Farmers’ protests: Twitter, mainstream media reduce Indian farmer to binaries of Khalistani and well-heeled; truth is hardly this simplistic

Khabar Lahariya’s ground reportage, featuring interviews with farmers from Bundelkhand, investigates the diversity of issues that make up the ongoing agitation in particular, and the agrarian sector in general

Khabar Lahariya December 12, 2020 10:45:38 IST
Farmers’ protests: Twitter, mainstream media reduce Indian farmer to binaries of Khalistani and well-heeled; truth is hardly this simplistic

Protesting farmers from Bundelkhand. YouTube screenshot/Khabar Lahariya

In the first segment of a two-part series, Khabar Lahariya looks at how the identity of the Indian farmer is not as homogenous as politically-motivated Twitter trends will have you believe, and how as the primary stakeholders of these agrarian policies, the real farming communities are actually best suited to know its pitfalls.

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If one were to believe mainstream media or Twitter trends, protesting farmers are either pro-Khalistan or too well-heeled to be farmers in any case.

When opposition to the farm bills started up in September, Khabar Lahariya filed reports that began by saying, “The farmers of the country are once again on the streets in protest.” The exhaustion in the phrase “once again” is a tangible one. If you unwrapped it, it would taste of disappointment: a Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is still not legally binding; the chaos on the street when another farmer dies of suicide after incurring hopeless loans; the drought and general scarcity of water in Bundelkhand; the necessity of labouring even when the rest of the country (nay, the world) is in the throes of COVID-19 . The list goes on, with several key points being raised by Bundelkhand's farmers. Meera Devi, Khabar Lahariya’s bureau chief, spoke to these farmers before they embarked on the long trek to the Delhi border to join other protesters.

Vimal Kumar Sharma, the National President of the Bundelkhand Kisan Union says, “The three farm laws that the government passed in the parliament using authoritarian tactics, these are black laws — these laws will be the death of the farmer and we are staunchly against them. We demand that the government hold an urgent parliamentary meeting and withdraw the bills. Our second demand is regarding the uncertainty around MSP (Minimum Support Price). They should work on making that system more equitable.”

Rajabai, the Mandal Adhyaksh of Mahila Morcha in Banda proclaims the same, “These laws are anti-farmer...If they do not take back the bills, lakhs of farmers will die by suicide. They will destroy the farmers. Farmers will continue to protest until the bills are withdrawn. Farmers are ready to die, but they won’t let the bills pass.”

The farmers were seen frying pooris and preparing food for what could be a long negotiation. The failure of the recent talks between the farmers and home minister Amit Shah also indicates a long road ahead.

The protests against the “anti-farmer” laws have been going strong for over four months now, with farmers from across the country participating. Bundelkhand’s farmers and their Kisan Union have also joined the fray, eager to present their own demands. The farmers’ anxieties emerge from the three bills that were passed: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. Primarily, the new laws do away with the flourishing agricultural mandi system, with some fearing that these may be the first step towards the eventual dismantling of the Minimum Support Price regime. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi says this move will give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses, the move has angered a large number of farmers, who say that the new rules will worsen their already precarious condition by making it easier for corporates to exploit agricultural workers.

“The government has been extremely authoritarian and is running around in circles avoiding the main issue. The government wants to turn farmers into bonded labourers and hand the whole agricultural sector over to private companies. Farmers won't be manipulated this time. We want actions, not reassurances...The government is run by businesses. This is a government that is controlled by corporates. They are the ones who own all the airports, railways, roads, putting up tolls everywhere, creating every kind of problem possible for people. After selling all PSUs, the government is now after farmers’ land. They are trying to take away rights over ancestral lands. A farmer can handle a lot of things, but they won't tolerate their harvest getting ruined or losing their land. The farmers’ demands are completely reasonable and in a democracy, we have a right to protest. We are citizens,” Vimal Kumar Sharma continues.

Shiv Dayal Singh Patel, the Tehsil Officer from Rajapur, Bhartiya Kisan Union, Chitrakoot minces no words when he says, “We have come from our villages, our districts to show our displeasure. We want them to withdraw the laws and make the system stronger so that the farmer is not forced to sell crops for meagre rates. The laws need to be withdrawn and a farmer should have income all the year round. If a farmer is being forced to sell his crop for a lesser price, it should be considered a punishable offense… All a farmer wants is to grow his crops and sell it at the set price.”

Kanta Prasad, an OBC farm worker from Chitrakoot, is even more despondent when he says "I don't know what results these protests will bring, because we are already at the brink of starvation. What kind of ecosystem is this where a farmer himself cannot buy vegetables to eat?"

In Banda, Vibha Khare of the local market committee explained, “If the market fee is only for inside the mandi, then all the traders will go outside the market. This will lead to exploitation of the farmers. The lack of safeguards will add to unequal power dynamics. While wealthy farmers who own significant land may benefit, the majority of farmers (especially women, Dalit and OBC farmers) who are either tenants or have marginal holdings) may be at the mercy of private players or coerced into giving up their land to wealthier farmers. With state controls razed, private companies have a clearer pathway to profits, to dictating what farmers produce, and to exploiting the land, then leaving. Further, a new class of middlemen will emerge to hold farmers hostage—ironically, the very phenomenon that these laws are claiming to end."

Mirchilal Saroj, a 32-year old Dalit farmer from Baryarikala, Chitrakoot, says the farmers' protests are completely justified. He agrees that the mandi system that has been in place till now is in need of an overhaul, but is sure that these new laws aren't the answer. "The government will have to take these laws back. The crop that we sow and reap with our blood, sweat and tears, we don't get the right price for it even now. But at least earlier, there was the guarantee of a minimum price." According to him, the government does not understand that with these new laws, the poorer farmers will be at the mercy of not just the monsoon, the drought, the locusts, the inflation, but also corporate greed, without any recourse to law or justice. 

