Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab show rare unity in protest over wheat

It was an ominous, yet extraordinary, spectacle in the Punjabi grain markets at the beginning of the month. For seven days, not a grain of wheat moved from the fields to the markets or public distribution points. It showed a rare unanimity between Hindu and Sikh.

As violence continues unabated in India's beleaguered Punjab, the state's 9.3 million farmers have made an ominous warning to the central government: If it will not negotiate higher wheat prices by June 10, they may seal the state's borders, preventing this year's bumper wheat harvest from reaching government stocks.

Without this wheat, India's precarious public food distribution system could collapse.

Sixty percent of the government's critical wheat stockpiles come from the lush Punjab, home of the ''green revolution,'' the single most stunning accomplishment of India's independent years.

The Punjab is the breadbasket of India, and has made the country nearly self-sufficient in the production of food.

The prosperous Punjabi ''Jat'' farmers - 70 percent of them Sikh and the rest Hindu - stood together to show the government how serious they were. Buyers from the Food Corporation of India played cards and gitti - an Indian version of jacks - or dozed under languid ceiling fans in the deserted auction houses. On the eighth day, the wheat began rolling in again.

''The strike was symbolic,'' said Jat farmer and Secretary of the Bharti Kisan Union, Balbir Singh Rajewal. ''We never intended it to last for more than seven days. The farmers couldn't afford it. It was meant as a show of strength.

''For three years the government has refused to negotiate higher wheat prices. For three years we have increasingly lost money from sowing all of our acreage with wheat. We have been held hostage to feed the rest of India. We are determined that this will change.''

The farmers are demanding that the government procurement price of $15.20 per quintal - one-tenth of a metric ton - be raised to $17.60. They also want cheaper inputs, lower rates for electricity, and a lower tariff.

In the Khanna Market, the largest granary in Asia - which auctions 10,000 tons a day during the month-long wheat harvest - one comes face to face with the reality of the Punjab's importance.

The Punjabi harvest is expected to yield 9.5 million metric tons of wheat this year, 5.5 million of which will go to government stocks.

Confidence thus flows freely in Khanna, spawning militancy. Farmers have refused to repay $1.1 billion in outstanding government loans. They have ''arrested'' at least five ''corrupt'' local government officials and held them in ''farmers' jails.'' They say they will cut wheat-sowing by 25 percent if, by the beginning of the November sowing season, their demands are not met.

It is believed to be the largest show of farmers' force since India gained independent in 1947 - and the first time, union officials say, that any organization has been able to mobilize the entire farming community of any Indian state.

''We have courted arrest for the Akalis,'' said farmer Sewa Singh, referring to members of the Akali Dal, the Sikh's political party. He proudly produced a mimeographed release notice from Amritsar's central jail. ''So we will certainly court again for Joshi. . . .''

There was a murmur of approval from 10 farmers clustered inside a Khanna auction house. A number produced their own release notices, a badge of honor.

The Jats are the bedrock of support for the Akali Dal and, if anything, the Punjab's ongoing anarchy has only heightened their resolve. They blame Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for this year's harvest disruption, caused by the Punjab's violence this year. The violence meant it cost farmers twice as much as previously to bring the harvest in.

Some 300,000 migrant Hindu laborers, from impoverished Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar normally arrive in April to bring the harvest in. This year, in Punjab's most volatile districts, an estimated 40 percent stayed away.

And even here, in the belt surrounding Chandigarh, the capital, and Ludhiana, in the central Punjabi plains, the migrant work force was down by eight to 10 percent.

The Jats had to rent harvesters and combines, some at astronomical cost, and rely on shopkeepers and factory workers - now unemployed because of the violence - to bring in this year's crop.

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