Failing to make any headway in talks with farmer unions demanding the repeal of the new agriculture laws, the Centre suggested Friday that the unions constitute their own informal group which could list expectations and make a proposal that could be discussed.
The unions, spearheading the protests at the gates of Delhi since November 26, said there was no point in forming an informal group when even now, only a few among them speak on behalf of the farmers during the talks.
Leaders of the unions said they told the ministers — Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, Food Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Som Prakash — that “we are farmers, not your political rivals”.
The unions also objected to the filing of FIRs against farmers participating in the protests, Income Tax raids on arhtiyas (commission agents) backing the farmers, and NIA notices to three transporters sending buses to Delhi and a journalist.
During the meeting, Tomar asked the unions if they would end the agitation if the government were to firm up a discussion on an Act guaranteeing MSP. To this, the unions said they would continue to protest until the three farm laws are repealed.
Emerging from the meeting, Tomar told reporters that “the discussion could not reach a decisive turn” and the two sides had decided to meet again at noon on January 19.
“I am hopeful that the unions will make efforts to take forward today’s discussion. We even told them that if they so wish, they can form their own informal group, of those who can discuss laws properly, their expectations of the government, what is in the laws that is against the farmers. If they discuss and make a proposal, then the government is ready to discuss it with an open mind,” he said.
The government’s suggestion that the unions constitute an informal group to list grievances comes after the unions rejected a four-member expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court, saying the members were in favour of the farm laws.
The committee has been tasked to speak to the unions and the government and submit a report in two months.
On Thursday, Bhupinder Singh Mann, president of BKU (Mann) and chairman of All India Kisan Coordination Committee, recused himself from the court-appointed panel and said “I will always stand with my farmers and Punjab”. He opted out hours before the committee was to hold its first virtual meeting.
Defending the government’s approach to the negotiations, Tomar told reporters that “the government, during several rounds of discussion with farmer unions, identified many of their apprehensions, and agreed to dispel these apprehensions. Unions were also sent a written proposal on behalf of the government. But that proposal was not acceptable to them and, therefore, the dialogue is on.”
“It has been our endeavour to find a way out via dialogue so that the farmer movement comes to an end. Farmers are sitting in the cold, there is also the Covid crisis and the government is definitely concerned,” he said.
Asked about the need to have a parallel discussion when a committee has been formed by the Supreme Court, Tomar said: “We are all committed to the Supreme Court and will remain so in future. No one should have any doubt on that. The Government of India welcomes the Supreme Court decision. Whenever the committee… calls the Government of India, we will present our views… Since the farmers were already in talks with the government, and the date fixed, we asked the unions if they wanted to come for the talks, then they should.”
To a query on the Attorney General’s statement that separatists were entering the farmer protests, he said: “As per our information, farmers from two-three states are agitating and sitting on dharna. Some of the farmers, as representatives of these farmers, are negotiating with the government. The government is holding talks with them by considering them as representatives of farmers. We have not thought beyond that.”
Responding to a question on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s remark that the government is out to destroy farmers, Tomar said, “The entire Congress party laughs at Rahul Gandhi’s statements and actions, and makes fun of him. I want to tell him through you that they had promised to undertake these reforms in their 2019 election manifesto. If he does not remember, he can read his manifesto again. If it is there in the manifesto, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi should come before the press and make it clear whether they were lying then or now.”
Shiv Kumar Kakka, president of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh, said: “We raised the issue of Income Tax raids on arhtiyas in Punjab. Cases were filed against 900 Haryana farmers under (IPC section) 307 (attempt to murder). Then, the NIA raids transporters and calls them for interrogation. You are taking vindictive action against those who are helping us. This is not constitutional. He (minister) said we will look into it and see why this is happening.”
“I raised the issue of MSP and asked why does the government escape from a discussion on MSP in every meeting? The demand for repeal of the three Acts is equal to the legal guarantee for MSP,” he said, adding that one of the ministers said there had never been a law on MSP. “I said if there was no law earlier, then shouldn’t a law be enacted?”.
Kulwant Singh, president of Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, said: “We took up the matter of NIA notices to four persons in Punjab. Three are transporters and the fourth a journalist. The ministers told us that they will ask the NIA to have a re-look. We asked them to stop all political programmes of the BJP in favour of the farm laws in Punjab, on the lines of Haryana. They said instructions will be issued to the Punjab BJP unit too.”
“When they suggested that we set up a five-member committee, we opposed it by raising our hands. What is the point of such a committee? Even now, only a few of us speak,” he said.
Abhimanyu Kohar, spokesperson for Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh, said: “We told the ministers that we are farmers, not your political rivals. We have neither contested any election in the past, nor do we plan to do so in future… We asked them why they were targeting individuals when we had nothing personal against them. We said our protest will intensify if they continue such tactics. We will neither step back, nor end the agitation under these pressure tactics. A powerful government should not feel threatened by the masses.”
“The Supreme Court’s stay on the laws means that they must be repealed. Had these laws been so good, the government would not have agreed to make so many amendments within months of passing them in Parliament,” Kohar said.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of BKU (Rajewal), said: “We rejected the proposal to form a 5-member committee. More than 500 farmer unions of the country support this agitation, 42 of them come for the meetings, only 7 speak. What else do they want? We will not form any committee.”
Harmeet Singh Kadian, president of BKU (Kadian), said: “The government told us that the MSP of existing crops (wheat and paddy) will continue, but we asked them to assure the purchase of all 23 crops.”
Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president of BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) said: “I will go with the decision of all protesting unions on such meetings, but my personal opinion is that date after date for meetings are of no importance. It only shows that the government is buying time and wants to tire us. Our focus now is to make the Republic Day tractor parade successful. Increasing pressure will force the government to repeal the laws.”