Around 10 am on Saturday, February 24, a large grain warehouse in the Naya Mandi compound in Faridabad, Haryana, was just stirring to life, around the corner from the bustling market for fruits and vegetables. A few dozen farmers who had camped overnight at the mandi had just woken up.

They were among the 3,000 farmers who had gathered over the last week at Palwal in Haryana, about 60 kilometres from Delhi, to march to the national capital on February 23. Drawn from seven states – Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu – they said they wanted to demand loan waivers and higher prices for their crops from the central government. But Haryana police halted them in Faridabad, on the outskirts of Delhi.

What made the crackdown particularly noteworthy was that many leaders of the protests were former members of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmers organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power both at the Centre and in Haryana. Now part of the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh, a federation of 67 farmer organisations, they have been coordinating farmer protests since January 2017.

“These are opposition people who are doing this for the sake of elections,” claimed Badrinarayan Chaudhary, general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. “For five years, they were unable to do anything.”

But many farmers at the protest dismissed this view. Some from Madhya Pradesh, in fact, claimed to be current members of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. They were scornful of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, both at Centre and in their state. But they hesitated to say whether they would vote for any opposition party in the state assembly elections later this year.

One of the leaders at the protest was Shiv Kumar Sharma, better known as Kakkaji. In 2010, as the state president of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh in Madhya Pradesh, he had led a farmer agitation to encircle Bhopal with 15,000 tractors. He was expelled from the organisation. He went on to create the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh and was at the forefront of the farmer protests in Madhya Pradesh last year. His stature among the farmers was evident when he arrived at the Faridabad mandi on Saturday, sat on the floor with the other farmers, only to be ushered with many apologies to the dais.

Sharma said that the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, as part of the Sangh Parivar, the family of RSS organisations, “works on the directions of the Sangh and the government.” He claimed that Haryana police stopped the farmers at Faridabad on orders “from Delhi.”

Shiv Kumar Sharma, better known as Kakkaji, national president of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh. Photo: Aabid Shafi

Amplifying the protests

The farmers were halted at Faridabad but the protest led by the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh has had ripple effects.

In Rajasthan, also headed for elections in 2018, the Communist Party of India-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha staged a demonstration outside the Jaipur Secretariat on February 22. “The government arrested 400 people in Rajasthan to try and stop us,” said Hannan Mollah, all India secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha. “If they do not fulfil our 11 demands, then we will call for a farmer curfew all over Rajasthan by April.”

In Haryana, even though the farmers from the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh were not permitted to march to Delhi, local politicians flocked to them. As Saturday morning, a convoy of pristine white SUVs wheeled in to the dusty market yard in Faridabad. From them emerged a large group of politicians including Abhay Chautala, the son of former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala. His party, the Indian National Lok Dal, is currently in the opposition in the state.

“We heard that farmers were coming here only two days ago, so we decided to help them,” said Jagjit Kaur, district women’s president of the Indian National Lok Dal, on the sidelines of the gathering. The party claims to be making food arrangements for the farmers.

Jagjit Kaur, district women's president of the Indian National Lok Dal makes a speech to farmers on Saturday. Photo: Aabid Shafi

Farm distress and elections

One of the largest groups of farmers at the Faridabad protest was from Madhya Pradesh, where chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan will be contesting for a fourth consecutive term later this year.

After the farmer protests in 2017, Chauhan announced a slew of schemes, including, the farmers in Faridabad said, a bonus above the minimum support price. But they are not counting on it, said Vinod Chaurasiya, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district. “Kyunki Shivraj Singh ghoshnapremi hai,” he said, to general laughter. Because Shivraj Singh is fond of making many speeches.

A large group of farmers had also reportedly come from Congress-ruled Karnataka, which goes to polls this summer. When visited the mandi, they were not around – farmers at the mandi said that many of them had suffered upset stomachs with the unfamiliar food of north India and were still in the rooms.

At the protest site, among the few leaders from South India was KV Biju of Kerala, a former member of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, another RSS affiliate. He now runs an organisation called the Swadeshi Andolan, which advocates against globalisation, and is the South India coordinator for the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh. According to him, the demands of the Karnataka contingent were the same as that of the umbrella organisation – farm loan waivers and ensuring higher prices for farmers at markets.

“From Kerala to Kashmir there are protests, though in Kashmir they are protesting from home not outside,” Biju said.

Farmers with yellow Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh flags seated at the grain warehouse of Faridabad's Naya Mandi. Photo: Aabid Shafi

Shortened demands

From the long list of demands that many farmer organisations had presented to the Centre and their state governments in 2017, the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh has whittled them down to just two: waiver of all farm loans and price support to recover their investment costs.

These are old, but flawed demands of farmers. While the central government has announced higher minimum support prices for farmers to ensure that they receive their cost of production, it does not back this with actual procurement, making it a meaningless benchmark. Besides, as has reported, the increased prices promised by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the 2018 Budget are also not as high as farmers have been demanding.

As for the other demand, farm loan waivers from the government can only cover loans issued through formal credit channels including banks. Given the difficulties of applying for loans, a large section of economically backward farmers relies on money lenders. A survey of debt investment in 2012 found that 85% of farmers with landholdings smaller than 0.1 hectares were indebted to moneylenders, compared to 48% farmers of all landholding sizes across India.

Other smaller groups had more specific demands. One of these was the Gram-e-Bharat Mahavihan, a small organisation in Rajasthan with a single-point aim of controlling stray animals, including cattle. The Indian Express reported on Sunday that cattle sales at five of nine state-level cattle fairs had dropped by 90% since 2012-’13.

“Stray animals are a menace to both cities and villages,” said Sandeep Kajla, coordinator of the organisation. “Farmers work hard all day but cannot sleep at night for fear some animal will come and ruin his crops. What is the government doing to control the 73 lakh stray animals in India?”

A woman at the rally. Photo: Aabid Shafi