Sitting in the office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Sikar, Rajasthan, under the portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Jyoti Basu, Amra Ram’s phone rang. He answered expansively in the native Shekhawati dialect, grinning widely: “Lal salaam, comrade. Thank you. Yes, the government surrendered to our demands”.
Ram had reason to be happy. He had just led a massive – and successful – farmer’s agitation. Starting from September 1, for 13 days, farmers across Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region had protested for better prices, loan waivers and a let up in the strict rules that now govern the trade in farm animals. Across the districts of Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu, farmers sat in protest in the main markets, surrounded government offices and blocked roads. On September 14, the Rajasthan government, responding to the scale of the stir, gave in and accepted the demands.
The movement led by the CPI(M)’s farmer body, the All India Kisan Sabha, was given little attention by the national media. Yet, its impact over North Rajasthan meant that the state government was forced to yield.
Given that the CPI(M) is a minor party not only in Rajasthan but across the entire Hindi-speaking belt of India, how did it manage such massive mobilisation in Sikar?
A history of farmer mobilisation
Unusually for a princely state, the Shekhawati region has a history of peasant movements during the British Raj. Since the land-owning farmers of this region were mostly Jats, these movements were held under a Jat umbrella. In 1932, a large conference of the All India Jat Maha Sabha was held in Jhunjhunu, and in 1935, Jats conducted a mahayagya – sacrificial religious offering – in Sikar as a means of social mobilisation. The Jat gatherings were targeted at the jagirdars, large landlords of the region, who were mainly from the Rajput caste.
The current farmer mobilisation under the CPI(M) traces its history back to these movements. “All farmer movements in Sikar originate from the activities of the Jat panchayat,” said Amra Ram. “They won land rights and made the farmer aware.”
The CPI(M) first made its presence felt in Rajasthan in 1969, when it agitated for the lands irrigated by the Indira Gandhi Canal to be redistributed to the landless (rather than be auctioned off). In the 1970s, the CPI(M) affiliated Student’s Federation of India would begin to win student elections in Sikar town’s SK Government College. In 1980, the CPI(M)’s first MLA, Trilok Singh, was elected from the Shekhawati region.
Amra Ram brings up this history when asked how the CPI(M) managed to organise such a large movement in Sikar recently. “We have always been mobilising large numbers of people in this region,” Ram said. “The media does not report it since we focus on farmers.”
Kisan Sabha versus the government
In 2000, the Kisan Sabha laid seige to the Rajasthan Assembly on the issue of power. Protestors demanded an increase in the number of hours they were supplied with power each day. “Like today, the government was forced to relent,” claimed Ram.
In 2004, the CPI(M) was part of another agitation, this time for water, in the district of Shri Gangangar, bordering the Shekhawati region. The farmers were protesting against a reduction in their water allowance from the Indira Gandhi Canal. During this movement, the Rajasthan police opened fire on the agitating farmers, killing four. Eventually the government agreed to increase the water allowance.
In 2005, responding to a hike in electricity tariffs, the CPI(M) and the Kisan Sabha organised farmers and conducted a sit-in in state capital, Jaipur. It took eight days for the government to relent but in the end, it rolled back the hike.
The large mobilisations of 2004-’05 meant that in the 2008 Assembly elections, the CPI(M) managed to win three seats – its best ever performance in the state. However, the 2013 Assembly election saw the Bharatiya Janata Party sweep the state. The saffron party won 82% of the seats in the Assembly. The CPI(M) did not even win one.
It took till 2017 for the CPI(M) to get back into the game. In February, the CPI(M) organised large protests in Sikar to protest against an increase in electricity tariffs. Like the current agitation, it involved the mobilisation of large numbers of farmers in the Shekhawati region, and was centred in Sikar town. Seventeen days after the movement started, the Rajasthan government gave in and rolled back the hike in tariffs.
Sikar-based political watcher Ashfaq Kayamkhani called the Shekhawati region a “lal tapu”, a red island. In spite of not having political power, the area has supported the CPI(M) for long, with farmers frequently organising under the banner of the All India Kisan Sabha.
One reason for the CPI(M)’s success is its character as a party headed mostly by Jats. “The Shekhawati region is dominated by Jats,” said Kayamkhani. The CPI(M), therefore, is the inheritor of the long history of Jat peasant agitation in the area.
Bhanwar Meghwanshi, social activist from the state, echoed Kayamkhani. “The Left has Jat leadership in this area,” he said. “Thus the Jat farmers of Sikar get attracted to the party even as the BJP and Congress neglects them.”
The other factor that possibly explains why farmers of the area lean towards the CPI(M) is the lack of action from the Congress. “Where is the Congress here, you tell me?” asked Kayamkhani. With increasing farmer distress and an unenthusiastic Congress, the CPI(M) is able to monopolise the Opposition space.
“In other areas, communists only indulge in intellectual talk,” said Meghwanshi. “But in Sikar, they hit the streets and talk about farmer issues and against communalisation.”
The lack of effective Opposition parties and the CPI(M)‘s work on the ground means that it has attracted mass support even beyond its core farmer support base. The recently concluded movement drew support from all sections of society in Sikar town – auto-rickshaw drivers, traders’ associations and even DJs who play at weddings.
Amra Ram acknowledged that the CPI(M) had managed to appeal to cross-section of society.
“In Hindi-speaking regions there is a lot of religion and caste in politics so it is difficult for us to do well,” he said. But here in Sikar, by taking up the issue of cattle trade restrictions, the CPI(M) seems to have cut through this problem, picking up an issue that affects both Muslim animal traders as well as farmers.
Manoj Bajaj, president of the Sikar district agricultural inputs traders association, is a self-proclaimed BJP voter. But he also backed the Kisan Sabha’s recent agitation. “Look, if the farmer is crushed, we will also be crushed,” said Bajaj. “And not only us, everyone in Sikar [town] depends on the farmer for the livelihood. Already, we had been hit hard by demonetisation and GST. So we had to stand with the farmers in his time of need.”