The Centre, in a letter to the Punjab government, has alleged that migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were being employed as bonded labourers on farms in the state, given drugs and exploited, The Indian Express reported on Friday.

The letter came at a time when farmers have been protesting against the Centre’s three agricultural laws for months now. The movement poses one of the biggest challenges to Narendra Modi since he took power in 2014, as he faces criticism from all sides, including from some allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The ministry, in a letter dated March 17, said that the Border Security Force had rescued 58 such labourers from Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Abohar districts between 2019 and 2020.

“During the course of questioning, it emerged that most of them were either mentally challenged or were in a feeble state of mind and have been working as bonded labourers with farmers in border villages of Punjab,” the home ministry said, according to The Indian Express. “The persons apprehended belong to poor family background and hail from remote areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.”

The Centre alleged that these labourers were hired by human traffickers on the promise of a good pay. “But after reaching Punjab, they are exploited, paid poorly and meted out inhuman treatment,” the home ministry said. “For making them work for long hours in fields, these labourers are often given drugs, which adversely affect their physical and mental condition. BSF has been handing over the rescued persons to State Police for further necessary action.”

The Centre said the matter was of “overwhelming enormity”. The home ministry directed the Punjab government to look into the matter and inform it about the action taken in this regard on priority.

Also read: Farmers protesting against agricultural laws to march to Parliament in May

Farmer leaders protesting against the agricultural laws criticised the letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs, calling it an attempt to malign them.

Jagmohan Singh, a member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, asked why the Centre didn’t act on the BSF’s inputs earlier, The Indian Express reported. “This survey, as per the MHA, was done by BSF in 2019-’20 and it is surprising that they sat on this report till now and wrote to the Punjab government only when the farmers’ agitation is at its peak,” he told the newspaper.

Singh alleged that the government was playing another “communal card” after labelling the farmers as terrorists. He urged the Centre to withdraw the letter.

Shiromani Akali Dal, the BJP’s former ally, also called the letter an attempt to defame the state’s farmers, The Tribune reported.

Former MP Prem Singh Chandumajra claimed that there were no first information reports related to bonded labour in the districts mentioned by the Centre. “In fact, farmers pay labourers in advance for their services and that is why lakhs of migrants come to Punjab every year for planting of paddy crop,” he was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

He added that the home ministry’s letter would send a wrong signal across the country and “create an atmosphere of confrontation”.

The farmers’ protest

Thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November, demanding that the Centre repeal the three laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies. Farmers fear the policies will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the minimum support price regime.

The protest had been peaceful until violence broke out during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. One person was killed and over 300 police officers injured as a section of protestors broke through barricades and poured into Delhi, clashing with the police who tried to push them back with tear gas and batons.

The police clamped down on the protests after the violence. Heavy barricading was done at protest sites and internet services were suspended. Police complaints were filed against farmer leaders and journalists, and hundreds of protestors were arrested.

The farmers have hunkered down with supplies that they say will last them for months, and have resolved to not leave until their demands are met. In January, the Supreme Court had suspended the implementation of the farm laws until further orders.