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Agrarian Uprising in Punjab

22. March 2003

By Harsh Thakor

The agrarian Struggles taking place in Punjab have great political significance. Through the Punjab Agricultural Labourers Union, the Poor peasants and agricultural workers have been organized, while through the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta) the landed and small sections of the rich peasantry have been organized.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Unity) has a long history of leading secular anti-Imperialist peasant struggles. It has been a major base to launch an agrarian revolutionary movement. In Punjab in the green revolution period it was propagated that agriculture was revolutionized as new machinery was imported and loans were awarded to farmers. However only rich farmers benefited from the mechanization and loans. In Punjab today there is an economic crisis as a result of the new economic policy that attacked the peasantry like a sword piercing through a belly of a person. This resulted in numerous suicides. To the landed peasantry the most significant issues were pertaining to the exploitation of the peasantry in terms of adverse trade between agricultural inputs and commodities. The capital and property of the Imperialist as well as the Compradors was responsible for this. Land rent and Usury was also a major issue for the landed peasantry. For the Landless peasantry the major issue was that of bringing feudal exploitation and bonded labour to an end.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta(Unity) had its foundation in the struggle against the Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Lakhowal in regard to their collaborating with the Khalistani communal politics. The B.K.U. (Unity) prevented any political party imposing it´s politics on the mass organisation.It always maintained a secular character and stressed on a democratic method of functioning. Originally, the Bharatiya Kisan Union was founded in 1984.In 1995 the B.K.U. Ekta was formed. The demarcating features of the Union are it´s democratic style of Functioning in contrast to the ruling class autocratic style of Functioning. In 1990 the B.K.U Ekta launched a 50,000 strong blockade of the Punjab governor. With other peasant organizations like the Kirti Kisan Union Punjab it demanded remunerative prices of wheat, bonus on the low paddy prices, opposed increase in bus fares, opposed increase in electricity charges, called for repeal of black laws. In a major gathering in Patiala, it was explained that as a result of the G.A.T.T.,W.T.O, and the New Economic Policies, that the subsidies on inputs were withdrawn, prices of inputs increased and prices of crops increased. On March 2nd 1995 a major state level protest took place in Chandigarh where peasants swarmed like bees in a nest, arriving in trucks. The Police blocked their trucks, arresting several peasants but staging heroic retaliation the peasants resisted fighting to the last tooth. In recent years at Jethuke village in Bhatinda district the Union launched one of the most daring protests in the history of Punjab. Jethuke had been a strong center of the peasant movement, being a center of agitation against the Princely States as well as the movement of surrendering crop shares to the landlords. In the 2nd World war the Jethuke villagers opposed conscription in the Army. In 1999 there was a major protest against bus fares of private bus operators and their illegal action.4 villages joined the agitation. The Villagers first surrounded the private buses. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate (S.D.M.) now conceded to the villagers. The operators were now forced to deposit Rs.1000, per day to the S.D.M.The bus operators were now compelled to show the people the basic rates. However the operators didn´t implement this getting the district transport officer transferred.
The authorities had always resented the B.K.U agitations. Previously the Union had agitated to get electricity transformers replaced. Secondly they agitated forcing the authorities to purchase the peasant´s paddy. The 3rd agitation was surrounding a land mortgage bank. The peasants had been unable to repay the loans as a result of Crop Failure.
As a form of protest the villagers boycotted the buses and decided to start a trolley service After this was carried out the police arrested the trolley and took the occupants to the police station. In Protest the villagers surrounded the police station but later demonstrated in the town blocking the buses, and later occupied the railway tracks. However the authorities disagreed to show the basic rates and calculate the fares accordingly. The Union activists started blocking the roads. The police resorted to lathi charge. Showing great intensity and death defying courage the people resisted the might of the police. Groups of people formed self-defence barricades. Contingents of people were formed consisting of 10 to 50 people. During that time giving no due respect to the law. The police assassinated 2 landless peasants in cold blood Gurmeet Singh and Daspal Singh were picked up on their way home and shot dead in their houses. The police arrested the father of Daspal Singh and beat him They forced him to put his thumbprint on black pages. A Communist Party of India M.P. had found live cartridges in the house of the victims which was proof that the firing had not taken place during the blockade.
