Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi Underestimating the Farmers’ Wrath?

The Indian PM, obsessed with his ‘strong man’ persona, continues to resist demands by the protesters to repeal his three new agriculture laws

Farmers Gulabh Singh and Pal from Kaithal, Haryana state, now protesting at Singhu border. They vow to go back only after the government repeals its three controversial farm laws

Tikri lies on the border of Indian national capital Delhi and its neighboring state of Haryana, parts of which fall under the National Capital Territory (NCT, a greater Delhi of sorts). This border-point’s only claim to fame until over a month ago was for being a train station on the Green Line of the Delhi Metro, which has over the past decade become the lifeline of the capital-state’s public transport-using commuters.

This location, however, has acquired a halo thanks to the siege laid to it by hundreds of thousands of farmers affiliated to at least 300 different organizations, currently under the banner of a joint front called Samyukt Kisan Morcha. Besides Tikri, farmers have occupied roads at other entry points to Delhi as part of their “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s March to Delhi) agitation launched in late November to protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s three new controversial farm laws.

The numbers are swelling daily notwithstanding the risk of contracting Covid-19 or older volunteers succumbing to existing medical conditions in Delhi’s bone-chilling cold and notorious smog. Farmer organizations aver that this is a last-ditch battle against the new policies to deregulate agricultural markets, which they say, are to appease corporations pally with the current dispensation, disregarding the welfare of those toiling in the fields.

“Handing over the markets to the thieves, that is what they are doing,” is the common refrain at these protest sites, which, besides Tikri, include Singhu, the epicenter of protests (located on the Delhi-Haryana border), Ghazipur on Delhi’s border with Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and Shahjahanpur, bordering Rajasthan and Haryana states.

Farmers have occupied at least 15 kilometers at Singhu border towards the Haryana side. To stop them from advancing to Delhi, paramilitary forces in full combat gear stand guard behind concertina wires, slabs of concrete painted black and yellow and 10-feet deep trenches dug on the highway.

The protest sites are packed with people, many of them brandishing posters caricaturing business tycoons Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani as leeches out to suck the blood out of the farmers. Farmers have given a call to boycott products and services offered by companies run by them. While Ambani is Asia’s richest person and chairman of Reliance Industries, India’s largest company by market value, Adani is the second-richest man in the country and head of the Adani Group.   

These protests are the largest mobilization of people in a long time in India, and some historians suggest the biggest, after India became free in 1947.

Life in the Tents

Dr Swaiman Singh is one of the 20 doctors of a US group who have extended their stay in the country to offer medical assistance to protesting farmers. The media-savvy Singh, a New Jersey-based cardiologist, has uploaded a video of a participant’s blood-pressure reading on his Omron BP machine. It read 221/136, a level that typically needs emergency treatment. 

“This is that of a protesting farmer from Firozpur district of Punjab (which is some 400 km away). Mind you, he is among the older lot. There are younger people, too, whose blood pressure measurements are at very elevated levels. They could even die,” says Singh, who now spends days and nights on the highway at Tikri and is glad that more doctors, including women, are joining him to work on a rotational basis round the clock.

Considering that he meets close to 2,000 patients a day at this venue that is filled for several kilometers with trucks, tractors, trolleys, langars (community kitchens) and stalls for other essential services, Singh is worried about what stress can do to people here who are far from the psychological comfort zone of their villages.

“Many of these older people have their sons in the armed forces, and they are heartbroken about what the government is doing to them while their sons are safeguarding the nation’s borders. They are depressed. We counsel them and also give them medicines. We try to console them saying this phase will pass. They are not used to travelling a lot outside of their villages, and here on this highway, they feel devastated,” reasons Singh.

Between November 26 and December 30, as high as 25 farmers have died at four key protest venues, according to farmer leader and former Parliamentarian Hanan Mullah who puts the figure at 50-plus (including the toll at state-level protests since July).

Protesting farmers on the outskirts of Delhi, close to its border with Haryana

Most farmers from across states had driven to Delhi’s borders in their tractors (hauling trolleys) that carried food and people and in jeeps to reach Tikri, Singhu and other borders. Only Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana share a border with Delhi. Others had to cross states, in some cases more than three, to reach the outskirts of Delhi. Although the state government of Haryana shut off most roads from Punjab on November 25, a day before the agitation began, thousands of Punjabi farmers did manage to drive through Haryana to reach the Delhi border where they had to face teargas shells and water cannons.

