The Sunday profile: Raising cane

For nearly a year now, the farmer agitation in Haryana has had the ruling BJP, JJP cornered. Like the recent Karnal protest, the face behind it is Gurnam Singh Chaduni.

THE FARMERS’ agitation in Punjab was a few months old when, acting on a call to take the protest to Delhi, Gurnam Singh Chaduni on November 24, 2020, exhorted protesters to make it to the Capital “at any cost”, “breaking police barricades” if needed. The next day, thousands hit the streets in Haryana, surging through multiple blockades, manned by thousands of policemen.

It was then that the rest of the country took note of the 61-year-old leader of BKU (Chaduni) and member of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), which is spearheading the agitation against three farm laws passed by the Centre. On August 28, it was on Chaduni’s call that protesters tried to make their way to a BJP event in Karnal, attended among others by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. The police crackdown left several farmers injured, the Khattar government on the backfoot, the transfer of Sub-Divisional Magistrate Ayush Sinha, and the reinforcement of the fact that the Chaduni-led agitation in Haryana has kept the state administration on its toes now for nearly a year.

In fact, it’s not Punjab, where the agitation first took root, that is the cause of the BJP’s worry now as much as Haryana. Protests by farmers have for months kept leaders of the ruling BJP and Jannayak Janata Party from own constituencies, and forced them to cancel events. And, like at Karnal, behind most protests are short video messages issued by Chaduni, calling on farmers to hit the streets.

It was in July 2020 that Chaduni led the first big agitation against the farm laws, drawing farmers on almost 10,000 tractors.

On January 10, his message ahead of a Khattar event in Karnal — “Meri binti hai ki iska marodh nikal do (I request you to teach the CM a lesson) — drew so many farmers that, despite the deployment of around 1,500 policemen, and a mild lathicharge, Khattar’s helicopter had to abort landing.

Haryana has been witness to protests by Chaduni on farmer issues for more than a decade now, often deploying techniques like climbing water tanks, standing in the middle of a river for days, or leading a parade of semi-clad farmers. His elder brother Gurdeep Singh says, “Gurnam has sold his land for the movement. He owns just five acres now while he had 14 acres earlier.”

Fellow SKM member Yogendra Yadav calls Chaduni “a pillar of strength”. “Right from the beginning of the current movement, he has played a critical role.”

The BJP and JJP, however, accuse Chaduni of “doing politics”. “He wants to become another Arvind Kejriwal through the agitation,” Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij says. Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Minister J P Dalal says: “Chaduni is functioning on the instructions of the Congress. He is not a farmer leader but an arhtiya.”

Before the protest in Delhi on Republic Day, that saw widespread violence, a farmer leader, Shiv Kumar Kakka, was quoted as accusing Chaduni of taking Rs 10 crore from the Opposition to topple the Haryana government. He had later retracted the statement.

In July this year though, Chaduni himself called upon farmer leaders to contest the coming Punjab elections. The SKM, chary of any political association that could discredit the movement, suspended him for a week.

The rumours got a fresh wind last month when an industrialists’ body from Punjab announced a new party, Bhartiya Aarthik Party (BAP), with Chaduni as its chief ministerial face. While claiming he was “neither a CM face nor would contest polls in Punjab”, Chaduni said, “I stand by my ideology that farmers and mazdoors (labourers) should contest polls.” The current system was run by looteri companies (thieves), he said. “If a gang of thieves gives tickets to contest elections, then you have to obey their rules.”

On his call to break police nakas in November 2020, Chaduni tells The Sunday Express, “There is no law to shoot protesters, and we were ready to face the lathis of police. If they used lathis, it would bring awareness across the country, our agitation would become successful. Take the example of the lathicharge on farmers in Karnal recently.”

The Haryana Police has booked Chaduni under attempt to murder charges in connection with the agitation. “I am sure about 42 FIRs against me,” Chaduni says.

Criticising the farm laws as aimed at helping corporates, Chaduni says it is a do-or-die battle for farmers. “First, agriculture will be turned into a business of loss. Then, it would be easier to grab farmers’ land. Farmers and agriculture labourers will become beggars.”

Chaduni’s first farmer protest was in 1992, against the hike in electricity tariff for tubewells. In the three decades since, he says, the current protest is the longest he has been a part of. “I have lost 9 kg in two years.”

With the Centre standing firm on not repealing the farm laws, Chaduni says he is not sure their agitation would achieve this, but believes the farmers now see the protest as an “integral part” of their lives. “This agitation will ruin the BJP… it is indicative of a change.”

One of seven siblings, Chaduni took to farming after failing to clear Class 10. Of his two sons, one is unemployed, while the other rears dogs for a living.

On the charge that his goal is politics, the BKU leader says: “I did not come to the agitation for this or to benefit from it, but there is a need for change in politics. Remember the CM for a day in the film Nayak? The country wants such change as brought by him.”

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