Ground Zero: Protest lines hard and deep, state fingers crossed…

5 months ago 37
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Farmers protestIn January this year when the cold wave was at its peak, around 120 farmers, including 108 from Punjab alone, died during the protest. The majority of them were sitting at Delhi borders while some others died in accidents while going to or coming back from the protest sites.

“Jad Modi Maan Jayein” (whenever Prime Minister Modi relents),” this is the refrain at Singhu one month since the Red Fort violence on January 26 when protesting farmers are asked how long their blockade will last.

Mention the offer of keeping the contentious farm laws on hold for 18 months or two years and there are angry responses. “It is repeal or nothing,” said Veer Bhan, a farmer from Panipat. “We will not compromise.”

Another farm leader from Jalandhar, Amrik Singh, is busy counting the collections at a desk with a register, a receipt book and a black bag. Rs 49,000 has come in until this afternoon. Besides a per-acre “agitation fund” pouring in, those living abroad route funds to him through their relatives. The daily collection at Singhu these days: an estimated Rs 2-4 lakh.

The resonance is heard in Chandigarh, in the banners calling for repeal of the farm laws tied conspicuously on bungalow gates; children in playgrounds wearing “I love Kheti” or “I love Kisan” badges — sold in Singhu in heaps for Rs 10 each.

It was acknowledging this sentiment that Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh underlined how despite “provocations,” like mini-dharnas at over 100 places in the state and blockades on railway tracks, the state government didn’t clamp down.

“Arresting means provocation…the moment I will pick them up, you will find the crowd will swell from hundreds to thousands. This is provocation and our Punjabis react badly to provocation.”

But the Punjab Police and Intelligence Bureau officials are on tenterhooks. Sources said senior officials, after visiting Singhu, have assessed that while the number of protestors may have come down from the peak of about 40,000, the population of floating kisans, who spend weekends at the protest sites, has not. And large jathas of, sometimes, even hundreds of tractors and trailers are being added and, quickly, converted to makeshift caravans.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Punjab DGP Dinkar Gupta said: “The agitation has got a lot of resonance in the entire state…there is no knowing how long the agitation will last but I am optimistic there will be an early resolution.”

However, protestors in Kundli are digging in, busy erecting more waterproof tents; fixing wi-fi connections; repairing taps in makeshift toilets and overseeing langar sewas. Says Subhash Chandra, a farmer from Sirsa, Haryana: “We will sit here for three years. We will wait for the general elections to come and go.”

“The farmers now have a tested system of panchayats and families contributing vehicles, donations, milk and food,” said a senior official. “The physical and emotional endurance levels of the farmers is high and they are determined not to come back empty-handed.”

This has been communicated to New Delhi but no fresh dates for negotiations have been fixed amid growing concern over the security fallout. A restive Punjab is in no one’s interest, the CM said, and Pakistan may try to tap into the fault lines.

The CM also flagged weapon drops: recovery of a consignment of AK-47s and pistols from the Ferozepur sector on September 22last year and 11 hand grenades being dropped by a drone in Gurdaspur. Indeed, over the last two years, 83 drone sightings have been recorded and 10 drones recovered, seven of them in just 2020.

The security threat is being overplayed to discredit and demotivate the protesting farmers, said Sukhbir Singh Badal, former Deputy Chief Minister: “Captain Amarinder Singh is playing into the hands of the Centre by talking about influx of arms. The Modi Government has made the repeal of farm laws a prestige issue and they are waiting for farmers to blink first. But the farmers will not blink. The strength of the movement is in the outpouring of sewa (service) which the Sikhs are known for.”

The simmering resentment is a cause for concern, says DGP Gupta. “For the last five years, several organisations have been active in Punjab in a bid to revive militancy on directions from abroad…The agitation over farm laws is an opportunity for groups from across the border to try and further a sense of alienation. Handlers are trying to leverage the agitation for their own purposes.”

Asked about these “handlers,” Gupta said: “I would not like to name them but bunch them as pro-ISI groups. Punjab is a border state with a proud culture and tradition. The Punjabi diaspora is also very active and wealthy. So any deep sense of alienation or anguish — real or perceived — is not a good thing for Punjab. And such efforts on part of radical groups have surely increased during this period.”

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