Rakesh Tikait - a key figure in the 2020/21 protests against the government's "black farm laws" - has backed the second 'Delhi Chalo' agitation, which began Tuesday with tear gas being fired at Shambhu on the Punjab-Haryana border, triggering clashes between farmers and police forces.
Mr Tikait issued an ominous warning to the ruling BJP - scrambling to contain protests that have erupted weeks before a general election - "if government creates a problem for these farmers..."
"There are several farmer unions and they have different issues... If the government creates a problem for farmers marching to Delhi, we are not far from them. We are in support of them..."
Mr Tikait is head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, an Uttar Pradesh-based organisation founded by former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. Mr Singh this month was awarded a posthumous Bharat Ratna, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailing his "dedication to (the nation's) farmers".
The BKU is one of the larger farmer federations in the country and, should it join the agitation that began this afternoon, the scale of the problem facing the centre will increase quite dramatically.
Mr Tikait's brother, Naresh Tikait, who is National President of the BKU, has urged the government to sit down and hold talks with the farmers. "Protests are underway across the country...government should hold discussions (but) give respect to the farmers... should think and try to solve this issue."
Last month Rakesh Tikait called for a 'Bharat Bandh' on February 16 to press farmers' demands.
And, in June last year, Mr Tikait had threatened a bigger agitation than those against the now-repealed farm laws, if the demand for a legal guarantee on minimum support prices was not addressed.
READ | On MSP, Union Leader Threatens Agitation Bigger Than Farm Laws
"An agitation bigger than the one in Delhi (farmers' agitation against now repealed farm laws) will have to be undertaken for MSP," he said in Haryana's Karnal.
The farmers' 'Delhi Chalo' 2.0 kicked off today with a pitched battle at the Shambhu border crossing.
READ | Farmers Try To Cross Barricades At Punjab-Haryana Border, Tear Gas Fired
The shelling - the first signs of violence - broke as the clock struck noon and the farmers began their push to Delhi. An estimated two dozen shells were fired, despite no immediate signs of provocation.
READ | "6 Months' Ration, Diesel In Trollies": Punjab Farmers Ready For Long Haul
Foremost among the demands of the protesting farmers is enactment of a law guaranteeing MSP, or minimum support price, for crops, which is a crucial financial lifeline for farmers facing market uncertainties. A legal backing for MSP was among the demands in protests four years ago as well.
READ | What Are The Key Demands Of Farmers That Remain Unresolved?
Other key demands are repeal of the Electricity Act of 2020, compensation for farmers killed in UP's Lakhimpur Kheri, and withdrawal of police cases against those involved in the last protest.
Two union ministers, including junior Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda, met farmer leaders late Monday to discuss these and other demands. Some progress was made - an agreement was struck on repealing the Electricity Act and on compensation for farmers killed in Lakhimpur Kheri.
However, there was no resolution of the farmers' primary concerns - a law to guarantee MSP, or minimum support price for all crops, loan waivers, and implementation of the Swaminathan Commission's recommendations - meaning the second "Delhi Chalo" protest began as scheduled.
Mr Tikait has emphasised that these concerns - MSP and implementation of the Swaminathan Commission's recommendations - are "the issues of farmers across the country".
READ | Ready To Negotiate, But Some Don't Want Solution: Minister To NDTV
Mr Munda spoke to NDTV this morning, and said the government is ready to negotiate with the farmers but accused "unruly elements" - seen as a dig at the opposition - of hijacking the agitation.
With input from agencies
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