Since December, farmers in Gujarat have made several attempts to join the huge protests at the borders of Delhi against three new agricultural laws.

Most of these efforts were stifled by the Gujarat authorities: the police would detain farm leaders before they could even leave the state, and only small groups managed to get to the protest sites outside the Capital.

Now, farmer groups in Gujarat are making a renewed effort to make their voices heard in the protests against the new laws, which they claim will open up India’s agricultural markets to corporate exploitation and undermine their livelihoods.

On Saturday, over 100 farmer leaders representing organisations across Gujarat announced the formation of the Kisan Sangharsh Manch or KASAM, a state-wide platform that aims to launch decentralised district- and block-level protest movements against the new laws.

KASAM was formed on March 20 at a private meeting of farm leaders that attended, in Surendranagar district’s Mera village. The group was largely composed of farmer organisations from North Gujarat, as well as representatives from South Gujarat and the region of Saurashtra, each of whom pledged to mobilise hundreds of farmers within their networks to join the agitation.

KASAM members announced that their first protest – tiled “Haiyya Holi” – will take place on March 27 on the eve of the Holi festival.

“In villages across Gujarat, farmers will burn copies of the three black laws and dedicate our protest to Holi Mata,” said Lalji Desai, a prominent leader of North Gujarat’s Azad Kisan Sangathan and one of the founders of KASAM. “After that we will announce more andolans [campaigns].”

Yakub Guraji, a farmer leader from South Gujarat’s Bharuch district, said farmers in the region were less aware of the implications of the farm laws than their counterparts elsewhere because it was a “BJP stronghold”. “We will be raising more awareness,” he said.

Lalji Desai is a leader of the Azad Kisan Sangathan. Credit: Aarefa Johari

Fighting the Punjab-Haryana perception

Since the start of the farmers’ protest at the Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi last year, there has been a widespread perception that the agitation is being conducted largely by farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. On the ground, though, farmers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have been active participants, and small groups from Kerala, Maharashtra and other states have also taken part in the protests.

But representation from Gujarat, where the Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power for the past 25 years, has been visibly low.

“There is a perception among people from other states that Gujarat’s farmers have no problem with the three farm laws and are happy with them,” said Lalji Desai, who is also the chief organiser of Seva Dal, a national grassroots organisation affiliated to the Congress party. “Our aim is to change this perception.” Desai claimed that in reality, the situation in Gujarat is like an “undeclared emergency”.

Protesting in disguise

Several farmer leaders present at Saturday’s meeting echoed this assessment of the Gujarat state authorities’ response to grassroots farmers’ movements, particularly those who are opposed to the controversial farm laws passed by Parliament in September.

Karan Desai, general secretary of the Maldhari Vikas Sangathan, an organisation working for maldharis or cattle-owning pastoralist farmers, said: “In Gujarat, every andolan or discussion is surveilled by the government.”

Palbhai Ambaliya, the chairman of the Gujarat Kisan Congress in Saurashtra region’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district, said he was detained several times by the police when he tried to organise protests in December and January.

On December 6, 23 organisations from across Gujarat made their first attempt to create a state-wide, non-partisan platform to opposethe farm laws. The Gujarat Kisan Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti planned to bring 3,000 farmers to Gandhinagar on December 11 and then travel to the protest site at the Shahjahanpur border between Rajasthan and Haryana by December 14.

“But from December 9 itself, the police began making house arrests of farmer leaders, saying we could not go to the protest,” said Ambaliya. “I escaped house arrest by changing my car and phone, shaving my head and going to Udaipur in disguise.”

Palbhai Ambaliya is the chairman of the Gujarat Kisan Congress in Saurashtra region’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district. Credit: Aarefa Johari

Eventually, only 300 out of the 3,000 farmers – many of them in disguise – made it to Shahjahanpur, led by just four of the 24 leaders who had initiated the forum. The Samanvay Samiti platform dissipated soon after that.

Yakub Guraji, the farmer leader from Bharuch, also had to put on a disguise to join the December 14 protest at Shahjahanpur. “The police had detained me for 18 hours the day before, telling me I could not go to Delhi, but ultimately they had no grounds to lodge an FIR against me,” said Guraji, the head of Bharuch’s Khedut Hitrakshak Dal.

Legal efforts

In mid-December, several farmer leaders served a legal notice to Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, the state’s home minister, chief secretary and several senior police officials, demanding an explanation for these “illegal detentions”. There was no official response to the notice.

Farmers’ organisation Gujart Khedut Samaj also petitioned the Gujarat High Court on January 4 after police denied them permission to hold a meeting in Surat city to discuss the laws. One of the reasons cited by the Surat police for denying them permission was that the meeting would lead to support for the protests against the farm laws – a reason that farmers groups termed “illegal and unconstitutional”.

“The High Court passed a very positive order allowing the Gujarat Khedut Samaj to hold the meeting about the three farm laws on January 27,” said lawyer Anand Yagnik. “There was more police presence than participants at the meeting.”

On January 22, while this court order was awaited, Ambaliya and other farmers were denied permission to hold a similar meeting in Rajkot. When they assembled outside the Rajkot police commissioner’s office to demand an explanation, Ambaliya was detained. “The police detained me four times that day, for two hours at a time,” he said. “They had nothing to charge me with so at night they booked me for violating Covid curfew time.”

The most recent police detentions took place on March 12, when the Seva Dal and other organisations began a rally with 80 tractors from Ahmedabad to Dandi on the anniversary of Gandhi’s salt satyagraha of 1930.

“The Seva Dal has organised a rally every year to remember the Dandi March, but this time we used tractors and called it the khedut or farmer satyagraha,” said Lalji Desai. “We planned to end the rally with a programme in Dandi on April 6, but the police detained me and other leaders and did not allow the tractors to proceed beyond two kilometres.”

Yakub Guraji, a farmer leader from South Gujarat’s Bharuch district, had to put on a disguise to get to Shahjahanpur. Credit: Aarefa Johari

Strategic difference

At the March 20 meeting, farmer leaders claimed that KASAM would adopt a different strategy to protest the new farm laws.

“Earlier our aim was always to go to Delhi to join the protest,” said Ambaliya. “Now we will set up the movement here in Gujarat itself, with local-level protests.”

The group also aims to reach out to every village in the state to raise awareness among farmers and other residents about the potential impact of the three laws. Their concerns are shared by farmers across the country: the laws, they fear, will destroy the system of minimum support prices that has helped farmers sell their produce at a basic fair price to government agencies in case they are unable to sell at market rates.

“These laws will also destroy the mandis [local wholesale markets for agricultural produce] where farmers sell their goods,” said Karan Desai of the Maldhari Vikas Sangathan.

He added: “The laws favour big companies who will buy from farmers at a lower price than they currently get, and sell it to the public in big malls where everything will be more expensive. So the laws affect everyone – farmers, maldharis, workers, women and the middle-class.”