Crackdown on Struggles of the Rural Poor in Punjab

Soon after the Lok Sabha elections, the Akali-BJP Government of Punjab has unleashed an all-out offensive on the rural poor in Punjab, and on the CPI(ML) which was leading their struggles. Since 21 May, over 1300 agricultural labourers and labour leaders, of Mansa, Moga, Sangrur and Bathinda districts, including 511 women and 42 children, were confined in Punjab's jails. As we go to press, virtually all activists and leaders of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha and the CPI(ML) in the state – nearly 40 –  remain in jail. In spite of the fact that many of them got bail, the government contrived to keep them in jail by naming them in ‘open FIRs’ which they had earlier filed against unnamed persons. Jasbir Kaur Nat, a National Council Member of the AIPWA, was among those jailed. 
The arrests have happened in the course of a struggle for homestead plots and NREGA job cards which the SAD-BJP State Government had promised but failed to deliver. The SAD-BJP Government launched this offensive immediately following the Lok Sabha elections, where the results reflected the disenchantment of the rural poor with the government.   
All though the bulk of those arrested were eventually released – after up to a month in jail – a state of undeclared and selective ‘emergency’ continues to be imposed on the CPI(ML) and its mass organisations. Even the most peaceful protests and ordinary political activities is facing a crackdown.
In Punjab, where agriculture is highly mechanised, rural poor often get very few days of employment a month (see excerpts from the report on ‘Status Of Local Agricultural Labour In Punjab’, Ghuman, Singh, and Singh, discussed later in this feature). As a result, the rural poor had pinned their hopes for survival on the extension of NREGA to all rural districts in the country. Consequently, the failure of the administration to provide NREGA job cards to many who had applied became a major issue.
The Akali-BJP Government had moreover reneged on its promise to provide homestead plots (5 marla plots for every rural poor family was initially promised, but Akali leaders had also declared to give 10 marla plots). It was in protest against this denial of basic rights of livelihood and housing, that agricultural labourers of Mansa district, led by the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha and CPI(ML), occupied a portion of panchayat/commons land allotted to be leased to workers. Under the Land Consolidation and Fragmentation Act 1961, one-third of panchayat land is meant for agricultural workers on lease for cultivation – and it was this land that the agricultural workers used to build their hutments, until such a time that the Government would keep its promise to allot house plots.
This movement for land and work began prior to the elections and continued even during the elections. Akali leaders, during elections, came campaigning with promises that post-poll, the land occupied by the labourers would be allotted to them. The Akali-BJP Government waited till the elections were over, to begin an all-out crackdown. The agricultural workers had begun a peaceful dharna on 17 May and held a massive Rally on 19 May, which put enough pressure on local officials to effect an agreement to ensure job cards within one month and house plots to all within three months. The very next day, local upper caste land owners began a road-roko protest demanding eviction of the poor from the panchayat land, and, one cue, on 21 May, labour leaders, including even the General Secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), Comrade Swapan Mukherjee, were all arrested. On 22 May, police indulged in indiscriminate lathicharge, and over 1000 workers including a very large number of women and children were arrested and jailed – from the dharna site, from their homes, and from the office of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha and CPI(ML).     
The ostensible excuse for the arrests was the need to vacate the so-called “illegal occupation” of the panchayat land – but the arrests have continued even after the forcible eviction of the poor from that land, and the demolition of their makeshift homes.
In Punjab, when rich farmers habitually occupy common land, land allotted for waste disposal, etc. the government never lifts a finger against them. It is a shame that the same government, having blatantly broken its promises of housing and livelihood, has unleashed severe repression when poor rural workers are demanding fulfilment of the government’s own promise.
The struggle had taken place in 26 villages of Mansa district and 9 villages of Bhatinda and Sangrur districts of Punjab. The bulk of the agricultural workers are dalits. It may be noted that a protracted struggle has also been on in many of the villages against social boycott and other kinds of humiliation and intimidation of dalit poor labourers by the upper caste landlords in connivance with the administration.

Soon after the spate of arrests, Punjab erupted in protests following the murder of a Sikh spiritual figure, the vice-chief of the Dera Sachkand in Vienna. That conflict too reflected another dimension of the social and economic oppression inflicted on dalit agricultural workers by upper caste rich farmers in daily life, and condoned by ruling political forces, the Akali Dal and Congress alike.