The agitating farmers amassed at the Delhi-Haryana border for the past two days have rejected the Centre’s talks offer that had come with the condition that they shift to Delhi’s Burari area where a ground has been designated as a protest site.
The farmers appeared to dig in their heels after Sunday morning’s Mann ki Baat — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly radio broadcast — in which he extolled the new farm laws they are protesting against.
Modi offered the country sage advice on topics such as a Vedanta teacher in Brazil and an Annapurna idol but made no mention of the farmers’ agitation.
However, by nightfall, the potential of the agitation to cripple the national capital appeared to have dawned on the political leadership. Senior ministers Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh and Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar went into a late-night huddle at the home of BJP national chief J.P. Nadda.
The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee has called on all farmers to proceed towards Delhi. Earlier, with the absence of train services in mind, farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh alone were being encouraged to come while their peers in other states protested in their own areas.
Given the attitude of the government, however, the organisation felt the need for a greater show of strength as well as a need to prove that the anger against the new farm laws was not Punjab-specific but much more widespread.
The farmers have been agitating over the past couple of months against the new farm laws and an electricity ordinance that seeks to reduce subsidies and privatise power distribution, besides pushing their longstanding demand for a law guaranteeing a minimum support price (MSP) for their crops.
After the government had tried to stop the farmers reaching Delhi with tear gas, water cannons and barbed wire, a sliver of hope had emerged on Saturday night with home minister Shah offering talks before the scheduled December 3 farmer-government meeting.
But the hope faded quickly with the arrival of a letter from home secretary Ajay Bhalla around 11pm on Saturday.
In the letter, received by leaders of the 30 farmer organisations spearheading the agitation in Punjab, Bhalla set conditions for the talks: clear Delhi’s borders and move to Burari.
In a video message from the Singhu border on G.T. Karnal Road, Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav said the letter had made it clear that the government was treating the agitation as a law-and-order situation and not an agriculture-related one. Else, the agriculture secretary would have written to the farmers, Yadav contended.
Yadav and All India Kisan Sabha general secretary Hannan Mollah alleged that the government was asking the farmers to move to Burari because it wanted the agitation out of the limelight.
Also, they said, those farmers who had reached Burari had reported that their names and addresses were being taken down, and that those trying to leave the ground there with their tractors were being blocked.
“It is as though they are trying to create a Jallianwala Bagh-like situation,” Mollah said. “Condition put forward for talks is an insult to farmers. We will never go to Burari. It is not a park but an open jail,” Surjeet Singh Phul, state president of Bharayiya Kisan Union Krantikari (Punjab), said on the offer for talks.
The Punjab-based farmers’ bodies have made it clear they want the government to talk not just to them but to the national movement of farmers. This involves over 400 farmers’ bodies that have formed several collectives.
“They have rejected the government’s attempt at divide-and-rule,” Mollah said.
Echoing Yadav, he said that while Punjab’s farmers may be at the vanguard this time, the three laws and the electricity ordinance were agitating farmers across the country.
“We are ready for talks but not as per the conditions set by the government,” Yadav said. “At least, say you will reconsider and then an atmosphere will be created for talks; but this doublespeak is not the way to go,” he added, referring to the contradictory signals coming from the government.
While Shah had adopted the most mellowed of tones to offer talks before December 3, Modi had talked up the new farm laws less than 12 hours later.
“The farmers don’t want to be lectured the way the Punjab farmers were in the second round of talks over the past couple of months,” Yadav said. “Stop making it sound as if the farmers don’t know what is good for them.”
He added: “Stop calling them names. First you have called them Khalistani. Next you will find a few Muslim farmers and say this movement is Islamist. Stop trying to discredit this movement and at least do what then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had demanded in 2011 — a legal guarantee for MSP.”
Yadav questioned the government’s pandemic logic against the agitation — Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has threatened to hold his Punjab counterpart Amarinder Singh, who supports the farmers’ protest, responsible for any spike in Covid cases.
Yadav asked why the pandemic had not been an issue the previous Sunday when BJP ally Dushyant Chautala organised a rally in the Mewat region. “Stop using the pandemic as a political weapon,” he said.
PM’s pressing matters
In his latest Mann Ki Baat, Modi hailed the new farm laws but made no mention of the farmers’ agitation. Some of the other topics his speech covered:
⚫ Jonas Masetti, also known as Vishwanath. Jonas teaches Vedanta and Gita to people in Brazil
⚫Recently in Kevadia, I also got a memorable opportunity to spend time with birds
⚫These cherry blossoms have further enhanced the beauty of Meghalaya
⚫A very old idol of Devi Annapurna is returning to India from Canada