Ganesh Prasad Sharma, a leader from the Bundelkhand Kisan Union, agrees with these sentiments emphatically. “If the government is really working in favour of farmers then why are they refusing to talk about the MSP? The government keeps on saying ‘farmers are being misled, the bills are in their favour.’ They are passing all kinds of judgments and calling us all sorts of names. They are even refusing to accept many protestors as farmers, judging us by our clothing. Will they only accept a person as a farmer when they are in ragged clothes?” he asks.

“Today, farmers and soldiers only receive lip service. Saying ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan!’ has turned into a formality. Soldiers are dying at the border and farmers are dying in fields. Between that, all the politicians are busy playing political games… If you have made these laws for the betterment of the farmers, then we have so many farmer unions in this country, so many experts and intellectuals of the agricultural field who went to Delhi...did these people (the government) talk to any farming experts before making the laws, or discuss its pros and cons? They are refusing to offer any guarantees over MSPs, saying that a farmer can sell his crop to anyone anywhere at any price. A farmer who has produced a harvest of Rs. 20-50 kilograms, is he supposed to then travel to another state to sell his crops? That poor farmer would be forced to sell his crop in his district or a nearby town. The middlemen will then set their own arbitrary rates, and have even more control over farmers, and the government won't be able to do anything. The government has tied up our hands and we won't be able to go to any court or get any justice! Do they think that farmers are stupid and illiterate? Do they think that we’ll accept anything they throw our way? They deceived farmers into drowning in debt. They lied to us about doubling farmer income too...They are trying to bring vyapari raj to this country. Businessmen will rule, and the rest will be their slaves.”

In 2016, Modi promised to boost the country's agriculture sector with a target of doubling the income of farmers by 2022. We are just about two years away from the deadline, and the target does not seem within sight. These new laws, passed in the middle of a pandemic and economic recession, do not inspire confidence among many farmers — the very people it is supposed to protect. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58 percent of India's population of 1.3 billion. Thus, one can understand the ire of a population that feels like their interests are being sidelined to favour large private corporations. This is especially so since their march to Delhi to begin talks with the government was met by tear gas and water cannons in the bitterly cold winter.

The laws were passed in the Rajya Sabha by voice vote despite a demand for a division, which is against procedure. Further, protesting members were suspended from the House. Yet, the government and its representatives maintain that the laws are beneficial. Some have even claimed that the agitating farmers are either separatists, anti-nationals, or are being ‘misled’ by external parties. This vicious name-calling in an effort to delegitimise valid expressions of dissent seems to be a common strategy by this government. Whether it was the CAA and NRC, that undermined the security of religious and ethnic minorities in the country, or the farm laws now, the government wastes no time in branding widespread mass protests as “anti-national”— rather ironic, since these laws are purportedly for the ‘greater good.’

Vimal Kumar Sharma exclaims, “Farmers are being called terrorists. Who can be a bigger patriot than a farmer! Farmers are feeding the whole country even when they themselves are going to bed hungry. ...The use of words and phrasing likening protesters to terrorists is, simply put, a way of diminishing our protest. It’s a way of bringing our fight down,” .

Raja Bundela, Vice Chairperson, Bundelkhand Vikas Board, from the Uttar Pradesh government sticks to the party line as he tries his best to allay the farmers’ fears, valid as they are. “Regarding the new farm laws, there’s a spread of misinformation and farmers are being misled...It’s important for farmers to know about government policies and intentions before getting entirely outraged. I’ve said this time and again that in Bundelkhand, in our country, farmers are the most oppressed. The reason for that being, what the farmer is sowing and bringing to life, he is not able to sell it as a price of his wish. Another person was deciding the price for him and that person did not care about the farmer or the land. So the farmer was forced to take his crop to the mandi and sell it to that person who would then take his 20 percent commission. This didn’t make sense, so these laws get rid of that part. The middlemen won’t be left out as we have a separate campaign for them too, but in short, the farmer is now free of constraints. The farmer won't be forced to travel to the mandis, and the MSP will stay there as well. Farmers can even sell their produce right from home. Secondly, they can sell produce in other states and they won’t be charged with 10 percent tax as was the case earlier.”

But the protesting farmers are not having any of it. Rakesh Kumar Sahu, the Vice President of the Bundelkhand Kisan Union laments, “The Modi government promised peace and happiness. They promised that law would reign supreme in this country, but we don't see anything like that happening. Businessmen are the ones who are kings now, not the law...Under the Modi administration, an army of unemployed people has risen. People have lost their jobs and this government doesn’t seem interested in providing any employment.”

Meera caught up over Zoom with farmers who finally reached the Singhu border earlier this week. “There are many problems here at the protest site, and many people are even falling ill, but in spite of that, we farmers are standing our ground until our demands are met. Whatever the circumstances, we represent Bundelkhand, and with our Bundelkhand farmers, will stand shoulder to shoulder with the farmers of the nation, and prevail,” says Vimal Kumar.

Indeed, farmers are the largest stakeholders in the debate over the new laws. Yet, their demands for discussing and rethinking the provisions of the new laws are being met with derision. After all, it is easier to imagine a non-thinking, non-literate farmer than the millions gathered outside the national capital, staking a claim to the rights they have always been owed.

Written by Kaagni Harekal & Ritika Bhatia for Khabar Lahariya, based on field reporting by Meera Devi and Geeta Devi.

Khabar Lahariya is India's only grassroots, feminist news and media platform, run by an all-women team of reporters, editors and media practitioners, reporting on media-dark geographies of the north Indian hinterland.

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