This is My Land!

NEW DELHI: Land has placed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party into the farmer’s melting pot with unprecedented opposition building up across the country.

Protests, barely covered in the media, are being held across India against the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill 2015 on a scale not seen for decades. Farmers organisations, unions, and political parties are joining in demonstrations that have the potential of merging into a mass uprising against a legislation perceived to be taking away land for big business.

The Opposition anger visible through the budget session of Parliament is being reflected on the streets with the Modi government’s allies like the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena being compelled to attack the Bill. Land is too an emotive issue and farmers too big a constituency cutting across castes and communities, for the political parties to ignore and survive.

PM Modi has brought in nine amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill that the opposition has rejected. He remains determined not to yield, for fear of weakening the government’s authority both in and outside Parliament, besides alienating the corporate class. The Prime Minister thus, through skilful maneuvering by Opposition, has been driven into a corner from which he has no real escape. If he gives in to the Opposition and withdraws the Bill he will weaken the authority of the government and alienate the corporate class that is looking at this Bill as an indication of the government’s seriousness to tackle key economic issues. If he does not yield the farmers will be out on the streets against him and the BJP, in what can be a new movement to overtake India.

The BJP has been virtually isolated on the Land issue, and is finding it difficult to get support from even its allies who are not being able to swim against the powerful tide unleashed by the Land Acquisition Bill. Short shift was given by the so called national media to the thousands of farmers who camped on Delhi roads for several days under the powerful west Uttar Pradesh organisation, the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The anger was palpable, based on the spiralling perception that the government wanted to take the farmers land for the businessman. The argument that the land would be used for schools and hospitals for the farmers and their families was rejected by many in the crowd as hogwash. “When has this been done that it will be done now,” said an astute old man from the Meerut district.

BKU retreated, reserving the right to swarm the capital’s streets again, after a delegation submitted a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee urging him not to give his assent to any ordinance or legislation on land acquisition. “Sir, you have already cautioned the government on the ordinance route being adopted in January 2015 itself. We urge you not to sign on any ordinance related to land acquisition now since this is the first time the nation is debating this issue intensely both inside and outside Parliament, and there cannot be unhealthy shortcuts taken by the government to such democratic process,” the memorandum said.

This demonstration followed the Anna Hazare meet with hundreds of farmers in attendance there as well. In a subsequent exchange of letters Hazare urged opposition leaders to take on the issue, and not give in to the government in or outside Parliament.

Farmers across India are agitated and pouring out on the streets to register their protest in what is expected to escalate into paralysing protests against the BJP and the central government. The BJP has directed its cadres to move into the districts to explain the provisions of the Bill, but the perception that has spread like wildfire that the legislation seeks to acquire the farmers land without their consent is not likely to be dented.

More so because all other political parties and organisations are on an offensive, across the states, that has in effect isolated the BJP and cut into its campaigning power. In Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar sat on fast against the bill with similar dharnas being held by Janata Dal(U) workers across Bihar. The campaign was intense and loud: save your land from the BJP. As Kumar said hitting out at the PM, “by rushing through the new Land Acquisition law, he is paying back corporate houses that supported him in the Parliamentary elections.”

In Tamil Nadu the ruling party AIADMK’s silence was more than effectively countered by the DMK as it held demonstrations across the state on the issue. Thousands of workers led by local leaders marched in protest against the Bill, warning the farmers that this legislation was intended to violate their rights by taking away their land.

In Punjab, Aam Aadmi Party is amongst the first to campaign on this issue in In fact the Akali Dal too has formally opposed the legislation despite being an ally of the BJP at the centre. Its leaders have made it clear that they oppose the Bill and the campaign by other parties that they are supporting the BJP’s Land Acquisition Bill is completely false. AAP started the campaign at a Kisan Mela in Ludhiana and castigated both the BJP and the Akali Dal government in Punjab for working against the interests of the farmers. This propaganda is hurting the Akali Dal in the largely agrarian state, and in the coming weeks its opposition to the Bill is expected to get more strident and shrill.

More so as the agitation against the Bill is already gathering momentum in Punjab. Three major organisations, Pendu Mazdoor Union, Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Committee, and Kirti Kisan Union also organised a demonstration with hundreds of farmers marching towards Chandigarh to lay siege. This time around the protest was foiled before the farmers could reach the capital but as the organisers said, they decided to comply with the police barricades and have reserved their right to intensify the agitation if the bill is not withdrawn. In all these protests local issues concerning farmers have also been added to the list of demands, thereby increasing the support base.

In yet another very significant move, over 30 organisations have come together just recently in Orissa to oppose the Land Acquisition Bill. This includes farmer associations, labour union and the Left Parties that have decided to work together in mobilising the people against the Bill under the banner Campaign against Land Acquisition (CLA) against the contentious Bill. A massive demonstration is being planned for April 10 in Bhubaneshwar.

The BJP government’s contention that several major projects for the development and progress of the country and its people had been stalled because of the Opposition’s refusal to clear the Bill is being countered rather effectively on the ground. The Opposition has made it clear that only seven per cent of central projects have been stalled, with the rest not receiving clearances for reasons that had nothing to do with Land Acquisition.

In Maharashtra, NDA ally Shiv Sena has launched a no holds barred campaign against the BJP on the land issue. Cutting editorials have appeared in its mouthpiece Saamna leading to speculation in political circles of a short lived BJP-Shiv Sena coalition in the state. In fact the Nationalist Congress Party has started talking of early Assembly elections, with leader Sharad Pawar also now having to oppose the Bill. Farmers suicides have increased in Maharashtra, as latest reports suggest, and will no doubt feed into the protests for land. Land reforms of course remain a big issue and are being added on to the list of demands in several states.

The BJP will be starting a counter campaign but in an environment where farmers see themselves as deprived and discriminated against, the Bill has come as what the Opposition recognises as a major rallying issue across the country. BJP leaders are worried, and while murmurs questioning PM Modi can be heard no one is willing to bell the cat and speak out openly as it were. The Congress party sensing revival has also launched an agitation with Congress president Sonia Gandhi leading the first phase.

Meanwhile the Land Acquisition Bill will not be passed by the determined Rajya Sabha with the government now wondering on a strategy to renew the Ordinance that expires on April 5. Ordinances cannot be passed while Parliament is meeting, and the only way out is for the government to move for the Rajya Sabha to be prorogued, and then re-promulgated later as a ‘new’ session. Again a sign of commitment that might please the corporate classes, but will certainly fuel the farmers protests.