Punjab Farmers’ Protest Sees Change Of Guard As New Faces And Groups Lead ‘Delhi Chalo’ March

The leaders and groups spearheading the farmers’ ongoing ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march are different from the 2020-21 protests as Punjab-based farm unions have since undergone splits and leaders have exchanged blows amongst themselves as their ambitions clashed.

Getty Images
Farmer leaders Jagjit Singh Dallewal (centre) and Swaran Singh Pandher (front right) address a press conference amid the ongoing ‘Delhi Chalo’ farmers’ protests. Photo: Getty Images

There appears to be no hope for an early resolution in the confrontation between the farmers and the Union government as tensions continue to escalate at the Shambhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur borders. Protesting farmers have clashed with the security personnel who have so far lobbed teargas shells, fired water cannons, and conducted lathi-charge to stop farmers from marching to Delhi as part of the ‘Delhi Chalo’ movement of various farmer unions.

Two major umbrella bodies of farmers, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (non-political) and Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM), are spearheading the ongoing agitation. They have made it clear that they are in no mood to budge on their principal demands regarding a law on the minimum support price (MSP) for the crops and loan waivers besides the implementation of Dr M S Swaminathan Commission’s Report.

On its part, the Centre has said that announcing a guaranteed MSP, the key demand of the farmers, will not be possible even as a committee to deliberate on various issues could be considered. Yet, there are chances of another round of talks with the committee of three central ministers led by Piyush Goyal on Thursday in Chandigarh, confirms a farmer leader to Outlook.

The SKM (non-political) is a faction of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which was founded in 2020 to lead the earlier yearlong protest with the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Ironically, both the SKM and BKU are not part of the farmers’ protests this time and some of the prominent farmers’ leaders are missing from the scene. They include BKU leader Rakesh Tikait and its chief Gurnam Singh Charuni. The other key leaders missing this time are Balbir Singh Rajewal, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, and Darshan Pal.

The leaders leading the ongoing ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march are Jagjit Singh Dallewal of SKM (non-political) and Sarwan Singh Pandher.

The current protest, as it looks, differs from that of 2020-21 in terms of demands and leadership. This is also an indication of how the farmers’ struggle and leadership evolves with time.

A senior Punjab-based journalist says farmer unions in the state are known for splits and divisions. Till the 2020-21 agitation, most unions never used to see eye to eye but they still came under one banner but, after the protest was over, they again started distancing from each other. Differences in leadership dynamics emerged with new leaders taking charge and leading factions within the movement in 2022.

The factional fighting within the unions has been deeper because of their ambitions — some also have political affiliations. Others secretly established close contacts with the central government. Some openly racked-up issues of funds and donations which were received during the 2020-21 protests.

Basant Singh (name changed), a farmer leader in Taran Taran, says differences among the unions came to the fore more openly when Punjab state assembly elections were held in 2022. Some leaders wanted to contest elections and some even ended up contesting. Others stressed the need to remain apolitical while a few of them also advocated an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Balbir Singh Rajewal split and formed Sanyukt Samaj Morcha that contested the poll. Nevertheless, it kept raising farmers’ issues.

“There is, in fact, a 12-point charter of demands. Farmers have been rising in small and big protests in Punjab and Haryana. However, the SKM has now taken the initiative to lead the protest to Delhi. A few farmer leaders in Punjab also questioned the timing. The parliament session is already over. The Lok Sabha will be dissolved soon. There can’t be a final decision on the demands. Once the new government is formed, the farmer unions can always revive the movement,” says Basant Singh.

Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij said on Wednesday that the Centre was not averse to talks with the farmers. “The step taken by the farmers’ unions raised doubts about their real intention. It is beyond comprehension as to why they wish to go to Delhi,” said Vij.

Vij said the protests are politically motivated. He said, “Why can’t the Punjab government or the Congress state governments give legal status to MSP?”

Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU-Ekta Ugrahan) has given a call for ‘pucca morcha’ (permanent protest) in Chandigarh from February 24 against the state government. Haryana khap unions have also distanced themselves from the protest. The union has announced that farmers will block the railway tracks in Punjab from 12 noon to 4 pm on February 15 to solidarity with the farmers marching to Delhi.

Tikait has supported the call of Bharat Bandh on February 16 but has not said anything about participating in the protests. He instead has warned the central government that if it created problems for the farmers, then he would not far from the protests.

Meanwhile, agricultural policy expert Devinder Sharma tells Outlook many farmer leaders are in ‘wait and watch’ mode.

“If the Centre fails to resolve the matter and protests grow, they may join. The Centre has to agree to their demands today or tomorrow,” says Sharma, referring to the demand for legally guaranteed MSP.