Battling criticism of the farmers' protest taking a political overtone, Yogendra Yadav argues that exerting pressure in order to get the government to repeal the farm laws is a legitimate political route for the farmers' movement to take. As for their plans for poll-bound UP and Uttarakhand, Yadav hopes the movement can make a difference important enough for the BJP to realise the cost of being anti-farmer.
Ten months into the standoff between the Centre and farmers over the three contentious farm laws and there are still no signs of a resolution. The protests have seen a renewed push as elections approach, drawing criticism from the BJP of the movement deviating from its original path and taking a political overtone. In conversation with FinancialExpress.com, Jai Kisan Morcha founder Yogendra Yadav argues that a movement of this nature should indeed not be apolitical. As farm unions led by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha vow to catalyse the protests with a focus on Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab, Yadav says the only language BJP understands is of votes and elections and to not teach them a lesson in the laguage they understand would be utterly foolish. If exerting political pressure on the BJP to get them to agree to the farmers’ demands ends up benefitting the Congress, so be it!
EDITED excerpts from the interview:
It has been 10 months since the farmers have been protesting against the farm laws. With the government not ready to cede any ground, what is the way for the protest now?
The way for the protest is forward, because it’s not an ordinary protest. This has now become a movement which has taken much broader dimensions. So, what began with a localised protest against the three laws has expanded now into a movement for the farmers and rural India. It began as something in one part of the country, but has now spread to very large parts of the country. And for future, it’s quite clear that we are going to expand it geographically – the movement is much stronger in North and North-West India, but we want to take it to the East, to the South, make it more intense. Now, we want to focus on Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand via ‘Mission UP’ and ‘Mission Uttarakhand’, which has already been inaugurated in Muzaffarnagar on September 5 and we want to build larger correlations with workers, with students, with the unemployed, with women, Dalit, Adivasis and all kinds of sections who are at the receiving end of this government’s policies.
Nearly a dozen rounds of talks between the farmers and government have already been held, but no common ground has been reached so far. What do you think is the finer bone of contention here?
I would honestly say there was very little talk in those talks. Most of the time, it was talking past each other. It’s only in the last round when the government offered to freeze these (farm laws) for a year or two when there was a genuine offer. Otherwise, the government was simply trying to teach us how wonderful these laws are and we were saying ‘please stop teaching us, we know what these laws are and we want them to be repealed’.
The real bone of contention is in a sense, the change in the architecture of Indian agriculture. These three laws seek to change the legal architecture, they give a political clue about what the future of Indian agriculture and farming would be like, what kind of government policies there would be. What farmers feel is that for the last 70 years, we have had a part-working, part-broken system which has worked for the farmers by way of agriculture Mandis, a half-broken MSP system, etc. And, it seems to the farmers that even that half-broken system is going to be destroyed, withdrawn. Basically this is the beginning of the Indian State saying ‘we are washing our hands off Indian agriculture, now it’s you and some companies, you handle it; we want better growth in agriculture, these companies will deliver better growth and the farmers are an obstacle to the growth of Indian agriculture’.
The government has maintained that the FPTC will allow farmers to sell their produce outside the APMC Mandis. The government said this trade will be free from Mandi taxes and will provide better prices to the farmers. What is your concern here?
Let’s not forget that an overwhelming majority of farm produce has always been sold outside the Mandis. What is happening for the first time is that a private Mandi will come up. A private Mandi is being told that you can do business but you don’t have to pay the taxes that would be levied inside the Mandi. You don’t have to be registered the way every Mandi dealer has to be registered, you would not be under regulations of the Mandi. That is the difference! The difference is not between a sarkari mandi and a private mandi, the difference is not between one place and any trade taking place outside the mandi. The difference is that an unequal competition is being set up. Outside, the private mandi would be able to say to the farmers – come to me, if you go in, you will pay 6 percent taxes. Which fool would go to the Sarkar mandi and sell it there? That’s clearly an unequal playing ground and the apprehension is that in the first 2-3 years, private Mandis will offer better prices to the farmers; in these 2-3 years, the APMCs would collapse because APMC only has private players inside, APMC is not a sarkari market, it’s a private market, and all these private players will either move out, or exit. And once the APMCs are demolished, then it is a fire monopoly of these private Mandis.
The government says that these laws will not have any impact on the MSP and one of the main concerns of farmers is that these laws will abolish the MSP system. Why do you think these laws will impact the MSP?
The basic change is that all these three laws indicate the mindset with which the government has spoken again and again. The basic mindset is State should step back from agriculture operations and while the withdrawal of the MSP is not written anywhere, but if APMC does not exist, if places where MSP is actually given to the farmers are dismantled, where would farmers get MSP from? Areas which do not have Mandis in the country today, does anyone get MSP there? No! Because you need an organised market where the State is present for the MSP to be delivered. So, MSP would remain on paper; there would be no place where MSP would actually be transacted.