Sensing trouble because of the strength of the protesters and the sensitivity involved in targeting farmers, who are often looked up to in the symbolism of Indian politics as annadatas (food givers), the federal government quickly changed tack and invited farmer leaders for a few rounds of talks with its ministers, such as Narendra Tomar who heads the agriculture portfolio, and bureaucrats. So far eight rounds of talks have taken place, the last being on January 8.

One of the meetings was chaired by home minister Amit Shah, the powerful number two in Modi’s cabinet. Negotiations saw the government climbing down earlier from its assertion that the new farm laws were good for the farmers to agreeing to make changes to some of the clauses in the laws that were passed in the Parliament in a tearing hurry, throwing to the wind the spirit of federalism and Parliamentary propriety.

So far, there has been no breakthrough because the government has refused to agree to revoke the three agriculture laws and farmers have rejected anything short of a withdrawal to end their strike. In the sixth round of parleys, the farmers did manage partial victories by getting the government to agree to not proceed with the proposed Electricity Amendment Bill and also remove penal provisions against them for burning stubble after harvest — which reportedly results in major spike in pollution levels. Which means while it didn’t blink over key demands, the government offered concessions elsewhere.

As expected, the latest round of parleys on January 8 ended in a stalemate with both sides sticking to their stated positions. The federal government has indicated that the matter be decided by the Supreme Court of India, which had in December cautioned the government against instigating violence against the farmers who, it said, had the constitutional right to protest.

The Tearing Hurry

As the world was busy fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian federal government brought in the three farm bills in the first week of June 2020 and, despite protests raging in a few states, got them passed in a jiffy a few months later, on September 27.

As soon as the bills were made law, Sudha Narayanan, associate professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai and an expert on agriculture, had told me that the government’s ‘hurried’ move was extremely puzzling. “All the three Bills have been on the Government’s agenda for several years now. Apart from the recommendations of recent committees, there have been consultations with several stakeholders and experts on the best way forward. The bills don’t seem to reflect the concerns and complexities that regulatory reform entails. In fact, passing these bills is the easier thing to do; the hard task is to get it right and here I don’t think the bills make the cut.”

With protests in various states attracting no national attention amidst blackout of the news in mainstream media, leaders of various farmer organisations met in late October of 2020 at the historic Sikh temple near the Parliament House in Delhi, Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, to chart out new strategies – it was decided that they will stay united and shift the protests to the national capital. That was how on November 26, they launched their agitation on Delhi’s borders after they were denied permission to enter the capital city.

Soon, the government climbed down from its earlier rigid posturing and agreed for talks with the farmers. So far, the talks have reached nowhere, but have generated heated debates in the media and other forums on the pros and cons of the new laws. The initial reaction of a large section of pro-government cyber trolls and even senior functionaries of the ruling BJP at the Centre was vehement, if not hate-filled. They claimed that the farmers, many of whom belong to the Sikh religion, were Khalistanis (those who demand a separate Sikh nation) and terrorists.

The Khalistani secessionist movement in Punjab that started in the early 1980s had claimed 11,694 lives between 1981 and 1993. On June 1, 1984, the government of India launched a major military operation inside the Golden Temple, considered holy by the Sikhs, to flush out militants holed up there. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the secessionists, was killed in the attack.

Nihangs, famed Sikh warriors, are often seen monitoring the movement of people at protest sites

While he is considered a terrorist by others, for many Sikhs of Punjab, he is a martyr. I had seen for myself in 2009 his photograph among the long line of martyrs on the walls of a museum inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. Months after his death, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi died at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards in Delhi on October 31. Anti-Sikh riots broke out while the government stood silent. Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as Prime Minister, merely said, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” Independent sources place the toll in the Sikh massacre at 17,000 although the official figure stands at 3,350.

“But all that is a thing of the past. Linking farmers with Khalistan is ridiculous. Most of those who fought the secessionists and paid with their lives were Sikhs themselves,” says Darshan Pal, president of the Krantikari Kisan Union, who is a regular at the talks held between farmers and the government.

While sane voices in the BJP were at their wits’ end to answer queries on this smear campaign against the farmers, there was no end to knee-jerk comments from trigger-happy politicos who are part of the Sangh Parivar, the term for entities under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which includes the BJP.

RSS practises Hindutva politics and is committed towards setting up a Hindu majoritarian state in place of the secular India enshrined in the Constitution, a grand volume that celebrates the country’s pluralism and multi-cultural values. Ironically, the RSS had backed the two-nation theory (separate Hindu and Muslim nations) ahead of India’s independence from Britain along with the Muslim League, which successfully advocated the formation of Pakistan and got it carved out of India in 1947. Partition resulted in one of the largest exoduses and communal riots in modern world history.

