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‘It was a lapse on the part of the government, but equally a lapse on the part of farmer leaders’

Smita Gupta | Updated on January 27, 2021

Turning point: After the January 26 violence, the agitation will not get the same support from the people that it was getting, says VM Singh   -  SMITA GUPTA

Former MLA and farmer leader VM Singh on the violence that followed the January 26 tractor rally, the impasse between protesting farmers and the government, and the way forward

* We stuck to our route, and as thousands of our tractors made their way, people showered us with flowers

* Unfortunately, each leader wanted to show that he was more powerful than the others

* The form of the agitation may change but our demands remain the same

* If we agree with you, we are farmers; if we disagree with you, we are Khalistanis

***

The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), one of the umbrella bodies leading the ongoing farmers’ agitation, removed its national convener, the 61-year-old VM Singh, last month from the post, because he had offered to hold separate talks with the government to bring in a law for a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for agriculture produce. Singh, who has been a committed farming activist since the

1990s, has always been something of a maverick. A first cousin of former Central minister Maneka Gandhi (they subsequently fell out), his first brush with politics came when he helped manage her election as a Janata Dal candidate from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh in 1989. The Delhi-based farmer leader, born into a wealthy home, became a Janata Dal MLA in 1993 from the same area. When he (unsuccessfully) contested a Lok Sabha election from Pilibhit on a Congress ticket in 2009 against his nephew, Varun, he had declared a net worth of ₹632 crore — much of that wealth can be attributed to the farming land he owns, particularly in UP. In the 2012 Assembly polls, he contested as the Trinamool Congress candidate from Barkhera in UP and lost.

As a farmer leader, he has fought for the setting up of procurement centres for paddy and better prices for crops. Apart from the AIKSCC, he is the convener of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan that fought a successful legal battle for the payment of dues with interest to sugar cane farmers. In December 2015, Singh launched his own political outfit — the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Party — ahead of the 2017 assembly elections in UP. He fielded 21 candidates, all of whom lost their deposits.

Ground zero: The agitation is mainly for the welfare of the farmers, not the leaders   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Singh, upset by the death of a young farmer in Delhi, and the negative publicity the agitation has received after the violence on Republic Day, has now said that he will no longer sit in protest on the Ghazipur border, and has left it to his followers to either continue with the sit-in or return to their villages. He, however, made it clear that there was no change in the demands of the farmers, and that he would continue to add his voice to their demands.

He also explains to BLink why a guaranteed MSP with a legal backing is critical for farmers. Excerpts from an interview:

What is your response to the violence and the raising of the [religious] Nishan Sahib flag at Red Fort during the tractor rally?

The raising of the flag and the violence was unfortunate. However, I have to say that the government cannot say they were caught off-guard as the Red Fort should remain secured at all times.

As far as we at Ghazipur are concerned, we stuck to the route that we were given and as thousands of our tractors made their way, people showered us with flowers. The DM and the SP, too, were on the road watching.

It is, however, true that Rakesh Tikait of the BKU [Bharatiya Kisan Union] and farmers from Punjab took off before the scheduled time but it was for the police to maintain law and order. But I have to say that it was criminal to break the barriers in the name of the kisan agitation.

The agitation is basically for the welfare of the farmers, not the leaders. Unfortunately, each leader wanted to show that he was more powerful than the others. The youth, which tends to be anti-establishment, goes for these things. The test of leadership is to prevent such things.

It was a lapse on the part of the government, but equally a lapse on the part of farmer leaders.

How will these events affect the future course of the agitation?

The agitation will certainly not get the same support from the people that it was getting. Public support may dwindle but we will continue our fight. Our demands remain the same.

I have had 30 glorious years of agitating for farmers ans will continue [to do so]. We represent 14 crore farmers and their families — that is 70 crore people. We need to be careful. The form of the agitation may change but our demands remain the same. We won’t give up till they are met.

The government has now offered to keep the three farm laws in abeyance for 18 months and form a committee to address all grievances. What is your response?

On December 2 at Burari, I had said precisely this — that the laws should be kept in abeyance, a farmer-government committee be formed, and a law enacted to ensure MSP for 23 crops. If my suggestion had been accepted then, 85 precious lives would have been saved. I’m totally with this suggestion... If a law is now made to ensure MSP, then the temporarily stayed Bills will become permanently infructuous. Otherwise, once the APMC [Agricultural Produce Market Committee] is gone, the private mandis will be able to buy [produce] at whatever price they want. But if there is a caveat that you can’t pay less than the MSP, then...APMC or no APMC, every mandi will buy at the same rate. Then you will have one nation, one market.

