“No, it is not only Jats, OBCs are also a part of the movement,” Manoj Kumar said, with enough force to make his tone defensive. “All kisans in Haryana are involved. It has nothing to do with caste,” said Kumar, a 33-year old farmer from Barota, a village in Karnal, Haryana.
In September, the Modi government passed three laws to allow large corporations a much bigger role in Indian agriculture. The laws commit to making sweeping changes, which some parse as “reform” but others characterise as financially ruinous for the farmer.
The laws have set off massive protests, with farmers mobilising around Delhi city with such force that the Modi government has built fearsome physical barriers on the capital’s borders, even calling in the Border Security Force which patrols India’s borders with other countries.
At first glance, Modi’s insistence that the laws must stay looks odd given the scale of this protest, which appears to have engulfed most of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.
In Haryana, for instance, the internet has been suspended in many districts for the past four days.
But travelling through three districts, Scroll.in found deep divisions within the state riding on the back of India’s oldest social cleavage: caste. Farmers like Manoj Kumar who belong to the predominantly agrarian, land-owning Jat community, which makes up around a quarter of the state’s population, form the backbone of the farmer protests in the state. But support from other castes is missing.
Many non-Jats, in fact, strongly back the Modi government. They say the protestors are misled and the three protest sites on the borders of Delhi, which have grown over two months, are causing public inconvenience.
Their views have grown firmer especially after the violence that erupted on Republic Day after farmers carried out a tractor parade. A few thousand from the Ghazipur protest site in Uttar Pradesh broke away and clashed with police near the Income Tax Office in central Delhi. Further ahead, some reached the Red Fort and raised flags of the Nishan Sahib, a flag sacred to the Sikhs, while clashing with the police.
On the national highway, more than 120 km north of Delhi, near the Gharaunda Toll Plaza in Karnal district, a bhandara or community kitchen has been set up by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group of farmer unions spearheading the protests.
The kitchen feeds the steady stream of farmers driving to the national capital on their tractors and trolleys from several districts of Haryana and Punjab. It has been running on support from nearby villages where Jats are dominant.
Barota village in Karnal district is one of them. Farmers here collected donations from each household, pegging amounts to Rs 100 for every acre owned. So far, the village authorities have collected around Rs 2 lakh, said RS Punia, a 75-year old Jat farmer who farms on seven acres of land. Additionally, they are regularly sending rations and other supplies to the community kitchen at Gharaunda Toll Plaza.
These farmers have opposed the laws for months but their dissent was revived after Bharatiya Kisan Union spokesperson Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal on January 28 after the violence at Republic Day. Tikait was lodged at the Ghazipur protest site where the administration had ordered the eviction of the protest site by midnight. His message had an immediate impact. By midnight, several thousands of farmers from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh rushed to the site.
In Barota, the video caused a furore in the village and at least 50 farmers from Barota went to Ghazipur on January 28, said Punia.
Further north on the highway lies Sheikhpur Khalsa village in Karnal. Joginder Phor, a 52-year-old farmer and government official from the village, drove down to the Ghazipur protest site that borders between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh on the night of January 28 after watching Tikait’s video.
“We did not have dinner that night,” said Phor, who reached the protest site before midnight.
Jat farmers like Punia and Phor claim the violence at Red Fort on Republic Day was orchestrated by the Bharatiya Janata Party to derail the protests.
“It was their plan to make the Jats hate Sikhs but that did not happen. The farmers won,” said Phor, who works in Karnal’s Public Works Department.
Another Jat farmer from Bhigan village in Sonipat said the violence did not involve farmers. “Farmers were not involved in it,” said 67-year-old Kamla Garewal. “They [BJP] sent people to give a bad name to farmers and so they benefit.”
Some questioned why the police had not yet taken action against Deep Sidhu, the actor who was present at Red Fort while clashes erupted as the Nishan Sahib, a flag sacred to the Sikhs was raised.
“Why has he not been arrested yet? Whose conspiracy is this?” asked Gyani Ram Lohan, 84, a Jat farmer from Barota village.
A majoritarian government
Others pondered over the reason why the government was adamant on not revoking the laws permanently. Punia had an answer: “Bahumat ki sarkar hai.” It is a majoritarian government, he said.
But Lohan said that did not matter. “Even if it is a government formed by the majority, it should do the right thing,” he said.
He questioned why Modi had not spoken about the farmers who died because of the biting winter at the capital’s borders. Farmers groups claim that nearly 150 farmers have died since the protests started around Delhi.