After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindutva fanatic months after Partition in January 1948, the country gradually rose to its feet and promoted harmony between religious communities. Gandhi’s death was an opportunity for reconciliation and rethink. In the process, the divisive Hindu majoritarianism failed to capture the imagination of the people of the country who slowly healed their wounds of Partition.

However, the RSS continually looked for opportunities to put its majoritarian politics back on track. Thanks to the tragedy of errors of various politicians, they proved to be a success decades later in the 1990s. Riding a movement that played the Hindu victimhood card – that the Hindus of the region were enslaved by invaders for over 800 years – and putting out an appeal to regain the so-called lost glory of the Hindu, it began to forge ahead through the politics of religious polarization.

That the Hindu religion was in the first place vulnerable because of its accursed caste system that put people on various rigid tiers of social importance with the sole intention of whetting the avarice of those at the top of the pyramid was glossed comfortably over. It remains an incontestable truth that most lower-caste people converted to Abrahamic religions to escape the agony of being persecuted by the Brahminical order of the time.

The Partisan Mainstream Media

The calls for regaining that blustery ‘lost’ glory hot air of an argument are shriller today whenever the ruling government that owes its ideological allegiance to the RSS smells trouble. This fact was evident from the accusations hurled at the farmers from Punjab and parts of Haryana for promoting anti-Hindu, pro-Khalistan terrorism in the name of these protests.

The protestors say – for all the right reasons — that certain sections of the media are ‘complicit’ with their ‘political masters’ at the Centre and are spreading misinformation against the farmers. While under normal circumstances any misinformation campaign is unlikely to wash, these days rhetoric has its strange ways of travelling fast through social media and messaging apps when financed by the state apparatus.

On December 20, 2020, Facebook blocked the official page of Kisan Ekta Morcha, which is one of the handles used by farmers for posting goings-on at protest sites around Delhi. The page was restored later after a public outcry. “In midst of a Facebook Live I was doing from Kisan Ekta Morcha’s page, we get a notification that the FB page has been unpublished,” tweeted Yogendra Yadav, leader of Swaraj India, a political entity that is part of the protests. Farmer leaders I spoke to contend that since Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Facebook are in a business relationship, they have reasons to block their views being heard.

At all protest sites, there are boards that warn pro-government media groups (farmers say they include television channels Republic TV, Aaj Tak, Times Now and so on) to stay away. Farmers accuse these channels of parroting the government’s narrative, and they refuse to give bites to any reporter from these organizations as a matter of policy.

In fact, a few farmers in Singhu came together and launched their own newspaper, titled Trolley Times, a four-page bilingual paper, with the help of young volunteers. Farmers feel that legacy media is against them because they receive advertisements from the ruling government and the party in power. Among the very few, a journalist who has independently done extensive coverage of the protests from multiple locations (that I know of) is Ajit Anjum (@ajitanjum).

Some columnists went on to call the striking farmers a pampered lot and that they needed to be handled with an iron fist inside a velvet glove. Available data are enough to decimate such arguments, but some of them continue to be at it. Equally fatuous is the government’s claim that the protests are engineered by large and rich farmers who have a lot to lose if government support ends.

“The PM and the corporate media have been claiming that this is Punjab specific-agitation. This is a lie they are peddling. The farmers of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand (states) are at Ghazipur border, the farmers from Madhya Pradesh and Haryana at Palwal border and farmers from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra at Shahjahanpur border between Rajasthan and Haryana,” notes Vijoo Krishnan, leader of one of the organizations behind this protest.

His organization, All India Kisan Sabha, was at the forefront of many farmer marches in various parts of the country. Along with others, Krishnan was one of the architects of the iconic Nasik to Mumbai “long march” of more than 50,000 farmers in the western state of Maharashtra in March 2018. The state government had immediately agreed to fulfill the demands of the farmers whose entry to India’s commercial city attracted global attention, in a stark display of poverty amidst plenty as the villagers with blistered feet and torn clothes walked peacefully along the city’s skyscrapers and tony neighborhoods.

That the farmers who have now congregated at the protest venues along the Delhi border and in other places along Haryana and Rajasthan were all wealthy farmers is a charge that doesn’t stand statistical scrutiny, although it is being repeatedly used for online and offline campaigns by those opposed to this massive agitation. It is no secret that farmers’ lobbies have historically been much stronger in Punjab and Haryana than elsewhere, says Surinder S. Jodhka, professor of sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, suggesting that it is only natural that farmers from these sates are at the forefront of the strikes.

“These are also the states where APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committees are essentially markets controlled by state governments to check exploitation of small farmers by large retailers) have worked very well, mainly because of the production of food-grains. These states will lose the most if APMCs stop buying from farmers at the support price. Punjab’s farmers have also had experience of contract farming and they do not feel it offers a promising alternative, even if it picks up.”

