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AAP brings Sikh farmers from Gujarat to expose Modi-Badal claims in Punjab

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 22 October 2016, 11:16 IST

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab is getting ammunition from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat to infuse strength into its poll campaign in Punjab.

AAP has brought some of the Sikh farmers from Kutch to 'expose' claims of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government of being pro-farmer. These farmers are embroiled in a legal tangle with the BJP government in Gujarat, because the latter is allegedly attempting to evict them from their lands.

The farmers have taken part in the first round of campaign in the Mohali constituency, from where their lawyer, Himmat Singh Shergil, is contesting. They have gone back for the time being to take care of their cotton harvest, and would return to travel to other constituencies once the model code of conduct comes into force.

"It is our moral duty to work for a person like Shergil, who is contesting our case for free in the Supreme Court. He took up our case when AAP was nowhere in existence in Punjab, and the Modi government in Gujarat was trying every trick to deter us from taking our battle further," said farmer leader SS Bhullar.

How the farmers got to Kutch

The Sikh farmers, as well as those from Haryana and Rajasthan, were invited by former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to settle in the border district of Kutch after the 1965 war with Pakistan. Bhullar says Shastri wanted the farmers from the north to make Kutch agriculturally rich, and also guard the border.

But from 2010 onwards, a freeze was imposed upon their land holdings, with the Gujarat government invoking a populist law passed in 1973 under the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1948. The Act bans the sale of agricultural land in Gujarat to people who are not traditional agriculturists in the state.

The farmers went to the Gujarat High Court, which ruled in their favour. But the Gujarat government, with Modi as Chief Minister, took the matter to the Supreme Court, where it is pending.

The Sikh farmers are agitated over the Gujarat government approaching the Supreme Court against the legitimate land-owning farmers.

There are around 10,000 farmers in Kutch from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. They claim to possess all records of lands purchased by them, along with Kisan Credit Cards and electricity bills that they have been footing.

With their hard work and assistance from erstwhile state governments, they have converted the barren lands of Abdasa and Lakhpat talukas into rich orchards of chikoo and pomegranate. They tend to over 20,000 acres of land in the district.

These farmers ask that if the Gujarat government is against giving land to people from outside, why is it inviting industrialists from outside and providing them land at cheaper rates? They also wonder why this issue was raked up only in 2010, and not before, when they contributed to the development of Kutch, first after the 1965 war, and then after the devastating 2001 earthquake.

Badal's inaction, Modi's defence

The farmers then approached Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to take up the matter with his then-counterpart Modi, but his promises yielded no results. They later approached the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which slammed Gujarat government for its stand. NCM member Dr Ajaib Singh visited Kutch and asked the Gujarat government to honour the High Court verdict in the matter, and withdraw the case filed by it in the Supreme Court.

The issue had turned into a hot potato for Modi, as he was nursing national political ambitions. Civil society groups in the United States had written to the President Barack Obama and senators to continue with the policy of not granting a visa to him.

Trying to wriggle out of the situation, Modi had blamed the Congress regime that was in place in Gujarat in 1973 for bringing in the law.

He had given statements saying the issue had been blown up to malign his government, and mislead the Sikh community. Modi said the issue was sub judice in the Supreme Court. He said the Sikh community had always stayed peacefully in Kutch, and would continue to do so.

"Badal sent an emissary to meet us at Punjab Bhawan in Delhi, and said the Punjab government would pay for any lawyer we would hire, no matter what his fees would be, to take up our case. We said that we wanted to hire Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The proposal was shot down since he is a Congressman. Thereafter, Shergil took up our case for free. The Akalis stooped to the level that we were even denied accommodation in gurudwaras in Delhi," Bhullar told Catch.

The strategy from here on

Bhullar said campaigning for Shergil was the farmers' priority, and this would be followed by visits to other constituencies.

"Our strategy is simple. We will listen to what claims Badal and Modi make about being the well-wishers of the farming community and we will reply to these claims. We will not allow them to mislead the masses," Bhullar said.

He added: "We are going to drive home the point that there's a Prime Minister who had invited us to settle there, and there is also a Prime Minister who wants us dislodged. We are just waiting for the model code of conduct to come into force. We will also be free from our cotton harvest by that time."

For the time being, AAP is carrying out a low intensity campaign among the farmers of the state. Having completed a week-long outreach programme 'Vote jodo jharu nal' (attach vote to the broom, the party's poll symbol), it has now deputed teams to all the grain markets to help the farmers with the procurement of the paddy crop.

GS Kang, president of AAP's Kisan and Labour Wing, alleged that the Badal government had failed to provide adequate arrangements in mandis for farmers and labourers.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 21 October 2016, 19:22 IST