The farmer’s movement has continued to gather speed, momentum and strength day by day since November 26th, 2020, when farmers from across the country pitched their tents for miles alongside the three main arterial highways connecting Delhi. Farmers protests at this scale was witnessed in the 80s and 90s when they organised under Mahendra Singh Tikait, Prof Nanjundaswamy, Sharad Joshi, and others on questions of fair prices for farm produce and against the economic reforms unfolding in the early 90s. On the face of it, the current movement is against the three farm laws facilitating corporatisation of the agricultural sector. Still, it has come to symbolise the overarching fight to save India from the Corporations and people’s sovereignty. This movement reminds us of the “Pagadi Sambhal Jatta” (hold your pride) movement against the three British Laws - the Doab Bari Act, Punjab Land Colonisation Act and the Punjab Land Alienation Act in the first decade of the 20th Century. The movement was led by Sardar Ajit Singh and Kishan Singh, uncle and father of young revolutionary Bhagat Singh, hanged by the Britishers at the age of 23, and Ghasita Ram, Sufi Amba Prasad and others. The movement drew inspiration from the song ’Pagadi Sambhal Jatta’, written by Banke Dayal and sung by him the first time at a peasant’s rally in Lyallpur (present-day Faisalabad, Pakistan) on March 3rd 1907.
Taking this tradition ahead today, thousands of farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh are camping at three places, Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, on the borders of Delhi, at Shahjahanpur on Rajasthan-Haryana Border and multiple toll plazas, district headquarters across Punjab and Haryana, with their 8-point demands, including the repeal of three agriculture laws enacted by the Narendra Modi Government. These laws are Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. They have been joined by farmers from all over the country who have held numerous solidarity programmes in their states and regions in the last 11 months. The movement is now being counted not in days but months compared to the #occupymovement where people led seize and occupied public spaces in protests. The farmers sitting on the borders of Delhi have faced harsh winter, scorching summer and incessant rains. An estimated 700 farmers have been martyred in the movement due to various causes, and the number continues to rise.
Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), or the United Farmers Front, the apex coordinating body of the several farmer organisations leading the movement, have built elaborate arrangements at the protest site. They have built temporary thatched and tented residences on the highway, on the tractor-trolleys, set up community kitchens, etc. and resolved that the movement will continue until their demands are met. In an elaborate system, every village regularly sends their family members to stay put at the protest site while they take turn to continue farming and other activities. The names of their villages and cities are marked on the milestones placed in front of the tents with zero-kilometre signages. The protest site has become an extension of their villages and cities. The protest site has also been divided into different zones, named after famous revolutionaries such as Netaji Subhash Nagar, Banda Bahadur Nagar, Sardar Bhagat Singh Nagar, Rajguru Nagar, Sukhdeo Thapar Nagar, Kartar Singh Sarabha Nagar, Chandrashekhar Azad Nagar and others at Singhu border and Guru Nanak Deo Nagar, Chacha Ajit Singh Nagar, Banda Bahadur Singh Nagar and Gulab Kaur Nagar at Tikari border.
At the backdrop of the current agitation is the ongoing countrywide farmers and labour movements against the persistent economic and agrarian crisis. There has been significant discontent due to the Union government’s amendments to the labour laws and the enactment of three farm laws without following the established parliamentary legislative procedure violating the democratic norms and traditions in favour of industries and the corporate sector.
In opposition to the farm laws and the labour laws violations on November 25-26, a joint national call of marching to Delhi was given by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) supported by the joint platform of national trade unions. AIKSCC itself was formed after police opened fire on a farmer’s protest killing five of them in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh in June 2017. The trade unions implemented the call of strike on November 26th, 2020, against the labour codes, and farmers organisations marched to Delhi and sought permission to converge at Ramlila Maidan (significant historic ground witness to several agitations in the heart of the old city). As expected, the government denied permission and decided to stop their convoy from entering the city. On November 25th, Delhi police dug up trenches, placed giant boulders, soil and sandbags, erected barbed wires and fences, paved iron nails, parked buses and big cargo containers on the roads to stop farmers from entering the city. Similarly, police made arrangements at the borders of Haryana and Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, to stop farmers coming from those states. The same arrangements have been made later by the police on several other occasions to stop protest programmes by the farmers.