There are reports from Punjab of vandalisation of mobile towers aimed at disrupting telecom services by Reliance’s telecommunications arm, Jio. Farmer leaders have warned against such acts of crime, which, they state, could be used by the Modi government to clamp down on them and brand their protests as violent.

Young people from north-west Indian states, some of them soldiers guarding border posts, are extremely upset with certain elements within the ruling party calling the farmers from the region terrorists and Khalistani secessionists

Jodhka adds, “I have been told that there are very strong mobilizations happening in states like Karnataka and Maharashtra but are not being reported.” It is not only true, but also embarrassing for the ruling government at the Centre. The farmers of the ‘long march’ fame from Maharashtra and those from Rajasthan have congregated in Shahjahanpur where leaders of an ally of Modi, Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP), joined the protesters. RLP leader Hanuman Beniwal asked Modi “not to play with fire”. Earlier in September, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), one of the oldest allies of the BJP, had quit the federal alliance due to differences over the new farm laws.

Reetika Khera, one of India’s renowned development economists and who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, calls out the fake claims of the government. She explains, “A widely held belief is that only large farmers from Punjab and Haryana benefited from the earlier system of buying at the minimum support price (MSP), and that it is they who are upset at their privileges being taken away (one economist went so far as to describe it as their ‘milk bottle’ being snatched).”

She adds, “The facts are different: firstly, the government undertakes open-ended procurement of only two crops (wheat and rice) at MSP. Until the ’90s, these interventions were concentrated in these two states. Since then, however, procurement has moved out to other states as well, notably Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. In these states, small and marginal farmers sell to government. In fact, even in Punjab and Haryana, their participation is high. Today, procurement from small and marginal farmers, in terms of numbers participating and quantity procured, is substantial.”

Branding opponents as anti-nationalists, pro-Pakistan, or the more recent addition to such terms, ‘urban Naxals’, is par for the course in what Modi admirers call ‘new India’, which, in reality, is a synonymous for religious polarization and utter contempt for dissent.

The Calm Faces of Protest

At Singhu border, Ravinder Singh is sitting at the back of his trolley (which resembles an army truck that can accommodate 20 men) listening to a speech by a farmer leader. His face conveys no expression, but his composure is somewhere between preparedness and indifference. He smiles warmly when I walk up to him. He offers me a seat, which I decline to avoid the trouble of climbing up and for the sake of social distancing. He is not wearing a mask. In fact, most people here don’t wear any mask at all, mostly due to ignorance about Covid, safety rules, and the pandemic laws in Delhi where one can be fined INR 2000 for being caught without one.

Ravinder Singh is from Tarn Taran, Punjab. He came to Singhu some weeks ago. He is 22 and has joined his parents in farming

Ravinder tells me it is also because they are in the open space and are worried about outsiders in masks coming in to create trouble and hang a bad name on the protestors. There was some such incident a few weeks ago when miscreants set fire to a car and escaped, Ravinder says.

He came from Tarn Taran district of Punjab less than two weeks ago after those who came from his village returned to work in the fields. “We take turns to work in the field and also to come here to protest,” says this 22-year-old, who looks much older. “All the hardship takes a toll on you,” he says, acknowledging my surprise when he discloses his age.

He makes a contemptuous expression when told of the charge that most farmers here are rich ones. “Most people here are like me who own the equivalent of five bighas (one bigha is two-fifth of an acre) of land and cultivate rice. And after six months of hard work, after expenses, I get one lakh rupees. Is that what you call rich? I have to take care of my parents and I have to earn so that I can start a family sooner or later,” he thunders.

Why is he against the new laws that the government says will offer the farmer more money for their produce, I ask. “They will pay more initially until state-run APMCs exist. Once they collapse, they will tell us that they cannot pay us as much as they used to. This is the way they work, sir. We cannot take that risk. Farmers cannot take risks. To know that you have to be a farmer. Nobody else understands the farmers’ plight except the farmer. We cannot experiment unless we get assurances from the government. We don’t trust private companies. There is no way we can take them on if they don’t keep their word. They have rooms full of lawyers, we don’t. We want farming to become more remunerative, but we cannot make whimsical steps without guarantees from the government,” says Ravinder, who discontinued studies after class 12 to help the family with farming, which, apart from rice cultivation, includes growing vegetables such as kankada (spiny gourd).

The government will need to put in a lot of thought and launch awareness campaigns before farmers are willing to diversify and start growing other crops. Falling groundwater levels in Punjab – due to the use of water-intensive crops that help generate large quantities of food for the rest of the country – are a matter of great concern.

