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Why Punjab farmers’ protest is not about politics or Farm Bills

Amitabh Tiwari
·4-min read

Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, and some from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, have thronged the national capital of New Delhi and are protesting against the Farm Bills passed by the central government.

Pictures of Haryana Police trying every trick in the book -- from water cannons to blockades -- to stop them from reaching the capital have been splashed all across the media. Images of police brutality against the protesting farmers too have been going viral.

The farmers’ association has rejected the Home Minister Amit Shah’s proposal for a dialogue. Shah huddled into a meeting late last night as defiant farmers threatened to block Delhi.

Social media is sharply divided on the issue. Right wing supporters have called out the protest as politically insitgated by the Congress. Some have even insinuated that Khalistani groups are behind the agitation.

Yet others have criticised the treatment meted out to our anna-daataas, terming the bills as ‘anti-farmer’. How can the government not allow peaceful protests by the farmers, they argue?

The farmers are demanding that the Centre should withdraw the three contentious legislations. If not, it should guarantee them the Minimum Support Price on their crops by passing a new law.

Farmers are afraid that the new laws might lead to the dismantling of the MSP system, exposing them to the mercy of big corporate houses.

However, the Centre is reiterating time and again that the new laws will help farmers increase their income and free them from the clutches of middlemen.

Questions are also being raised as to why mostly farmers of Punjab are protesting while others in the rest of the country are not?

To understand what is behind these protests we will need to understand the history, religion/culture and political economy of Punjab.

Three movements in Punjab and their suppression by the Centre have shaped the lives and opinion of the people in the state. These are:

(i) Maoist-Naxalite movement of late 1960s,

(ii) Akali morcha of early 1980s for protection of Punjab’s river rights, and

(iii) Operation Blue Star army action at Golden Temple in 1984.

Right from the beginning, a Left-wing tendency has been politically active among the Sikhs in the state, as per political scientists. The three movements enumerated above were quashed by the Centre brutally and thousands of Sikhs and their families were adversely impacted.

Their scars have not yet been healed: maybe, they never will.

The duality of the Sikh situation – a minority in India, but a majority in Punjab – is a continuing source of political conflict and tension between the Sikh-majority Punjab and Hindu-majority India, says Pramod Kumar’s paper in Economic and Political Weekly, titled ‘Punjab Politics - Contesting Identities and Forging Coalitions’.

Also, a rich heritage of their own religious scripture and rulers of an independent empire impart a distinctive identity to the Sikhs. This distinctive identity is a central component of the peculiar political culture in Punjab, Kumar adds in the paper.

There is strong anger against the Centre and regionalism is integral to the Sikh culture. The suppression by successive central governments has left thousands of families broken, discontented, helpless and angry.

People of the state have a general apathy for Delhi-centered parties which are not governed by the interests of Punjab but by how it fits into their all-India political strategy. Punjabis don’t want their fate to be remote-controlled by Delhi.

The changes in the demographic profile of the state have accentuated matters. It has experienced a rapid decline in birth rate from 33.5 per thousand in 1962 to 16.6 per thousand in 2010.

Two-child families have largely become the norm now. The population growth rate has slumped from 23.89% during 1971-81 to 13.89% during 2001-11.

Migration from UP and Bihar has led to an increase in Hindu as well as SC population in Punjab, from 24.7% in 1971 to 31.9% in 2011.

Punjabi people of all religious affiliations have long been known for their greater inclination for both intra-country and international migration.

There has been a sharp fall in growth of Sikh population due to loss of lives during the 1980s-1990s.

Punjab’s gift of the Green Revolution to India has been a curse for the state itself. It brought growth without development, leading to serious socio-political consequences.

The cycle of two-three crops, shrinking water tables, sharing of river waters, use of spurious pesticides, lack of storage houses, etc have ruined the farming community and the future of Punjab agriculture, as per Jagrup Singh Sekhon and Sunayana Sharma in EPW paper, titled ‘Evaluation of SAD–BJP Government (2007–17)’.

The interplay of all these complex factors – strong regionalism, changing demographics and stagnancy in agriculture – has led to these protests from vulnerable farmers.

The Farm Bills just proved to be the tipping point.