Secondly, it is quite clear that this is the intent of the government, because when this government came to power in 2014, the first thing they did was to appoint the Shanta Kumar Committee, and the recommendation of the committee that came in 2015 is quite clear – close down FCI, get rid of procurement operations, step out of it as it’s too expensive. And this is not merely an intent, the government had given an affidavit to the Supreme Court, saying that this kind of MSP is unaffordable. The (central) government has written letters to Punjab and Haryana governments, saying that you are doing too much of procurement, please reduce it. So, the farmers are no fools, they know that this is coming.
Several leaders with political aspirations have used your dais to give political shoutouts. Don’t you think the farmers’ protest is deviating from its original path and taking a political overtone?
Tell me of one movement in the world, of which any political party has not taken advantage. Did BJP not finally take advantage of the Anna movement? Yes, they did. The question is – is this (farmers protest) politically inspired? A year before the Punjab farm unions came to Delhi, they had gheraoed the chief minister of Punjab for seven days. When they were gheraoing Amarinder Singh, they were not political and when they have come to Delhi, they have become political. Clearly, any large issue like the farmers’ issue is bound to affect politics, it should affect politics. What we are not is electoral politics! When we went to Bengal, we openly said the BJP should be defeated, but even there we did not say who to vote for. We said this is a party which is anti-farmer, please punish them, please defeat them. You vote for whoever you like.
So, what I am saying is, will political parties want to take advantage? Yes. Congress will, of course. BJP is taking advantage of farmers’ movement in Haryana to pit one caste against another. But this is a movement which is not inspired by, nor is running on the steam given by, or working on the designs of any political party. If there is evidence, please show it.
We are seeing fresh vigour in the farmers’ protest. Does it have anything to do with the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand? Will it be wrong to say that the movement has allowed political agenda to supersede the farmers’ interests?
We have announced ‘Mission Uttar Pradesh’ and ‘Mission Uttarakhand’. It has to do with our assessment that pressuring this government in UP would yield results. We are in the business of pressuring this government so that these laws can be withdrawn and MSP law can be made. So, yes we will exert influence, we will exert pressure. If this is politics, well everyone should do politics. But, kisan unions are not going to say – please vote for me, I am a candidate, this is my party, I am becoming an MLA, someone else is becoming CM. No! And this (putting pressure) is something which all the movements do all the time. This is legitimate because we live in democracy. In a democracy, for me to say – this party is not listening to me, please punish them – is absolutely legitimate. How can politics become a dirty word in democracy? Authoritarian countries think politics is too bad; but in democracy, to think politics is too bad is a very weird assumption.
You admit that your fight is against the BJP. You have backed campaigns, rallies against the BJP. What is the damage that you see your movement inflicting upon the BJP in the next round of elections?
I would like it to have an effect. I would like to believe that in Bengal we did have an effect. It would be silly on my part to assume that we were the ones who changed the Bengal election results. We probably made one or two degrees of difference, we are happy that we did. And if we make 3 degrees of difference in Uttar Pradesh, that’s even better.
We have not yet announced our strategy for Uttar Pradesh elections. Right now we are simply saying – put pressure on BJP and its elected representatives and BJP allies. But closer to the election, if we have to take a position, we will take one probably similar to what happened in West Bengal. We will make a difference and hopefully, the difference would be important enough for the BJP to realise the cost of being anti-farmer. We just want to convey to them – being anti-farmer is a costly business. Because, this party does not listen to anything – the only language they understand is votes and elections, and if we do not go and teach them a lesson in that term, we would be utterly foolish. Why would we not do that?
But when you argue that the protest should not be apolitical, don’t you think that entry of political players will subdue the interests of the farmers?
That is the point I am making. Difference is between movements which do confront, resist regimes, which take on political powers, take them on in a battle; and those which are inspired and designed by some other political party. I am asking you and anyone else to show me evidence of how this movement is designed and inspired by any political party. We are doing what we think is in the interest of the farmers. It is bound to help some political party. That is always the case. Somewhere, you know, the Congress may gain, somewhere the Congress may not gain; in Bengal, our intervention did not help the Congress at all, but in Punjab, it may help them.
For us, the only thing clear is the farmers’ interest. We push that forward. Whoever gains, gains; whoever loses, loses. Anyone sitting in political power must realise that ‘Kisano se panga nahi lena aage se’ (don’t mess with the farmers here on). If this message goes, today it’s BJP, tomorrow it will be some other party, I want every leader of this country – anyone who sits in a position of power – to have the fear of God as they say. ‘Darr hona chahiye ki bhai kisano ke sath panga liya to bhari pad jaega jaise Modi ji ke sath hua’ (there should be fear that messing up with farmers will cost us heavily as was the case with Modi ji).