To address this, it is suggested that better incentives be offered to farmers to grow less water-intensive crops regions where the situation is grave. As of now, Punjab is home to only 2% or so of the agricultural land nationwide, but its production is 30% of wheat and rice procured by the state-run Food Corporation of India, which is the government of India’s nodal agency to procure and distribute food grains. 

Gulabh Singh and Pal (who uses only his surname) are friends from Kaithal district of Haryana. They are in their late 60s. “Shifting to a new crop is easier said than done. We need change, but the way the government is doing it is not going to help anyone else, except their business friends,” says Gulabh, laughing.

He and Pal say they have not had any health issues so far and will not budge until the government changes its decision. They hasten to add that they are small farmers and that those present at Singhu include people across classes and castes. “There is representation of everyone. Whoever says that these are rich farmers are welcome to come here and do an inspection,” says an otherwise silent Pal with an aggressive tone.

When Economists Lock Horns

The laws in contention – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act; the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act; and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 – have had some well-known economists lock horns. Some of the provisions are controversial in that it is reportedly violative of constitutional rights of a citizen to seek legal recourse.

While Arvind Panagariya, renowned economist and professor at Columbia University, who was previously vice-chairman of NITI-Aayog, the government of India’s policy think-tank that replaced the Planning Commission, argued in a column in the Times of India that many economists are against the new farm laws out of political priorities, the likes of Kaushik Basu, former chief economic adviser and currently a Cornell professor who favors changes in India’s farm laws, opposes the current bunch of legislations, saying there is no “indication of risk mitigation policies, especially for poor farmers, alongside these new liberalization laws”. Basu co-wrote the essay with Professor Nirvikar Singh, economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Jalandhar-based businessman Tejinder Pal Singh (right) is part of Khalsa Aid, an international NGO, which now offers myriad services to protesters, including washing machines, desi geysers, warm clothes, toiletries, foot massage machines, etc

IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath has called the government’s move a step in the right direction. So has noted agricultural economist Professor Ashok Gulati who went to the extent of stating that the three new laws herald the 1991 movement for Indian agriculture; 1991 was the year India decided to go on the path of liberalization.

A group of ten economists have written to the government to withdraw the laws. They put forth what they called five crucial reasons as to why these three Acts “are fundamentally harmful in their implications for the small farmers of India.” (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/10-economists-write-to-tomar-cite-reasons-why-centre-should-repeal-flawed-farm-laws-7109310/

Authors Prankur Gupta (from the University of Texas, Austin) Reetika Khera and Sudha Narayanan have demolished some oft-repeated half-truths and vicious campaigns targeted at Punjab-Haryana farmers in an essay in The Hindu. They have also clarified misconceptions about the size of small and marginal farmers in Punjab and Haryana (38% and 58%, respectively) and other states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh where farmers want the new laws repealed.

Agriculture in India accounts for around 17% of the GDP but employs more than half of the country’s workforce. Farmers are protesting because, according to them, they don’t want to be “slaves” and replace the much-vilified “middle men” with bigger threats: corporations.

It is not just internationally acclaimed economists who have entered into a heated argument, the protests by farmers have drawn worldwide attention – and in some places those who expressed solidarity have taken out marches in the US, Australia, Canada and the UK and have sharply criticized business magnates such as Ambani and Adani for their oligarchic ways of functioning. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself expressed his solidarity with the agitating farmers, inviting displeasure from the Modi government. Widespread sympathy for the cause of the farmers came even from former Indian central banker Raghuram Rajan of Chicago University, who has consistently argued against crony capitalism. Talking about the latest bunch of reforms in India in an interview with noted journalist Barkha Dutt, Rajan said, “Reforms cannot be like ‘fire the missile’ and forget the direction it takes.” 

P Sainath (https://twitter.com/PSainath_org), author, rural reporter and founder editor of the digital platform People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) is of the view that pro-government think-tanks are zealously demonizing farmers who are voicing their views against the government. He argues that rich farmers are merely less well-off, not exactly rich. He also regrets that the new laws undermine various constitutional provisions.

In addition, diasporic groups and some anti-Adani campaigners were behind protests in foreign locations. A resolution supporting the Indian farmer protest, introduced by Teresa Mosqueda and co-sponsored by Kshama Sawant in the Seattle City Council in the US, was unanimously adopted. Sawant also appealed to “workers, farmers, students, and other community members to join in solidarity actions on January 8 in support of millions of farmers in India who are courageously protesting against new privatization and exploitation laws”.