When the farmers continued to move ahead, the police used tear gas and water cannons in the chilly winter. This, too, could not stop their movement forward. Punjab farmers turned their tractors, trolleys and other agricultural instruments of agriculture into weapons of resistance. It reminded us of the famous lines of the poet Balli Singh Cheema, ‘chikhati hai har rukawat, thokaron ki mar se’ (every obstacle screams from the beats of resistance). On the way, the farmers of Haryana joined the convoy of Punjab farmers. When these farmers reached Delhi borders, they were welcome by the Delhi Police in riot gear loaded with tear gas shells, water cannons, batons and firearms. The signboard ‘hearty welcome to Delhi’ at the Delhi border seems to be ridiculing them. At the Singhu border, the Punjab farmers decided to stay there and blocked the national highway another group pitched their tent at Tikri border and those coming from Uttar Pradesh camped at Ghazipur. When police finally relented and said they were welcome to camp at a big ground on the north eastern Delhi border, farmers refused to move there.
Farmers turned every opposition to their advantage, and even fed the policemen on duty from their langar (community kitchen) without any hatred towards them. The stones used for barricading were used by the Nihangs (a religious sect of Punjab) to tie their horses. Similarly, the iron railings and barricades were used to tie their tents and hang banners. As days passed, the police and farmers interacted and started getting to know each other and their demands.
Farmer’s protest marks a departure from the traditional short duration protests. Since the talks with the government in December 2020 and January 2021 didn’t break the deadlock, they soon realised the struggle would be extended for a long time. They extended their hand to the informal sector workers in the nearby Kundali Industrial Area, whom they started feeding at their langars. During the Corona lockdown period, the farmers opened their langar and accommodation for all without any discrimination. When the fierce second wave hit in April-May, they created an oxygen corridor on the highway they had occupied to deal with the oxygen crisis. They requested the Delhi Police and the government to remove barricades at their end; the police rejected their proposal.
The movement opened the doors of its health centre and dispensary to general people living in the vicinity. SKM even announced setting up a ‘Sadhbhawana Mission Swasthya Shivir’ (Goodwill Mission Health Camp) at the Singhu border on July 10th, where free eye treatment was offered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and treatment to heart patients on Sunday. The health camp was open for the camping farmers and outsiders. Farmers also run libraries, where free education is being given to the nearby children of low-income families. Anyone can go to the libraries to read literary and political books available there and sketch drawing as one likes.
The farmer’s movement has shown seriousness to save people’s lives, while the government is propagating that farmers have blocked the roads. The movement has shown a different protest culture altogether, going beyond the image of the rowdy farmers, which is often being painted by the corporate media.
The area has witnessed many protests by landed caste peasantry in the past, often for increasing reservation quota and political representation. These demonstrations by landed peasantry and dominant castes have often resulted in breaking and looting of shops, arson and harassment of women. So, when the farmers reached the borders of Delhi, shops, eating joints, malls, and petrol pumps of nearby places closed down. However, seeing the remarkably different protest culture, soon the shops and other business establishments opened. Even some new shops have come up on the nearby footpaths, making it a mini bazaar. The petrol pumps, homes, guest houses opened their toilets for farmers, put out extension boards for mobile charging and lights, given access to their Wi-Fi etc.
When the Haryana government sent their employees to disconnect the electricity of the flower vendor giving electricity to the protest site, the electricity workers union intervened and stopped them from doing so. Generally, the local businesses and people in the neighbourhood suffer due to prolonged agitations in their areas. Still the farmer’s movement has succeeded to convey that their movement is for all classes of the society and secured their support.
Given the agrarian crisis and constant decline in the status of farmers in society, the protests have brought back the self-respect and dignity of the farmers. Until now, the flags of the farmer unions were seen on the shoulders of old age farmers, but now the owners of luxury cars are carrying these flags proudly. Movement flags, badges, stickers, caps saying ‘No farmer, No Food’, ‘I Love Kisan (farmer)’, ‘I am a farmer’ have found their way into millions of homes and personal spaces. The farmer unions also struck the toll plazas on the national highway charging exorbitant fees and made them free, a long pending demand of the truck associations and other motorists. The movement has targeted the prominent industrialists along with the anti-farmer government and ruling party politicians. It closed down the Petrol Pumps run by Reliance industries and their agricultural retail stores in Punjab and organised boycotts in the neighbouring Haryana.
