GHAZIPUR, Uttar Pradesh — Lokesh Mehra, a farmer who has been living at the farmers’ protest site on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border for almost a year, woke up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement, repealing the three controversial farm laws that his government said would modernize India’s agricultural sector.
He felt “disbelief,” Mehra told us, earlier today. “Why should we believe them? For almost a year, they did not believe the lakhs of farmers who were pleading with them. Why should we believe one man in one day?”
When we asked Mehra if he was at all pleased with the Modi government’s decision to withdraw the contentious laws, which protesting farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana say would end up benefiting large corporations and destroy their way of life, the 46-year-old farmer from Meerut said, “I guess I’m happy that he has opened his mouth. It’s a start.”
Mehra said that he was a “small soldier” in the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) led Rakesh Tikait, a jat farmer from Muzaffarnagar, who mobilized lakhs of farmers in UP, posing a challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral ambitions in the crucial state election next year.
As he sent word back to his two sons in Meerut, Mehra said that young farmers at the protest site in Ghazipur broke out in cheers, but the celebrations were muted. Almost everyone agreed that the Modi government’s change of heart had more to do with winning the UP election than the farmers themselves. As reporters converged at the protest site, farmers were echoing Tikait’s sentiment about continuing the protests until the farm laws were repealed in Parliament, and the Modi government discussed the issue of a Minimum Support Price — a guaranteed price at which the government buys staples like rice, wheat, oilseed and pulses from farmers.
Looking at the images of the farmers who have died during the year-long protest, Mehra said, “They called us Khalistani, Pakistani. They beat us and crushed us with their cars. Why did so many farmers have to die? Who will bring them back?”
As four other farmers nodded in agreement, Mehra said, “They thought that we were insects and they could crush us. Now they have understood our power. Farmers are people who will die but not step back.”
Over 700 farmers have died over the course of the protest in accidents, suicides, clashes with the authorities, and from the cold. The images of some of the deceased farmers are displayed at the Ghazipur protest site.
While the Modi government remained intransigent over the repeal of the laws, critics of the farmers’ protest carried out a campaign to delegitimize the farmers and their intentions, branding them as Khalistanis, Pakistanis, and anti-nationals bent on stalling reforms in the agricultural sector.
At Ghazipur, one of three protest sites on Delhi’s borders, where the crowds have swelled and thinned over the year, but farmers have stayed even during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, 23-year-old Deepak Chaudhary told us that he had not returned home for a single day, and he did not intend to return in a hurry.
Chaudhary, a Jat farmer from Ghazipur itself, said, “Modi is like a lota (pot) of milk. He can wobble. We don’t believe him.”
Not only would Parliament have to repeal the farm laws, Surendra Kumar, a 29-year-old farmer from Sitapur, said that “Teni” — the junior Home Minister Ajay Mishra — would have to resign.
Mishra’s son, Ashish Mishra, is accused of running over protesting farmers on 3 October, after the minister insulted and threatened farmers in a speech he made in his constituency. Ashish Mishra was arrested by the Yogi Adityanath government, but only after a week of massive outrage over the incident.
“Lakhimpur Kheri is next to Sitapur. Those who were killed were our brothers,” said Kumar. “Why did farmers have to die? If the laws had been repealed earlier, none of these lives would have been lost.”
Cognizant that the farmers of western UP are angry and mobilizing against them for the upcoming state election, the BJP has so far run its campaign on a cocktail of Hindutva and a massive outreach towards the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
After a landslide victory in 2017 in UP, India’s most populous stage, the BJP feels that winning the state election in 2022 is a vital step in winning its third straight general election in 2024.
In Punjab, where a state election is also due next year, the Modi government’s repeal of the farm laws could alter the political landscape, with a possible realliance between the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over the farm laws.
In addition to galvanizing the Jat farmers of western UP, Tikait, who supported the BJP after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, has used the farmers’ protest to re-establish the Jat-Muslim alliance.
Sanjeet Balyan, a 27-year-old farmer from village Kutba in Muzaffarnagar, which is also home of BJP Lok Sabha lawmaker Sanjeev Balyan, and a Union Minister in Modi’s cabinet, said that he would not stop protesting until the criminal cases lodged against the farmers during the course of the movement were withdrawn.
While he liked Sanjeev Balyan, an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots (the Adityanath government has tried to withdraw the case against him), Sanjeet Balyan said that he did not intend to vote for the BJP again.
His village was emptied of Muslims after the communal riots, but the farmers’ movement had brought the two communities closer together, Sanjeet Balyan said.
“We call them ‘mulla Jats’ — Jats who converted, but we are the same people. That violence was a wave just like a Modi wave, but it’s over now. I will not vote for the BJP, not even if they withdraw the farm laws,” he said. “They called us Khalistanis, anti-nationals. Are we supposed to forget it? I cannot.”