  • The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act

It is an amendment to the existing Essential Commodities Act. This law now frees items such as foodgrains, pulses, edible oils, and onion for trade except in extraordinary (read crisis) situations.

The government argued that the three laws will open up new opportunities for the farmers, enabling them to earn more from their farm produces. They reiterated that these laws will help strengthen basic farm sector infrastructure through “greater private investments”.

The farmers however mentioned the MSP issue, the main sticking point in the farmers’ protest, which they fear would allow trade of farm produces outside the APMCs, leading to lesser buying by the government agencies in the approved mandis. They say that the new laws will nullify the MSP system and would not have any assured income from their farming.

MSP is defined as a product price set by the government to purchase directly from farmers at an assured rate.

After the enactment of the three laws last year, thousands of farmers set out for the national capital on tractors and trollies where they were welcomed with water cannons and tear gas at the border points. They have been camping at these points in the agitation against the three farm laws for over two months amid cold weather and heavy rain in makeshift tents, completely blocking the National Highway.

Till now, there have been 11 rounds of talks between the protesting farmers and the government on the farm laws but both parties could not come to a conclusion. The government later offered to put a hold on the laws for a year and a half but the farmers declined it and demanded a complete repeal of the laws.

The farmers have been protesting peacefully since the start of the movement. With multiple rounds of talks with the government failing, the agitation took a different shape on Republic day during the tractor rally. Things got out of hand as violence took over the otherwise peaceful rally with around 60 farmers dying and many others injured.

In one instance, a large group of farmers barged into the iconic Red Fort and hoisted the ‘Nishan Sahib’ flag atop where only Prime Ministers are allowed to hoist the tricolor. One of the protestors said the police force deployed there did not much obstruct their entry into the Red Fort as they did in the past on several occasions. Meanwhile, few videos also emerged which showed protestors attacking police officers and pushing them off the cliff as they entered the premises of Red Fort.

Delhi Police had issued a designated route for their tractor rally but many of them deviated from their paths and reached quite close to the Republic Day parade which was underway at Rajpath, just a few kilometers away. Some tried to barge through barricades and got into clashes with the forces. Farmer leaders have alleged that the rally was “infiltrated by anti-social elements” which resulted in widespread violence in the national capital and also giving a bad name to the protest.

The role of a Punjabi actor, Deep Sidhu, once known to be a close to BJP MP Sunny Deol, has come under scrutiny as a video emerged showing him handing over a ‘Kesri’ flag to a man to hoist on the ramparts of the Red Fort amid slogans of ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’. Farmers have accused him of giving communal colour to the movement for his actions, which provoked outrage on social media. Due to the same, the agitation has drawn criticism even from those who backed the movement. In a few videos that have surfaced on social media, angry farmers can purportedly be seen chasing away Sidhu. In one such video where Sidhu is seen doing a Facebook live on a tractor after the flag was hoisted, a group of farmers can purportedly be seen roughing him up and saying “you have damaged the entire movement”. Photographs of Sidhu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, and BJP MP Sunny Deol have also gone viral, indicating his possible connections with the BJP party.

Why has no action been taken against Deep Sidhu yet? There is clear cut evidence of him maligning the farmers’ movement. He even announced his intention to go to the Red Fort a day before the rally.

The most startling aspect was that the religious flag (Nishan Sahib) was allowed to stay there for hours, despite the crowd thinning out and the presence of a large police force. The priority of any police officer would be to clear the area of protesters quickly and remove the religious flag to restore the glory of the monument. But instead, visuals showed them standing idle on the side and witnessing the vandalism that was going on.

The visuals that were seen suited the narrative that the government had been trying to push from the beginning that the farmers’ protest was in the hands of “Khalistani elements”. Some sections of the media came in full swing, pushing the government’s narrative to defame the farmers and take away the general sympathy of the public in their favour.

The truth can only be masked for a while, but none can make it vanish.

On the political front, things have totally gone out of hand with parties blaming each other for the palpable violence that took place in the national capital. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who has been backing the movement, blamed the Centre for the law and order situation deteriorating in the city. The ruling BJP blamed AAP and Congress for allegedly sending members of their Punjab cadre to join the rally.

The role of the Delhi police during the tractor rally was quite questionable. Last year during the riots in February, they were very pro-active, unlike this time. The riots caused by a mob against protestors of the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement in Delhi saw police siding with the mob as chants of “Jai Shree Ram” echoed throughout, several videos emerged on social media. It seemed that they did not do much to stop the violence, instead were politically motivated to boost a specific party’s political agenda. Could it be the same this time as well?

What lies ahead? Another round of talks between the farmers and the Centre scheduled for February 2. One can only hope that there would be a fruitful conclusion to this one but after what happened on Republic Day, we might have to wait a little longer till things get back to normal.

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