In December 2020, farmer’s unions’ representatives were invited by the central government for dialogue. During lunch hour, farmer leaders refused to take meals provided by the government and ate their food, sitting on the ground, brought from the langar at the protest site. This left a deep impression on the broader public and also caused embarrassment to the government. In the subsequent rounds, they kept bringing their food and even offered it to the ministers and bureaucrats who were forced to join them on December 30th. Similarly, there have been other symbolic actions that have shown a different culture and meaning of the movement. Rakesh Tikait, a prominent leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, planted roses on the iron nails paved by the police to stop farmer’s march. Farmers also started growing vegetables on the space between road dividers on the national highway at the protest site.
For the first time in post-1947 history, farmers organised a parallel republic day parade on January 26th. Generally, the republic day celebrations are marked by the display of power and achievements of the Indian State, as shown in the parade by the Indian army and security forces, pavilions and tableau of State governments; organised in the heart of the political capital, which is not accessible to everyone. The farmers parade on the tractors, horses and people marching in colourful attire waving national flag felt like reclaiming the republic by the people. The parade was organised on the ring road surrounding the city of Delhi. However, a group of farmers broke rank and the police barricade and reached Red Fort, the site of Independence Day celebrations. In the scuffle and mayhem, one farmer lost his life and created controversy over hoisting the farmer union flag at the red fort mast. This gave police a chance for massive witch-hunt and arrest of the farm leaders and corporate media fodder to spread anti-farmer sentiments. The SKM leadership condemned the violence, and focused on the largely uneventful and celebratory nature of the farmer’s parade, and offered an apology for hurting any sentiments by the behaviour of a group of farmers.
The misinformation campaign and constantly declining standards of the Indian media has been a cause of deep concern and danger for any free and democratic society. The subservient media, often referred to as Godi Media, has been attacked by a section of media and the progressive community and opposition parties, who have been repeatedly targeted for the government’s failure and raising questions. Given the constant vilification and fake information, there has been massive resentment against the media in the farmers’ movements. The youth groups of the movement took it upon themselves to correct this and let the media know their resentment through slogans and posters, which read, ‘media people speak the truth’, ‘we are farmers not terrorists’, ‘no permission to Godi media’. They even chased away the reporters of Zee News, Aaj Tak, Republic TV and others from the protest site, who were at the forefront of this misinformation campaign. The farm leaders and the movement took things on their own. With the help of educated youth, volunteers and other supporters set up their YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and even their newspaper called, ‘Trolley Times’. A whole ecosystem of alternative means of information was created, which received widespread support from several YouTube channels, social media accounts, news portals etc.. This put pressure on the mainstream print media and other tv channels.
Youth from Punjab-Haryana regarded the Dharna place as their home. They spent much of their time and efficiency to send the news of movement through social media and News Portals. They have taught themselves well and found expressions in poems, writings, blogs, songs, and their thoughts. As witnessed in the anti-CAA protests in early 2020, social media was another ground where the ruling party’s IT cell propaganda was constantly challenged. The government responded by bringing in the IT rules, which were aimed at curtailing growing support to the farmer’s movements from the vast society, including film stars, cultural personalities, writers, independent journalists, and others. The Twitter account of several farm leaders and others associated with the January 26th incident was blocked, but after sharp reactions from the community, they were restored.
The protest sites are a significant cultural space too. In the night, the site reverberates with songs and poetry in different languages, conversations on resistance, growing inequity, authoritarianism, crushing of dissent, rising inflation, caste discrimination, etc. Many expressions have found their way on YouTube and other social media platforms, but much more is not documented and visible. Several film stars and singers have composed their tunes and performances. Even sportspersons and others from India and abroad have come and supported the movement. Kewal Grewal, Babbu Mann, Diljit Doshanji, Sonia Mann, Amitoj Mann, Gul Panag, Swara Bhaskar, Sushant Singh and others have often spent time at the site. One of the popular songs and often heard on every tractor is, ‘Modi ji Thari Top Kade Hun Delhi Aa Gaye’ (Modiji where are your (water) canons, we have arrived in Delhi) or the Kisan Anthem composed by many singers. Shahzad Sidhu from Pakistan also lent his support, so did others who wrote songs like ‘proud to be a farmer’. A simple search on the web or YouTube shows hundreds of songs and poetry supporting the Kisan Andolan.
