On Wednesday, the Gujarat government said it would withdraw all criminal cases filed against 22 agitating farmers in Sanand taluka of rural Ahmedabad – one in a series of sops it has announced in the run-up to Assembly elections, which are expected to be conducted in December. The farmers were charged with attempt to murder after their protest in demand of irrigation water on February 14 turned violent and the district superintendent of police was injured.

The announcement came barely a week after the Bharatiya Janata Party government promised to withdraw all “non-serious cases” filed against members of the Patidar community after their protest rally in August 2015 had led to rioting and violence across the state. The land-owning Patidar or Patel community, which accounts for 14% of Gujarat’s population, is fighting for reservation in jobs and education under the Other Backward Classes category.

However, neither the Sanand farmers nor the Patidar leaders are moved by the BJP’s attempts to placate them. Dismissing the announcements as pre-poll bait, they claimed the government had yet to address their main problems and demands.

‘They are trying to lure us’

Shailesh Thakkar, one of the 22 farmers from Upardal village in Sanand, doubts the government will keep its word. “We have been seeing in the media that the government has claimed it will withdraw the cases against us,” he said. “But will they actually withdraw the cases? I doubt it.” Thakkar spent 16 days in jail before he was released on bail in March.

Upardal is one of 32 villages in Sanand, Viramgam and Bavla talukas of Ahmedabad district where farmers have been demanding Narmada river water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam project to irrigate their fields for close to two decades. Despite assurances from politicians at the district and state level, the canals they were promised have not yet been made. However, the villagers claim that towns and industrial zones adjacent to their farms have been receiving Narmada water through canals.

The demonstration on February 14 followed three years of drought that ruined crops and worsened the water crisis. More than 3,000 farmers from the 32 villages took part in the protest march, which turned violent in the outskirts of Upardal. It is unclear who triggered the violence, but the farmers claim the police beat up 200 protestors and that some of the women farmers sustained injuries on their private parts.

The 22 farmers who were arrested and charged with attempt to murder, and are now out on bail, claim the charges are false. “Just because they are now offering to withdraw the cases does not mean we are going to vote for this government,” declared Ramjibhai Kolipatil, one of the farmers. “This is their way of trying to lure us because BJP has not had a single rally in our area yet.”

Shailesh Thakkar, one of the 22 farmers arrested in February, says he doubts the government will keep its word on withdrawing cases. (Credit: Aarefa Johari)
Shailesh Thakkar, one of the 22 farmers arrested in February, says he doubts the government will keep its word on withdrawing cases. (Credit: Aarefa Johari)

No water, no compensation

Both Kolipatil and Thakkar say the state government is out of touch with the people and their real needs.

Kolipatil said, “We continue to have water problems, which is why we protested in the first place.” The farmer said that after the protests in February, district officials conducted a survey of farmland in the 32 villages and announced that the construction of the Narmada branch canals would cost Rs 747 crores. He added, “But till now this amount has not been approved and we have no guarantee that they will build the canals.”

According to Thakkar, the government has also failed to compensate all farmers for the crops they lost in drought years. He accused the government of discrimination in disbursing relief. “In our region, there are 10 or 12 villages with majority BJP supporters where farmers have received compensation,” he said. “The rest of us have been left out, even though the co-operative banks we took loans from regularly collected the insurance premium.”

Kolipatil, for instance, pays Rs 9,000 a year as insurance premium on a Rs 3-lakh farming loan he took three years ago. “But even after the officials came to survey the damage my crops suffered during two years of drought, the bank is refusing to give me my compensation,” he said.

Thakkar added, “If the BJP had only given us our crop loss compensation, it would have been a game changer – people here might have voted for them.” Instead, he believes farmers in Sanand will ensure the Congress candidate’s victory in the elections.

‘They made this promise before’

Like the farmers in Sanand, leaders of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti – the group at the forefront of the community’s demand for Other Backward Classes status – are unimpressed with the BJP government’s offer to withdraw cases against them.

On August 25, 2015, the Patidars had staged a massive rally in Ahmedabad that ended in violence. The leaders claim at least 14 people died and more than 1,300 Patidars were arrested for rioting – including many who were not even present at the rally. They also alleged police atrocities on Patidars in Ahmedabad, Mehsana and other cities. Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti head Hardik Patel and several other leaders spent several months in jail on multiple charges, the most serious of them being sedition.

Last week, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel announced that the state government had already withdrawn 109 “non-serious cases” against the agitators and would withdraw 136 more.

But the community has rejected his claims as falsehood. Rahul Desai, a convener for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in Ahmedabad city, said, “They still haven’t made a move to withdraw these cases.” He also pointed out that the government had made the same promise during a meeting with community leaders in Gandhinagar on September 26. “The government had invited more than 100 community leaders from PAAS [Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti] and other groups for that meeting, but even when they made this promise, they did not give us any date when they would do it,” he said.

Alpesh Kathiriya, a Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti convener from Surat who was jailed for sedition but is now out on bail, said he believed most Patidars in Gujarat planned to vote against the BJP. “Their pre-election gimmick is not going to get them the votes they think it will,” he said.