The police prevented villagers from attending the cremation ceremony. A religious commemoration ceremony was to be held for the 2 martyred peasants. The revolutionary activists of the Lok Morcha and the Punjab Agricultural workers Union organized secret meetings persuading villagers to attend the commemoration .On the day of the commemoration conference the police blockaded the place heavily. At various checkposts they deployed their forces. The people valiantly resisted like a flame burning in their hearts. They raised slogans like “Martyrs, We will defend your thought, Bombs, Guns cannot defend ordinary people, Don´t look to the government, Organise your own self –defence. Speakers demanded judicial Inquiry into the killing of the peasants, Payment of Rs 5 Lakhs to the victim´s families. Thousands of people thronged in protest like a streams branching into a river. Showing indomitable courage the peasants had reached the venue of the Commemoration ceremony. The peasants simply rose up like a tornado against the iron forces of oppression. Another major issue launched by the Union was against the Commission agent´s Usury. Several peasant suicides took place in Punjab. The agents compelled peasants to take huge loans for purchasing tractors. To pay back loans peasants had to sell their lands for which they had to pay huge sums to moneylenders. Unable to clear their debts the peasants would commit suicide. A Classic example was that of Mithhoo Singh who had taken a loan of Rs 80,000 and commited suicide when he was unable to pay it. Mithoo Singh had been cheated by the nefarious activities of Agent Ashok Kumar who projected his innocence .The peasants compelled the authorites to check his account books which showed how he had cheated Mithoo Singh. It was decided that a gathering of peasants would take place in a particular village to consolidate forces. Peasants pitched tents and also staged a community Kitchen. At a particular Village a huge gathering took place. Subsequently village level rallies were held all over, the state. At Jethuke the villagers were lathi-charged and they encircled the police station in protest. Only after the police assured the villagers that they would release the peasant activists did they let the police party disperse. A call was given by the Union to stage a protest meeting on a police attack on a peasant meeting at a particular venue. On July 22nd a self –defence barricade was formed to combat the offensive of the police. The villagers barricaded the outer openings of several village streets by overturning the trolleys. The Police raided villages. Upto 600 peasants were encircled and stopped from entering the venue. The Union leaders persuade the villagers to counter the police encirclement and strive to reach the venue. Now a major clash took place 22 houses were entered and villagers dragged out.118 peasants were arrested. On August 1st the Union called for a protest against the Police attack.4,000 peasants tried to reach the venue but 3,000 succeeded in coming near the venue. In Bhatinda a rally was organized and traffic was jammed for hours in retaliation. On August 14th 2 protest marches were launched where 70 vehicles carrying about 1700 to 2000 peasants toured several villages. Villagers greeted the marchers. A revolutionary voice echoed in the hearts of all the local villagers. Similarly a massive protest took place at Chandigarh. The Speakers explained the causes of debt and it´s relation to the New Economic Policy and the globalization policies.
One mot-heartening incident was that of a peasant in the village of who was compelled to sell a piece of land to the moneylender commission agent. The peasant now refused to pay the rent as well as hand over the land to the commission agent. The Commissioning agent retaliated entering the village at night along with a harvester combine 2 tractors and a gang of gun wielding hired goons. Peasants heroically counter attacked with sticks and traditional weapons. Observing the outrage of the villagers the police registered a case against the Commission agent.
The significance of the struggle policy of the B.K.U was the struggles they launched on issues where imperialism affects the people. The best examples apart from the struggles already described were the peasant struggles that were led against winding up the procurement and rationing system. Another significant struggle was that of ensuring paddy procurement. Train traffic was blocked at various places. In Bhatinda district a major blockade took place. After militant mass actions the state ultimately conceded to the peasants demands.
Similarly the Punjab Agricultural workers Union(P.A.L.U) launched anti-feudal struggles of the landless peasants and agricultural workers. Since it´s foundation in 1993 it launched a series of heroic struggles. An agricultural labourer lives the life of a wretched beast. He is denied his weekly or any holiday throughout the year. When he takes leave for any death in the family or a marriage he is charged much more than the average wage being paid to him. At work he virtually works round the clock. In Agricultural Operations, he has to do all sorts of household chores, for the master. In Peak work seasons, he has to forget rest and sleep for days together due to rush of work. This forced sleeplessness results in accidents leading to amputation of limbs and serious injuries. The landowner is not required to pay for their treatment or missed days. No compensation is paid during disability or death. His average wage is much below the stipulated minumum wage. The rising prices of day to day items forced the agricultural labourer community to slash their consumption.
3 types of issues were predominantly taken up.