She added in a statement, “Indian farmers are bravely protesting new BJP-proposed laws that would dismantle the bare minimum protections or regulations relied on by millions of small farmers for survival, and give massive corporate handouts to profitable agribusiness multinational corporations. One of the billionaires who will directly benefit from the new laws is Mukesh Ambani, who is like Jeff Bezos of India. He is the richest man in India, and with a net worth above $80 billion, is the fifth richest man in the world.”

According to a report by Indian news agency PTI on December 24, “a group of seven influential US lawmakers, including Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, have written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to raise the issue of farmers’ protest in India with his Indian counterpart.” The Modi administration had called several such comments by foreign dignitaries on farmers’ protests unwarranted and ill-informed.

Protest as a Sustainable Model

Darshan Pal of Krantikari Kisan Union has attended several rounds of talks with the government, including the one with the home minister. On December 20 – twelve days after the previous round of talks with the home minister failed – Pal got a five-page letter from Vivek Aggarwal, joint secretary in the ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, inviting him for the next round of talks along with the others who had taken part in such negotiations in the past.

Pal isn’t very excited about the government’s outreach and he sees it as contrived since it has shown no inclination yet to reverse its decision. Regardless, he expects the farmers’ agitation to strengthen because, he states, it is not just a farmers’ movement, but a people’s movement. “The government may think it is just the farmers here, but they are backed solidly by people across all walks of life, including the powerful diaspora.”

Talking about how the farmer organizations mobilized people, especially from Punjab, he says, “You must remember that there was a gestation period for this agitation since June when the ordinances were brought in. We had appealed to all religious and political authorities (except BJP) to throw their weight behind the farmers. They have won their support, and leaders have met and convinced each and every farmer to join this protest. The preparation was meticulous. Which is why we could mobilize people in large numbers.”

He expects the strike to strengthen further as more farmers from more states join in. Another leader said on condition of anonymity that from each village in Punjab, farmers drove to Delhi in 11 tractors hauling covered trolleys, 10 carrying people and one with food items. Nihangs, famed Sikh warriors, have also joined the protests and can be seen monitoring the movement of people at protest sites. For his part, Professor Jodhka also feels that farmer protests of this scale are unprecedented in the country. “Farmers have not been so well-organized in the recent past,” he says. The Modi government, according to Sainath, had rushed through the new laws expecting farmers to be “cowed down by Covid and pulverized by the pandemic”. Farmers proved them wrong.

Much more than other venues, Singhu is where the preparations are in full swing for the long haul, as others catch up. A community feeling is inescapable, especially in the library-cum-cultural centre that has come up as well as at services offered by Khalsa Aid, an international NGO that offers humanitarian aid.

Tejinder Pal Singh, one of the philanthropists I met behind Khalsa Aid’s office where they have arranged some 25 foot-massage machines, especially for the elderly, is a businessman based in Jalandhar. He says that protesters have set up their own makeshift gyms to stay in shape.

Khalsa Aid offers myriad services to protesters, including washing machines, hot water, warm clothes, first aid kits, slippers, bottled water, toiletries, fruits, and so on. They have also procured fire extinguishers to make sure that no untoward incident happens even if there is a minor fire. Langars are aplenty and, starting early morning, they serve rotis (made mostly in roti-making machines) along with dal and sabzi (lentils and vegetable dish) to the needy. The Sikh community has a long tradition of running community kitchens where elaborate free meals are served to people.

Tejinder Pal says that early on, Khalsa Aid began by offering chai (tea), pakora (a popular Indian snack) and food items to the participants and others in the neighborhood and slums who came in to eat. As more people began offering such services, they set up some 400 warm tents for women and the elderly not far from their office.

Lately, there are four full-loaded washing machines that are for use by the protesters. Mobile toilets armed with water tanks and piped water supply have been brought in. To take bath, a desi geyser that has been put in place has proved to be very effective and functional because it uses firewood and heats water quickly. Water has to be filled through a funnel as fire burns underneath the machine. Hot water can be drawn continuously from the pipe that acts as the outlet. At Singhu border, efficient wood-fired steam boilers are installed to cook food. One of these were donated by a Gurudwara (a Sikh temple) from Gurdaspur district. With two quintals wood, one huge steam boiler (with 200 liters of water) can feed 60,000 people, all steam-cooked food.

Some volunteers from Kapurtala city in Punjab have brought a gargantuan coffee-making machine usually used in elaborate community feasts. A few others from Ludhiana district in Punjab have installed here a large sugarcane vending machine, much to the amusement of urban dwellers of Delhi and elsewhere most whom have not such large kitchen utensils. Women volunteers, who often find it tough to answer the call of nature at such strikes, are provided accommodation in nearby homes that are rented by the organisers. In Tikri, Khalsa Aid has opened a “Kisan (farmer) mall” for protesters to avail for free 23 items on the list of products there – from warm clothes to shawls for women to caps, toiletries, washing machines, desi geysers and so on.

