Agitating farmer unions on Sunday remained firm on holding a tractor rally on the Republic Day and vowed to continue their stir till the agri laws are repealed, even as Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar urged them to discuss alternatives to scrapping the legislation at the next meeting scheduled for January 19. "We are prepared to sit in protest till May 2024… Our demand is that the three laws be taken back and the government provide a legal guarantee on the MSP," Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait told reporters in Nagpur.
The statement indicating little change in the unions' stand came ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Monday on the issue of agri bills and ongoing protests on Delhi's borders for over 50 days. The top court would also hear on Monday a plea of the central government, filed though the Delhi Police, seeking an injunction against the proposed tractor march or any other kind of protest by farmers "which seeks to disrupt the gathering and celebrations" of Republic Day on January 26.
Addressing a press conference at the Singhu border protest site, union leader Yogendra Yadav said, "We will carry out a tractor parade on the Outer Ring Road in Delhi on Republic Day. The parade will be very peaceful." "There will be no disruption of the Republic Day parade. The farmers will put up the national flag on their tractors," he said. Stressing that the farmer unions should give up their stubborn stand after the apex court's stay on the laws on January 12, Agriculture Minister Tomar said they should come for a clause by clause discussion on Tuesday.
"Now that the Supreme Court has stayed the implementation of these laws, then there is no question of being stubborn," Tomar told reporters before leaving for his home constituency of Morena in Madhya Pradesh. The government wants farmer leaders to come for a clause by clause discussion at the next meeting on January 19. Except for the demand of repealing the laws, the government is ready to consider "seriously and with an open heart" other alternatives, he said.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah too reached out, saying the Narendra Modi government is dedicated to farmers and the three central farm laws would ensure a manifold hike in their earnings. Since coming to power, the Modi government had increased the budget for the farm sector and also the minimum support price (MSP) for various crops, he said at an event in Bagalkote district in Karnataka.
"I want to say that if there is any big priority of the Narendra Modi government it is to double the farmers' income," he said. The apex is also likely to take up the issue of a member recusing himself from the panel appointed by it to end the impasse between the agitating farmer unions and central government and may appoint another person in his place.
The committee has received the terms of reference and will begin its work from January 21, its member Anil Ghanwat said. "We are meeting on January 19 at the Pusa campus. Only members will meet to decide the future course of action," Ghanwat, President of Shetkari Sanghatana (Maharashtra), told PTI.
"One of the four members has backed out of the committee. If the apex court does not appoint a new member, the existing members will continue," he said. Bhartiya Kisan Union president Bhupinder Singh Mann had recused himself from the committee last week. Apart from Ghanwat, agri-economists Ashok Gulati and Pramod Kumar Joshi are the other panel members.
On Saturday, farmer union, Bhartiya Kisan Union Lokshakti, filed an affidavit requesting the top court to remove the remaining three members of the committee and select people who can do the job "on the basis of mutual harmony". The farmers' body said the principle of natural justice is going to be violated as those appointed to the four-member committee "have already supported these laws".
It has also sought dismissal of a plea of the central government, filed though the Delhi Police, seeking an injunction against the proposed tractor march on January 26. Addressing a press conference in Nagpur, BKU leader Tikait noted that they had welcomed the SC's stay on the implementation of the farm laws, but said the committee formed by the apex court has members who "supported" the farm bills.
"We do not want to go before the committee formed by the court. The government has also said that the government and farmers will find a solution on this issue," he said. Dismissing allegations that the protest was being fuelled by "rich farmers", Tikait said people from villages and various outfits have joined the agitation.
"This is an ideological revolution that started from Delhi and will not fail. Farmers from villages do not want us to return until the three farm bills are taken back," he said. "The government is adamant on its stance of not withdrawing the bills and this agitation will continue for long," Tikait added.
Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, are protesting at various border points of Delhi against the three laws — the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. Asked about the government holding parallel talks with protesting farmer unions after the setting up of the SC panel, its member Ghanwat said, "We have no issue if a solution is found and the protests end from either (efforts of) our panel or from the government's separate talks with the protesting farmer unions." "Let (Government) them continue the discussion, we have been given a duty and we will focus on that," he added.
So far, the government has held nine rounds of formal talks with 41 farmer unions but has failed to break the logjam as the latter have stuck to their main demand of a complete repeal of the three Acts. In the last meeting, the Centre had suggested that the unions constitute their own informal group to prepare a concrete proposal on the three farm laws for further discussion at their next meeting on January 19 to end the long-running protest at various Delhi borders.
Meanwhile, farmer union leader Darshan Pal Singh alleged that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is filing cases against those who are part of the protest or supporting it. "All farmer unions condemn this," Pal said, referring to the NIA summons reportedly issued to a farmer union leader in a case related to the banned Sikhs For Justice outfit.
Asked about the issue, Tikait said, "Those who want to be part of the agitation must be ready for court cases, imprisonment and sealing of property." He said the farmers had to start the agitation as the opposition parties were weak. The Congress also alleged that the NIA is now being used against farmers and said they will not be cowed down by their notices.
Congress' chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala questioned the government's intention behind sending notices to farmers from agencies meant to probe terrorists. Enacted in September 2020, the government has presented these laws as major farm reforms aimed at increasing farmers' income, but the protesting farmers have raised concerns that these legislation would weaken the minimum support price (MSP) and "mandi" (wholesale market) systems and leave them at the mercy of big corporations.
(With PTI inputs)