This Day, That Year: Farmers were protesting in 1981 as well, issues were little different


As the farmers’ agitation enters Day 83, we go down the memory lane when Delhi witnessed a similar protest some 40 years ago. On February 17, 1981 lakhs of farmers from Delhi along with farmers from all over the country, mainly from neighbouring states gathered in the national capital. The gathering virtually paralysed normal life in the city.

February 17, 1981 Boat rally

The scene outside Congress (I) Boat Club was unprecedented. The rally was probably the largest assembly witnessed so far in the Capital. Several Delhi roads were closed to traffic. According to Congress (I) General Secretary Kalpanath Rai, the Boat rally had five million participants. The then Police Commissioner of Delhi PS Bhinder put the figure at 2.5 million. According to an unofficial CPWD estimate, the lawns could not accomodate more than eight lakh people.

The protesting farmers came on their own, in buses, in trains and in tractors to participate in a Kisan Rally sponsored by the six-party front comprising Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Lok Dal, Congress (U), Akali Dal and Revolutionary Socialist Party.

BKU’s massive 1988 rally

Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) became one of the most well-known after a rally by the unit in 1988, during which lakhs of farmers laid siege to the Boat Club lawns in the heart of Delhi. They had come with their tractors, prepared for the long haul, as they have now. Among their demands were the waiver of power and water bills and higher price for sugarcane. They left only after some of their demands were met.

Origin of BKU

Bharatiya Kisan Union’s (BKU) origin goes back to Punjab, where it was formed by Chaudhary Charan Singh in May 1972, through the merger of 11 farmers’ organisations. It was originally known as the Punjab Khetibari Zamindari Union and was later renamed Punjab Khetibari Union. The name was once again changed to BKU in 1978 as the organisation spread outside the state.

The western UP chapter of BKU was formed in 1986 by Mahendra Singh Tikait.

Farmers’ protest against three farm laws

As 34 farmer unions are in talks with the Centre, some of the leaders are also ensuring that the protests do not get ‘hijacked’ by any political or social organisation. Farmer unions in Punjab and Haryana said the recent laws enacted at the Centre will dismantle the minimum support price (MSP) system.

Over time big corporate houses will dictate terms and farmers will end up getting less for their crops, they argue. Farmers fear that with the virtual disbanding of the mandi system, they will not get an assured price for their crops and the ‘arthiyas’ – commission agents who also pitch in with loans for them will be out of business.

Demands of protesting farmers

The key demand is the withdrawal of the three Central farm laws which deregulate the sale of their crops. The farmer unions could also settle for a legal assurance that the MSP system will continue, ideally through an amendment to the laws.

They also want the government to withdraw of the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020, fearing it will lead to an end to subsidised electricity. Farmers say rules against stubble burning should also not apply to them.

To break the impasse, the government held eleven rounds of talks with the farmers but is yet to break the ice.


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