Dr Ansuman Mitra (in glasses) of Kolkata-based Medical Service Center with volunteers from different parts of the country. He and his team offer round-the-clock services at Singhu

“We are looking at what all more needs to be done here to bring in that community feeling. We want all participants to be as comfortable as possible. Waste management is one issue, but we have volunteers doing very good work,” Tejinder Pal adds. More such groups are active among these protesting farmers, especially Sikh Sewa Force and random people who do everything from cleaning the surroundings to polishing shoes. The tradition of seva and sharing of earnings run deep in Sikhism, and those golden rules of the religion are in full display at these venues around Delhi.

I find many young people at the library in Singhu where Bhagat Singh’s biographies the most common apart from those of various Sikh gurus, Punjabi martyrs and revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh and Lenin. Many other studentsareporing over Punjabi books inside their trolleys. Some say they are studying for exams.

“I am happy being part of such a historic movement,” says Harvinder, a class 12 student from Ludhiana. “We do feel like a large community here. Solar panels installed here ensure we have light to read all night if we wish to.” This sentiment is stronger at Singhu where you find more expat Indian visitors than in Tikri, but you find nobody at any of the protest venues who says there are not comfortable or happy.

What adds to the triumphant frame of mind at these protests are feats of some intrepid men and women. For instance, specially-abled Balwinder Singh rode 450 kilometers solo in 10 days on his tricycle to reach the Singhu border from his home in Punjab’s Gurdaspur. Satyadev Manjhi from the eastern state of Bihar made it to Tikri on his bicycle from 1,000 kilometers away in 11 days. Similarly, 62-year-old Manjeet Kaur drove in an open jeep with five of her woman friends from her home in Patiala, 250 km away, to Singhu. My only concern is my grandfather, adds Harvinder. “He is healthy but is not used to staying away from home and in the open during winter.” In the evenings, a large number of young people huddle together to listen to elderly farmers.

A free tattoo parlor has also come up at Singhu run by a young man who identified himself as Chetan. As I crane my neck to take a look at what kind of tattoos some of the youthare getting, I can see a teenager with a “Wahe Guru” tattoo on his right biceps. The display offers faces of martyrs in tattoo form.

Farmers from across the country are joining in, but the generous and large-hearted Punjabi’s characteristic signature is for all to see in the organization of this agitation.

Hardship on the Ground

Notwithstanding the sense of solidarity and harmony – as evident from leaders of various religions descending there in Singhu to offer speeches in praise of the participants – all is not well with the health of most people there due to them being away from home in the peak of winter. Like Dr Swaiman Singh at Tikri, Dr Ansuman Mitra from Kolkata-based Medical Service Center, who along with his team offers 24-hours-a-day medical care and consultations to people at Singhu, says that stress is a killer in more ways than one. It results in low immunity and high vulnerability to diseases.

Apart from diarrhea, most common problems are asthma, hypertension and heart and lung-related problems. “We check them and often refer some of them to hospitals nearby. Many of them are not in good health, especially the older ones,” says Mitra, whose team comprises volunteers from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. His organization offers medical services in times of crises and disasters. 

He calls farmer protests a man-made disaster created by the Central government. “It was not a well-thought-out plan at all. Nobody was consulted… Now, the health of these protesters is a major problem area. It is being underestimated. The government must take note of it and offer services,” he emphasizes.

Behind the festive spirit and the buoyant sense of togetherness at the farmers’ protest sites is an implosive issue of an impending health crisis. More so because many of the farmers are advanced in age. Some students stop to talk about the upward transfer of power in the global economy with great enthusiasm – these conversations, they say, are a cerebral exercise they have the opportunity to indulge in since many “intellectuals” turn up at their protest site.

Langars (community kitchens) are aplenty across protest venues. Starting early morning, they serve rotis (made mostly in roti-making machines) along with dal and sabzi (lentils and vegetable dish) to the needy. The Sikh community has a long tradition of running such community kitchens where elaborate free meals are served to people.

The mood at the venues of the largest mobilization of people since independence is still transitory: upbeat at one moment and cynical at the other. Farmers have received support in the form of favorable statements from some of the A-list stars of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, including actors Priyanka Chopra, Preity Zinta, Sonu Sood, Riteish Deshmukh, Parineeti Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Taapsee Pannu, and singer Diljit Dosanjh, who is immensely popular in India and abroad for his Punjabi hit songs. Dosanjh turned up at Singhu and spent time with the protesters too.