After the Republic Day violence in Delhi, four farm unions, including that of VM Singh, withdrew from the protests. The protests have been causing inconvenience to people with the blockade of roads, highways, borders and railway tracks. Don’t you think such incidents have hampered your cause?
Those incidents were not good. I am not saying it today. That very day, I said it’s shameful. The next day, we held a press conference, the entire leadership of Samyukt Kisan Morcha said that this is wrong. We said, the criminal responsibility, the administrative responsibility is with the government, but we take moral responsibility. How many movements do that? We said it then. We clearly said something like this is undesirable, unacceptable and we actually called for a social boycott of those who had indulged in this.
Karnal SDM’s order to the policemen later saw the support of Manohar Lal Khattar who said that while the words used by Ayush Sinha were harsh, the action was justified to maintain law and order. Don’t you think such precautionary measures are viable after what happened at the Red Fort?
You mean to say that saying ‘break the heads’ of people is a precautionary measure? Precautionary measure is to say, you may call the preparations, up to firing. Firing is allowed under the Indian law. But to say, if someone crosses this line, hit him on his head, break his head, I want broken heads to be seen. What makes that legal? The government is playing around with these things. Kya kehna chahiye tha? Lathiyo se pushp varsha kijiye (What should he have said? Shower petals with lathis?) It’s not about the wording. There is a completely illegal order being issued at that time, which has nothing to do with any provocation. Remember Mr Ayush Sinha is giving that great video, those filmy dialogues at 9am before a single incident has taken place, there is not even an allegation of anything happening. Can an IAS officer get away with it? Can I say these things? Mr Ayush Sinha did something illegal and it’s a matter of deep shame that in this country, governments actually back up something like this.
Last year, the protests by farmers against agri laws featured posters and photos of Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and Varavara Rao who are not at all known to work for the farmers’ cause. There were also allegations of pro-Khalistan slogans being raised. How do you respond when such incidents allow the government to point fingers at your intentions?
In large movements of this kind, you will find all kinds of posters. The allegations about the pro-Khalistani slogans… turned out that the video footage was from a place in Canada, not from here. So, the fact of all these things has never been established. About posters of Varavara Rao, (Umar) Khalid and so on, that were indeed used by one organisation on human rights day. The organisation said all these are prisoners of conscience, these people are political prisoners, being held unlawfully. That is a very legitimate point of view. The question is, is that Samyukt Kisan Morcha’s demand? In a large movement of this kind, various kinds of issues will get raised. You have to focus on Samyukt Kisan Morcha, which is an official body, which issues a press release every evening, which gives the charter of demands, which defends what it says, which is in negotiation with the government.
I am not saying putting up posters of Umar Khalid is a bad idea, I think it’s a great idea, I think he is a great human being. I have had the pleasure of knowing him and it is such a shame for this country, that a great leader of this country, not of just one community, is in jail, but that’s a different matter, that’s my personal opinion. Has Samyukt Kisan Morcha raised this in negotiations with the government? Have we given a call for farmers to do something in order to get him released? No! Because we want to focus on our agenda.
The protests have been causing inconvenience to people with the blockade of roads, highways, borders and railway tracks. Don’t you think such incidents create a negative impact among the people?
I would like to remind you of the question that the Supreme Court had asked, when this question came up eight months ago. The Supreme Court had said, who has put the barriers? Have the farmers put barricades on the national highway? The lawyer, on behalf of the government, said no sir, police has put those barricades. So yes, barricades are bad. Who has put them up? The police has put them up; we wanted to come in to speak to our government, the government stopped us and put barricades. So barricades are a bad idea but who has put them up? Yes, there is inconvenience, we want to resolve it, we feel very bad about people who are inconvenienced whether as commuters, old people travelling, ambulances passing – these are not things that you can make anyone feel good about it and therefore we want to conclude it as soon as possible.
How do you suggest this stalemate end if the Centre and farmers sit on the negotiation table?
I don’t think the Centre is willing to come on the negotiation table. If they were, we would have actually written them a letter. Once the negotiations broke down in the month of June, we wrote to the prime minister to say that we want to restart the negotiations. He hasn’t bothered. So, if they want to, there is nothing that prevents it. If the prime minister were to want today to hold negotiations next week, I am sure they will start next week. So, it’s only the prime minister who has stopped it and honestly, the only negotiation, the only dialogue that needs to take place is between the prime minister of India and Mr Narendra Modi. He needs to sit in front of a mirror and ask himself – “Is my ego all that important? Do crores of farmers matter less than my personal ego?” He has turned this entire thing into a prestige issue.