Chandigarh: It was an easy bet for Congress leader and former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who hails from a farming family, to express support for the ongoing farmers’ agitation. But there was some dilemma involved for the other two major Jat political dynasties from Haryana.
While Dushyant Chautala of the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) is an ally of the BJP, Chaudhry Birender Singh is a member of the ruling party.
On his part, Dushyant has sought to strike a balance between the legacy of his great-grandfather Devi Lal, a farmer-politician who served two two-year stints as Haryana Chief Minister in the 1970s and 1980s, and his loyalty to the NDA.
Breaking his silence on the issue on 10 December, he said there was no logic continuing the agitation when the government has offered a written assurance on MSP — one of the major farmer grievances. However, he added that he is a farmer first and will be the first to resign if he fails to assure MSP to tillers.
Chaudhry Birender Singh, 74, meanwhile, was quiet until 18 December. But when he finally joined the agitation, he made it clear that he prized the memory of his grandfather — the renowned farmer-politician Chhotu Ram — above party politics.
This, even as his son Brijendra, the BJP MP from Hisar, finds himself at the receiving end of the farmers’ ire.
The farmers are, after all, protesting to preserve the legacy of Chhotu Ram, a pre-Independence-era minister in the government of the erstwhile united Punjab.
‘Owe political career to grandfather’
Chhotu Ram, who was knighted by India’s erstwhile British rulers, had in the late 1930s ushered in a host of agricultural reforms, one of which was the creation of mandis in then-united Punjab to regulate the sale and purchase of agricultural produce.
As revenue minister in the Unionist Party’s provincial government in undivided Punjab, Chhotu Ram got the Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act (popularly called the Mandi Act) passed in 1939.
Among the major grievances of the farmers protesting against the farm laws is that the reforms will lead to the end of the mandi system.
Chhotu Ram’s name is still remembered across Punjab and Haryana, and Birender Singh, a former Congressmen who is now a senior BJP leader, credits his political career to his grandfather.
“It is because I am the grandson of Sir Chhotu Ram that I have achieved this much in politics,” he told the media Friday as he joined a group of farmers sitting on hunger strike in Rohtak.
Since Friday, Birender Singh has been touring Haryana in support of the farmers under the banner of Chhotu Ram Vichar Manch (CRVM).
A member of the national executive of the BJP, Birender Singh said his support for the agitation cannot be termed an “anti-party activity”. “When 62 per cent of the country’s electorate is farmers, no party can ever say that supporting them is doing something anti-party,” he added.
“My moral stance has been that even though I belong to a party that brought in these legislations, the peasantry has not found them beneficial. They believe that this will lead to their lands being taken away from them,” he said.
According to Birender Singh, a solution to the stalemate surrounding the farm laws will only come through talks. “But before that, there is a need to restore trust. There is a distinct loss of trust because of which the farmers are refusing to accept anything but a repeal of the three Acts,” he added.
A celebrated reformer
A trained lawyer, Chhotu Ram joined the Congress in 1916 and served as president of the Rohtak District Congress Committee till 1920. He also launched an Urdu weekly called Jat Gazette.
In 1935, he co-founded the Unionist Party (earlier called the Zamindaran party), which won the 1937 provincial elections in undivided Punjab. He was knighted by the British the same year.
As revenue minister, he got over a dozen laws passed. Apart from regulating sale and purchase of agricultural produce through mandis, the legislations brought in by him spelt relief for farmers reeling under money lenders’ debt, among other things.
Often referred to as “Deenbandhu”, he is also credited with giving approval for the construction of the Bhakra dam days before he died in 1945.
In October 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 64-foot-tall statue of Chhotu Ram at his native village Garhi Sampla in Rohtak.
From Congress to BJP
Birender is the son of Chhotu Ram’s daughter Bagwani Devi.
He was a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman for over 40 years before he joined the BJP ahead of the Haryana assembly elections in 2014.
He was a Rajya Sabha MP when he rebelled against the leadership of the then Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
After he joined the BJP, Birender received a ministerial berth in the first Modi cabinet, while his wife Prem Lata was given an assembly ticket from Uchana, where she won.
In July 2016, Birender Singh was removed from three “people’s ministries” — rural development, Panchayati Raj, and drinking water and sanitation — and made the minister of steel. In January this year, he resigned as Rajya Sabha member after his son Brijendra Singh became an MP. His membership was due to end in August 2022.
He did so because, while demanding a ticket for his son, he had promised the BJP that he would quit Parliament if Brijendra wins, in deference to the party rule that no two members of the same family should be in Parliament at the same time.
Demand for MP son’s resignation
Birender Singh’s support for the agitation comes amid growing calls from Haryana farmers for the resignation of his son Brijendra, a BJP MP from Hisar and a former IAS officer of the Haryana cadre.
When asked about the demand that his son should resign, Birender Singh said, “Will the problem be solved if he resigns? In any case, it is his decision to resign or not. Brijendra’s resignation is only being sought because he is my son, which is unfair.
“Why don’t some Congressmen resign in support of the farmers?”
Brijendra, a 1998-batch officer whose stint was marked by postings as deputy commissioner in Faridabad, Panchkula and Chandigarh, sought voluntary retirement ahead of last year’s parliamentary polls. He defeated Dushyant Chautala of the JJP in Hisar.
Dushyant went on to win the Hisar assembly seat and is now the deputy Chief Minister of Haryana.
On his part, Brijendra Singh has defended the three laws, even as he emphasises dialogue as the only way forward.
Speaking to ThePrint, he said the reforms the three Acts will bring had been under consideration for almost two decades. “Everybody agrees that agriculture is in distress and something needs to be done. Farming is no longer remunerative,” he added.
“I agree that maybe a round of discussions before these were passed in Parliament would have helped. The solution to the current stalemate lies in talks. Because this position that it is either my way or the highway is not step towards resolution.”