Seventy-eight-year-old celebrated photojournalist Raghu Rai, a protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson — who still carries his camera and visits protest sites with the kind of zest he had shown 55 years earlier when he started off his career — described these protests as quite unlike any he had seen in the past in India. He wanted the government to listen to “these sober voices of the country side”. Rai, who had covered previous peasant agitations in the country — including the late farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Boat Club rally of October 1988 which had over 5 lakh farmers in attendance as well as anti-Indira Gandhi protests led by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan in the run-up the Emergency of 1975 – feels that this one is different in that it has made city dwellers come to realise rural India is still alive and kicking.

It is no coincidence then that the protests have attracted wide sympathy. Canada-based Punjabi singer Jaswinder Singh Bains, popularly known as Jazzy B, who had visited the protests sites earlier, decided to spend the New Year inside his car at Singhu after singing and interacting with the crowds. Punjab’s former top cop Lakhwinder Singh Jakhar, who resigned in November 2020 in protest against the government’s apathy towards this agitation, was also there to meet the participants.

Yet, even highly decorated armed forces veterans who drop by at the tent erected for the media are worried about the outcome of this unprecedented campaign because of the loud pronouncements by Modi that the farmers are being misled by vested interests. In a big departure, a serving jawan (term for lowest-ranked soldiers in the Indian army) put up videos from Singhu, saying this is no way to treat the families of people like them who have just returned from the turbulent India-China border where clashes for territory are frequent. Incidentally, early last month, a priest of a gurdwara from Haryana committed suicide in Singhu after leaving a note that said he was deeply hurt by the government’s response to the farmers’ demands. More suicides have taken place since then.

Mobile toilets at farmers’ protest sites on the outskirts of Delhi

For a government led by a party that swept to power in 2014 after a long gap by promising, among others, the implementation of key recommendations in the MS Swaminathan Commission Report to give farmers minimum support price (a form of market intervention by the federal government in case there is a sharp fall in prices of select agricultural produce) that is more than 50% of the cost of production, the ball is in Modi’s court. Before he won a re-election in 2019, he had made it abundantly clear that his pro-farmer slogans were hollow – one of his ministers, Nitin Gadkari, spoke with utmost candor when he said that pre-poll promises were not always meant to be kept.

Gurdeep Singh from Fatehgarh, a Sikh pilgrim center in Punjab, is a farmer who also is into marketing agricultural produce. He weighs his words while responding to queries. “The government is trying to vacate its role from places where it should be there. Worse, this one in power is not transparent. Are we going the Pakistan way?” he asks. Some farmer groups have threatened to go on a hunger strike, a modus operandi perfected by none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself. Falling back on Gandhi, it appears, is still the best option for all non-violent crusaders.

Meanwhile, in a ruse to deflect attention from the ongoing protests, Modi — whose ultimate focus is more on winning elections through massive campaigns — on Christmas Day released the instalment of Rs 2,000 to 90 million farmers covered under the federal programme titled ‘Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi’ (PM-KISAN). Under this programme, small and marginal farmers are offered Rs 6,000 a year in three equal instalments of Rs 2,000 each. From Singhu, Tejinder Pal Singh told me on the phone about the prime minister’s “dramatic statement of a routine exercise” as a “post-dated check on a crashing bank”, quoting Gandhi who had said the same of The Cripps Mission of 1942 (led by British minister Sir Stafford Cripps) to secure Indian backing in World War II, just as it received in World War I. In exchange for full Indian loyalty to British war efforts, he promised Dominion status (full self-government) once the war was over. Gandhi said thanks but no thanks before announcing the Quit India movement.

A protester brandishing a placard with slogans against Ambani and Adani comparing the duo to the East India Company

At least some of the farmers here on the outskirts of Delhi — a few of whom are in their late 80s and early 90s and yet braving the rains and sub-zero temperatures — have vivid memories of the polite, but firm rejection of the British offer by Gandhi. They often chant the jai jawan-jai kisan (victory to the farmer, victory to the soldier) slogan by India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who led India during the India-Pakistan war of 1965 – although not as frequently as they shout ‘Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’, a triumphant call, or jaikara, popularized by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last guru of the Sikhs. Most of these farmers also swear by the heroism of Bhagat Singh who believed in an armed rebellion to unseat the mighty British, but when it comes to their protests here against Colonial-era tactics of the ruling government, they would rather follow Gandhi.

But for how long is the question.

Photos and text © Ullekh NP

(Updated on January 8)

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