The first one was opposing casteist arrogance and misbehaviour with women. The 2nd one was for increase in and proper distribution for social welfare and other advances like grants, community centers. The third relates to propaganda and agitational issues like distribution of land, residential plots and improvement in working conditions. The 4th and last related to political mobilization on issues. The most significant struggle led by the Agricultural labour Union was at Village Balahar Vinju.The village backward class elements had been cultivating the fields containing 18 acres for a considerable period. The Village head, in connivance with a Congress minister stage a conspiracy to usurp this land at throw-away prices through governmental auctioning of this land. Through a continuous protracted struggle the villagers resisted
evictions. The peasants heroically resisted the police repression in addition to that of goondas. Although the authorities succeeded in auctioning the land in a closed-door auction under the vigilance of heavy police escort, they failed to evict the villagers and seize the disputed land.
This struggle had important phases At first when the government had decided to auction the land the peasants held a series of meetings, rallies and demonstrations. The Harijan community as well as large sections of the middle peasants signed an appeal persuading the authorities for leasing the concerned land, only to the agricultural labourers. A deputation of 250-300 men, women and children under the leadership of the Union met several authorities with regards to their cause. The mood of the village peasants was so militant that the village head when coming for the auction had to call of the auction to declare that the land would be sold to the Agricultural labour. This irritated the Congress leaders who retaliated by calling an auction and calling for a seizure of the agricultural labourers land. The peasants under the Union fought a do or die battle. They went to the field sand staged their flag. Now religious ruling class parties used the issue to win votes. These included the Bahujan Samaj Party.The Union activists effectively refuted religious forces. The Union explained how through reciting religious scriptures opportunist political forces can divert the struggle.
With great determination the Union activists resisted the police forces they surrounded jeeps250 people surrounded the police station demanding the release of an arrested worker. The protest was so militant that the police had to release the arrested worker.
The Police counter retaliated raiding houses of many activists. On August 4th a public conference was to be held which the police tried to prevent the Peasant´s Union from Staging a conference. They arrested electricity workers Etc.However after a determined protest of 225 people in Bhatinda district the arrested workers were released.
August 13th was the day of the next auction. The Congress leaders tried to trick the peasants by stating that the auction would be cancelled and land distributed among the labourers.The leaders of the peasant Union explained the workers what the Congress leaders were upto.The Congress leaders spread the word that Gullzar Singh ,a Congress Minister would cancel rthe auction and distribute the land. The Union told the peasants to cancel the rally if they were awarded the land. The Congress leaders in an embarrassing position had to cancel the land.
After that Tarsem, a prominent Union leader was arrested. The peasants through militant demonstrations attempted to secure his release. The agricultural workers from a totally unorganized force now were a militant surging contingent. From a submissive and hopeless position there force was like a spear piercing through the ruling class forces. A militant spirit reverberated in their hearts. A statement of a villager, “So small a village has kept the police of the whole district on the toes for months, that is not a small achievement,” testified this..
In Doaba reion of Punjab the P.A.L.U.after a determined struggle succeeded in getting residential p[lots .In Muktsar district, the repeated attempts of an influential wealthy family in evicting a number of labouring families from a piece of land was foiled. A similar occurrence took place in Jalandhar district where an Akali leader´s attempt to grab villagers land was foiled.
An example of heroic anti –feudal resistance led by the P.A.L.U was in Ferozepur district where 2 agricultural labourers were tortured to death by a cruel landlord. The landlord spent lakhs of rupees in bribing the police and the media. The Union carried out massive processions, blockading of police stations, holding up traffics, surrounding district courts Etc.At every stage the Union had to battle it out with the police and civil authorities.
The last significant form of struggle the Punjab Agricultural Workers Union waged was against medieval service conditions of farm labour. Peasants in Punjab often die of pesticide poisoning. The Landlords refuse to pay for the peasants illnesses .In one example of the death of a contract labourer in Bhagtuana village the landlord not only refused to pay the treatment expenses, but also pressurized the labourer´s family in paying the dues. He even threatened to confiscate the labourer´s cattle. The Union challenged this. Through militant struggle the peasants prevented the landlord from gaining a single penny. In Various districts in Punjab the Punajab Agricultural Workers UnionUnion has carried out alternative flood relief. The so-called social welfare schemes were exposed. Numerous cases concerning yellow cards, house grants and flood relief were settled. Corruption of authorities was exposed.
Lastly the Union played a great role in the election campaigns in exposing the nefarious ruling class politics. The Union explained the anti people policies of the state and how the people were enslaved through Imperialist policies like globalisation. Rural labouring sections rose up like a tornado in the “Long Live the Revolution Rally!” The Union played a great role in enhancing their political consciousness.
Through the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the Punjab Agricultural Workers Union a huge platform is being set for a major peasant revolt. One is reminded of the saying that a single Spark can create a Priarie fire.Under the leadership of revolutionary Organisations the Punjab peasantry have lit a torch in revolutionary democratic Struggle. All democratic forces must offer solidarity to them.