On Nov 24 last year, thousands hit the streets in Haryana making their way to the country’s capital against the contentious farm laws. That was when the country took note of Chaduni, the 62-year-old member of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM).
When farmers in Haryana undertook a tractor march – riding over 10,000 tractors – on the call of BKU leader Gurnam Singh Chaduni against the three farm ordinances on July 20, 2020, nobody thought the protest would snowball into something so big that one day the Modi government would have to repeal the three contentious laws. Chaduni, however, had probably sensed that the issue is quite close to the heart of farmers because it pertains to their land which they call “dharti maan”.
“This is a do-or-die battle for us,” Chaduni had declared then, stating that farmers won’t sit idle if the “anti-farmer laws are not repealed”. The man has since mostly remained on the road, mobilising farmers in every corner of Haryana. The agitation, nevertheless, was largely limited to three to four districts around Kurukshetra until September 10 last year, when farmers were lathicharged while on their way to attend a rally organised by the Chaduni-led Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) to raise their voice against the controversial laws. After the lathicharge, the agitation flared up in the state for the first time and drew nationwide attention. Farmers saw the incident as an attempt to “supress” their voice as prohibitory orders under section 144 were clamped to prevent the rally.
On November 24 last year, Gurnam Singh Chaduni exhorted protesters to make their way to the country’s capital “at any cost”, “breaking police barricades” if needed. The next day, thousands hit the streets in Haryana, surging through multiple blockades manned by hordes of policemen.
That was when the rest of the country took note of the now 62-year-old BKU (Chaduni) leader and member of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), which was spearheading the farmers’ agitation. On August 28 this year, it was on Chaduni’s call that protesters tried to make their way to a BJP event in Karnal, attended by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, among others. The police crackdown left several farmers injured and the Khattar government on the backfoot, with unsavoury episodes including the transfer of Sub-Divisional Magistrate Ayush Sinha. It also reinforced the fact that the Chaduni-led agitation in Haryana has kept the state administration on its toes for nearly a year.
Lately, Chaduni has also started to emerge as a notable leader in Punjab. He keeps moving to other parts of the country as well. His courageous stand on several occasions has turned him into a “hero” in many parts of Haryana with farmers even putting up his images on their vehicles with the slogan “sardar-asardar”.
In fact, Punjab – where the agitation first took root – does not worry the BJP now as much as Haryana does. Protests by farmers have for months kept leaders of the ruling BJP and Jannayak Janata Party from visiting their 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.
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 witnessed protests by Chaduni on farmers’ 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 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 fresh impetus 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 said, “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,” he said.
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.”
His first farmer protest was in 1992 against the hike in electricity tariff for tubewells. In the three decades since, he said, the current protest is the longest he has been a part of. “I have lost 9 kg in two years,” he said in September this year.
With the Centre standing firm on not repealing the farm laws for nearly one year, Chaduni used to say “I am not sure our agitation would achieve this, but I believe the farmers now see the protest as an “integral part” of their lives”. He had stated: “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 X. 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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