“Modi says he is a phone call away, but it has been more than two months…he is the prime minister of the country, it is his duty to ask farmers what they want,” Lohan said.
Since the internet suspension in a number of districts in Haryana, village residents have not been able to frequently communicate with those protesting at the borders.
The absence of the internet was also a hindrance to accessing news and updates on social media especially since most protesting farmers were sceptical of the mainstream media that portrayed them as “Khalistanis” and “terrorists”.
“Once the net is back, I will send 1,500 replies to fake news,” said Manoj Kumar, the Jat farmer from Barota village.
But he added that the internet suspension would not deter farmers. “Public will keep on going to the protests,” he said. “We have now made our own routine to go to the protest sites.”
The other side
While Jats have been energised by the events of Republic Day, other castes in Haryana, however, see things in much the same way as the Modi government would want them to.
In Babarpur village in Panipat district, a group of men whiling away time while playing cards argued the Modi government should have used force to stop the farmer protests after the violence on January 26.
“First day only they should have arrested Tikait,” argued Baldev Raj, 69. “Now he has been made a hero. Why wasn’t he arrested if there was a case against him?”
Expressing vehement opposition to the protests, he said: “If the police search the protestors, they will get large numbers of weapons. They aren’t sitting for nothing. The government needs to act.”
Raj is from the Khatri caste – part of a substantial population of Punjabis in Haryana who descended from Partition refugees. The community are strong BJP voters in Haryana. The chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar belongs to the Khatri community.
Taking the government line
Raj’s friend, Avinashi Lal, explained the politics of the agitation. “Jats are supporting the protest since they are anti-Khattar,” he said. “Now for many years there will be no Jat rule.”
A sharp critic of the farmer agitation, Lal said: “We don’t support this movement. In fact, we are facing losses. Our vegetables aren’t reaching Delhi, people are buying less. We are having a lot of issues due to the road blockade.”
The Khatris of Babarpur make no bones about their support for Modi and opposition to the protests. But it is not just them – this is a pattern amongst non-Jats in Haryana.
Jat versus others
That support for the protests breaks down along Jat and non-Jat lines is not surprising. The Bharatiya Janata Party has performed admirably since 2014 by highlighting the supposed dominance of Jats in Haryana and promising that it would act as the voice of non-Jats if it came to power. The pitch succeeded. In 2014, the BJP won a majority in the Assembly elections and installed the first non-Jat chief minister in two decades.
Just two years later, the state saw widespread riots, as angry Jats sought Other Backward caste reservations, complaining that agriculture was delivering them diminishing returns.
Much the same dynamic is at play here in the current protests, with Jats angry with the BJP for the new farm laws. They believe the laws will make farming even more loss making than it already is. On the other hand, many non-Jats are wary of a Jat-led protest – or at least apathetic to them.
Gurmukh is a Dalit man who works with the Karnal Municipal Corportation who has little interest in the farmers agitation. “Only the Jats are agitating,” he claimed. “We are busy with our work. Who has time to go sit in Delhi?”
While he was cagey about whether he supports the agitation, on the events of Republic Day, Gurmukh took a clear pro-government line: “Look, we don’t support or oppose the agitation but the attack on the [Indian] flag was wrong, attacking police was wrong. Property destruction was also wrong.”
The Indian flag was not touched during the upheaval at Red Fort on Republic Day, but pro-government TV channels spread misinformation around the act, and many non-Jats have fallen for it.
“We were upset when the country’s flag was removed,” said Aashish Tyagi, 32, a farmer in Sonepat’s Bhigan village.
Many in the village dismiss claims that the protest has led to a new wave of Punjab-Haryana friendship – two states that have often shared a tetchy relationship in the past.
“What bhaichara?” laughed Manmohan Tyagi at claims of brotherhood. “They do not even share their water with us. If you are my brother, will I not give you water from my tap,” he said referring to the dispute between the two states over the relocation of water to Haryana from the Sutlej Yamuna canal.
In Karnal’s Barota village, a saloon owner from the Brahmin community was clear that support for the protest broke down along political lines. “While they use the terms ‘farmer’ this agitation is actually 90% Jat,” he explained. “Non-Jats in Haryana silently support BJP. But they can’t openly, since they aren’t very powerful. Jats are very powerful and very voluble in Haryana since they have land.”
Reflecting this silent opposition, the saloon owner asked to not be named: “Many people are angry with the agitation but they can’t speak openly.”