THE brutal events of May 5, 2017 will probably change the course of politics in Madhya Pradesh. Five, mostly young, agitating farmers died on the spot of bullet wounds in Pipilyamandi town of Mandsaur district. One more succumbed to his injuries later on. This act of unparalleled brutality – all those who died had been shot above their waists, a 17 year old was shot in the head in the police station – created shock waves across the state.
Mandsaur and the neighbouring district of Neemuch are traditional strongholds of the RSS-BJP. Two RSS chief ministers, Saklecha and Patwa, belonged to this area. At present, of 28 MLAs in the region, 27 belong to the BJP. This, naturally, has poured fuel on anger and outrage against the brutal killings.
Mandsaur and Neemuch are fertile districts where industrious farmers grow garlic, onions, pulses, opium and other crops. In the last two years they have been hard-hit by the drought and resulting poor crops. They also suffered from demonetisation. Wholesalers offer to pay them by cheque in the mandis. When the farmers insist on cash payments they demand a ‘concession’ of at least 20 per cent. Since the government has given up the practice of procurement, the farmers have no choice but to accept the wholesalers’ conditions. They did not get any relief from crop insurance either. While those who took insurance paid their premiums, governments did not pay their share. As a result, the farmers got cheques for as little as Rs 2 and none of them received any amount even equivalent to the premium they had paid.
This year, there were bumper crops but because of lack of government procurement, the prices crashed. Protesting farmers, demanding implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations on prices for their crops and also loan waivers, gathered on highways and started throwing what they had grown and also milk on the roads. Then, on May 5, the firing occurred. The blood that was spilt can still be seen on the sides of the highway near Pipalyamandi.
The CM, Shivraj Singh, now known as ‘Shav(corpse)raj Singh’ responded in a completely heartless fashion. He insisted that those who were protesting were not farmers since many of them were wearing jeans. He then went on to say that the firing was done by the protestors themselves. Naturally, an uproar ensued. Opposition parties, farmers’ organisations and others condemned the government and Badal Saroj, CPI(M) state secretary, in a hard hitting statement demanded payment of Rs One crore to the families of those who had died. Somehow, this demand gained tremendous traction.
Shivraj Singh’s next response was farcical. He set up an air-conditioned pandal in Bhopal in which luxurious sofas and a bed were installed, all at a cost of more than one crore, and went on a hunger-strike to be withdrawn only when the farmers asked him to do so! The bereaved families were brought to the pandal by the administration. The CM promised them Rs One crore compensation each. He also promised government procurement of crops and, perhaps, a loan waiver. He then declared that bowing to popular sentiment, he was withdrawing his hunger-strike.
One month later, on June 5, representatives of dozens of Kisan and democratic organisations started a march from Budha village to Pipaliyamandi to pay homage to the martyrs. Hannan Mollah, Jaswinder and Badal Saroj general secretary of AIKS and state AIKS leaders, respectively, were prominent participants. Kisan Sabha comrades from Rajasthan were also present as were CITU and AIKS leaders from Neemuch and Mandsaur. Leaders from other organisations included Medha Patkar, Yogendra Yadav, Raju Shetty (MP from Maharashtra). One of the main organisers, Sunilam, had been arrested the previous day.
MP police were present in hundreds in the area. They stopped people from neighbouring villages from joining the march. Despite this, thousands of villagers, including a very large number of women and young people, joined the march. Along the way, villagers came out welcoming the march. The anger of the people was palpable. Shivraj Singh had done nothing but break his promises. Garlic that had sold for Rs 6000 a quintal last year and which he had promised would be procured for Rs 2,000 was selling for less than Rs1,000. He had promised to buy onions at Rs 8 a kilo but they were being sold at Rs 2. Even worse, repressive measures were being resorted to. Nearly 100 farmers had been arrested the previous day. In a bizarre move, the young man who had died after the May 5 firing was now declared to be an opium smuggler with a price on his head! A list of ‘opium smugglers’ was released in which several protestors were included. It is obvious that the government intends to crush the movement with arrests. We were told during the march that two young men had been taken from their village home the previous evening and were brutally beaten by the police.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the entry of the march into Pipalayamandi was banned by the state government. 5-6 kilometers beyond Budha, the police had set up barricades on the road and were present in very large numbers. They did not allow the march to proceed beyond this point. All the marchers squatted on the road and were addressed by several leaders. After this, they were arrested and sent to a mandi, 20 kilometers away. Sunilam was later released and brought to the mandi. After this, the police ‘released’ all those arrested.
The situation in Mandsaur is grave. There is no political opposition to speak of to the ruling BJP and the farmers have no organisation. It is this situation that the government wants to take advantage of to crush the movement. They have not, however, been able to recognise the despair of the farmers and the anger and outrage that they are experiencing. MP state Kisan Sabha has decided to work in a consistent way in the area. The CPI(M) state committee has also mobilised Left and regional political parties and democratic organisations in solidarity with the farmers’ struggle. Efforts to crush it are bound to fail.