Confusion reigned across Maharashtra after many of the state’s farmers decided to continue with a strike they launched on Thursday, even as members of their organising core committee declared an end to the protest early Saturday morning.
The committee members called an end to the agitation, which has involved tens of thousands of farmers across the state and pinched supplies to city markets, after what they deemed to be successful negotiations with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
At the meeting, which ended in the early hours of Saturday, Fadnavis promised to waive all agricultural loans taken by those with landholdings of five acres or less. This would cost the state around Rs 30,000 crores and would benefit around 40 lakh farmers. Maharashtra has a public debt of close to Rs 4 lakh crore. (It plans to spend Rs 3,600 crore to build a statue of the warrior-king Shivaji in the sea off Mumbai.)
“The chief minister was actually very willing to listen to our demands as he also had pressure from above to resolve this,” said Sanjay Darikar, a member of the core committee who was at the meeting. However, Darikar claimed that national political parties and farmer organisations “that had not garnered much success earlier” decided to continue the protest “to make trouble and scare people off”.
The strike had brought together a chequered group of political parties and farmers’ organisations to press for loan waivers, free electricity for eight hours, pensions for farmers above the age of 60, a fixed price of milk and that the minimum support price for crops be fixed at least 50% above the cost of production, among other demands.
This strike is the largest protest of farmers in Maharashtra in several decades. Across the state but particularly in western Maharashtra, enraged farmers have been emptying milk and vegetables onto the highways. Farmers also blocked trucks carrying produce. On Thursday, a farmer from Ahmednagar named called Ashok More died in police action against protestors.
Darikar said that the trouble in negotiations began when Ajit Navle, the general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sabha in Maharashtra, left discussions halfway. He told television reporters waiting outside that the farmers speaking to Fadnavis had caved too early.
“It appeared that everything was pre-decided,” Navle said in an interview to Catch News. “Hence I walked out of the meeting.”
Confusion and anger
Tempers are now running high on Whatsapp groups and on the ground as farmers, particularly in Nashik and Ahmednagar have amped up their protests as they were not satisfied with the outcome of negotiations.
Core committee leader Jayajirao Suryavanshi was roughed up in Ahmednagar when he returned after the meeting. Suryavanshi later apologised for having called off the agitation. Accusations have also begun to fly in Whatsapp groups that the leaders of the movement had had dinner at the house of Sadabhau Khot, the state’s agriculture minister, before meeting Fadnavis. At this meeting, the Whatsapp messages allege, the core committee had been bought over.
Darikar was at pains to deny this. “We met Sadabhau Khot at his bungalow for just two minutes at 11 pm and then immediately went to meet the CM,” he said. “We did not even have chai, because the CM was so eager to meet us. No other party in the state has ever managed to negotiate so much from the government.”
Said Balasaheb Chaudhary, a farmer from near Puntamba where the strike began, “We are at a havoc stage right now. Everyone is coming back tomorrow to decide what to do.”
Those continuing the strike say Fadnavis’s assurances are vague and will not benefit farmers with large landholdings in Vidarbha and Marathwada, who tend to be more impoverished and indebted.
“This is all a bhool bhulaiyya,” said Raju Shetti, leader of the Swabhimani Shetkar Sanghatna that has called for the strike to continue. It is a maze created by the government. “There are small and marginal farmers in western and northern Maharashtra, who because of the cooperative movement are not all defaulters. In Marathwada and Vidarbha, there are farmers with large landholdings who are defaulting. Nobody is talking about the size of their debt, which will be more than Rs 30,000 crore.”
Shetti’s party is an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state and has been threatening to withdraw support to the government. Shetti publicly said that he had made a mistake in lending support to the BJP. He was not invited to the meeting with Fadnavis.
Another claim of those continuing the strike is that the core committee gave in too early and lacked the experience to understand that they had been given only vague assurances.
“The problem is that these were young boys who had got together on social media,” Shetti added. “They did not understand how to negotiate and so they were misled.”
Future for leaderless movements?
One of the key features of this rally was that it claimed to be leaderless and non-political – just like the Maratha morchas across the state last year. It is this leaderless feature that seems to have led to its having been tripped up and organisations such as Shetti’s are now swooping in to seize control.
Mahavir Gokhale, a grape and onion farmer from Nashik, said that a meeting will held on June 8 with all the organisations concerned about the issue, including the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna, Sambhaki Brigade and others. “There we will decide whether to have a new core committee or who will be in it,” he said. “But we are clear we want all future discussions to happen in the open in front of all of us and not fixed behind closed doors.”
Suhas Palshikar, a retired professor of political science from Pune University, said it was very interesting that for the second time in quick succession, a significant movement had been coalesced in Maharashtra without the involvement of political parties. “The last time we saw this kind of mobilisation of farmers was with Sharad Joshi in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said.
Even Joshi, Palshikar pointed out, was a novice at the time he began his Shetkari Sanghatna, but he had also given his ideas deep thought before setting out.
“Sharad Joshi already had larger arguments to ride on,” Palshikar said. “And he later proved that he had the skills of a politician. This is perhaps something the organisers of the present strike do not have.”