Let us take the plight of the sugar cane farmers. They have been signing a written contract with the sugar mills through the societies, for the last 68 years...but payment is never given to them in 14 days. In the past, I have moved court — now you can’t even go to court. Why do people sign contracts? Because they get a lower price outside that contract. But if somebody says you will be paid on a par with the mill, and instant payment is assured, then why would they have a contract? But if you have a law that says even private traders can’t buy for less than the MSP, farmers will be assured of the rate...

The government says if the real MSP is paid to the farmers, it will make a difference of ₹10 lakh crore. But look at it the other way around — farmers are losing ₹10 lakh crore in MSP per year. And who is making the money? Is it the government? No, it is the private traders. These Bills are primarily for the corporate sector. We are saying to the corporates: Welcome, with only one caveat, you can’t purchase at rates lower than the MSP.

You were removed as AIKSCC convener because you said you would be happy if a legal guarantee was given on MSP.

That [the removal] has yet to be ratified by the National Council. I’m still the convener. [The differences arose because] Punjab gets MSP for paddy and wheat. The FCI [Food Corporation of India] picks up their grains, so they don’t have a problem. In Haryana, too, the situation is somewhat similar. But in UP, it will make a big difference...We produce more than Punjab and Haryana. Collectively, they have 200 lakh metric tonnes; we have 350 lakh metric tonnes of paddy and wheat and the maximum sugar cane in the country. That’s why there is a bit of a rift with Punjab, but I said let each one put forward their own issues.

When the government asked for a proposal, they included it in the four points they gave on December 26 because they didn’t want to lose our support. They didn’t want a rift.

Why is the farmers’ protest largely confined to north India, to Punjab, Haryana and west Uttar Pradesh?

It is not just west UP. The first farmers came from Rohilkhand [northwest UP]. Farmers here are from Lakhimpur Kheri, Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur, Rampur, Sitapur as well as Sambhal, Bijnor, Hapur, etc. First they said these are only people from Punjab because they saw only Sikhs. But they are also from UP. On September 20, the day the Bills were passed, 20,000 farmers were protesting in Karnataka. I attended protests in Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh. I went twice to Bihar. We are closer to Delhi — to the national media — so you see us. But they are protesting all over the country.

The government says the protests are politically motivated.

If the Congress had this much support, they would be in power. And to those who say that there are no farmers, only political parties, I say come at night when temperatures dip to 1 degree. A month ago, the BJP organised a rally in Ghaziabad and said we will sit here as long as the farmers are sitting here. But because people had been paid to come, as soon as night fell, they all vanished. To stay here for 50 days is not easy. Here, where we are sitting in this tent, it is relatively comfortable, but what about those who sleep on their trolleys in this harsh weather?

There has been an effort to de-legitimise the protests by describing the farmers as Khalistanis.

If we agree with you, we are farmers; if we disagree with you, we are Khalistanis. You have had 10 rounds of talks and have not understood that these people are not Khalistanis, that they are not anti-social, not anti-national. This is part of their strategy to discredit us.

Why has the government allowed the farmers protests to go on for so long? Is it because it feels it will not affect it electorally?

In November 2018, we had a congregation of almost 2 lakh people in Delhi and the government was shaken when Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Sharad Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, YSR Congress participated in the farmers’ rally. The government was so shaken that within 10 days, it promised to give all farmers ₹6,000 each. Not that that amount was of any use. After that, there was Pulwama, Balakot. They have learnt that farmers are nationalist and are willing to make sacrifices for the motherland. That’s why they are hoping against hope that the farmers will be trapped in the politics of slogans. It is up to us whether we fall into that trap again.

This movement [will] ensure that the second generation continues farming. That is in national interest. Today’s generation is not interested in farming; they would prefer to sell the land. So what do we tell them? The kids are increasingly becoming victims of depression — they are taking drugs, they are drinking and some are committing crimes. It’s a national loss. It’s no longer just the question whether we will be able to produce enough food to feed the nation — but whether farming will provide the second generation with a livelihood.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on January 27, 2021
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