The wider civil society in Delhi and elsewhere also responded to the call given by the movement and has organised solidarity programmes and other events. In Delhi, Kisan Sansad (farmer’s parliament) was organised at the Singhu border by prominent social activists on 23-24th January, in Pune Kisan Bagh (farmers park), on lines of Shaheen Bagh, was organised. In addition, every time SKM gave a national call of action and strike, movements responded with programmes and protests across the country. Since SKM has not allowed any opposition or ruling party-political leaders to come to the protest site, they have organised independent programmes and supported the farmers’ protests. Akali Dal, a political ally of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) from Punjab, quit the Union government, protesting against the farm laws. Indian National Congress party Members of Parliament from Punjab just completed their 300-day long solidarity protest with the farmers’ movements.
SKM also organised Kisan Sansad (farmer’s parliament) during the official parliament session in July-August at Jantar Mantar, where they questioned the government’s logic and justification for the three farm laws. They urged all the members of parliament to attend the parliament session, raise the farmers’ struggle and not allow the functioning of the parliament on other issues until the central government accepts the demands of farmers. And indeed, the whole session was washed out, except for a brief discussion on the passage of the bill on rights of the other backward classes, due to constant slogan shouting, disruptions by the opposition political parties, and the government’s refusal to address the farmers demand and investigate Pegasus scandal.
The farming community and organisations are highly patriarchal; however, the movement has begun to crack this wide open. The movement has seen women asserting their identity as farmers and also breaking the boundaries of patriarchy. This is visible in their participation at the protest sites, special Mahila Kisan Sansad (women farmers parliament), and aggressive rebuttal to the anti-women remarks by the BJP leaders and others. At one point, the Supreme Court remarked that ‘what is the role of women and old age people in the farmer’s movement and farmer leaders should tell them to go home.’ More than 800 women wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India explaining that women are farmers and have every right to be in the struggle. They celebrated January 18th as Women Farmer’s Day and March 8th as International Women’s Day, and organised Women Farmer’s Parliament at Jantar Mantar on July 26th, 2021 and discussed the agricultural laws and passed the following resolution:
- 1. Women did not get a proper place and respect in the country even after their significant contribution to agricultural activities. It is needed to provide adequate status for their labour, efficiency and vitality. It is the need of the hour to act wisely to increase the role of women in the farmer’s movement.
- 2. 33% representation should be given in local bodies like Panchayat and Town Committees and State Assemblies and Parliament. To implement this, Constitution should be amended so that women, constituting half of the population be appropriately represented in power structures.
Beyond this, the women are seen everywhere at the protests site, and what’s significant is that in this long struggle men and women have learnt to carry equal responsibilities together. Men are managing cooking, cleaning, washing responsibilities, and it’s not an extension of traditional gender roles in home. The best part of the farmers’ movements is that it has connected with a large population, so ordinary people have found ways of supporting the movement. The protests have broken caste boundaries, gender binaries and taken up the issue of women’s farmers and widows whose husbands killed themselves. India has the worst distinction of nearly 3,00,000 farmers committing suicide in the last fifteen years. Haryana, known for Khap Panchayats (caste assemblies) based on gotras (sub-caste), is now organising Sarva panchayats (everyone’s assemblies) which is a step ahead in breaking social barriers.
Those who are not directly involved in farming contribute to the movement to protect the farming community. Narendra Kaur is a government employee, but she comes to the Singhu border every Friday night and returns on Monday. Many others like her join the movement while continuing to hold their daily jobs. Mandeep, a restaurant manager, took a week leave to join the tractor March from Ludhiana. Simoni Sahani travels every day from her house several kilomters away to volunteer in the langar. Major Khan, landless farmer and retired defence personnel working as a private security guard, quit his job and stayed at the Singhu border for six months. Unfortunately, he felt unwell and went back home to Patiala for treatment on May 17th 2021, and died there. Kamal, a student, has not gone to her home for more than six months now. Many students continue their study and have appeared for online examinations from the protest site. The message is evident, every section of the society is with the farmers movement.
Given the widespread support, one can only remember these lines of the famous poet Bali Singh Cheema:
With torches in hand, people of my village have started marching,
Now the people of my village will conquer the darkness.
Even the huts, the fields are asking,
Till when will the people of my village be robbed?
Knowing that nothing is achieved here without struggle,
Now the people of my village are ready for the struggle…
It remains to be seen if the movement succeeds in its demands. Whatever the result, it has made its mark on the history of resistance and marks a new beginning for the farmers movements and has given hope to struggling masses in the country, against the rising populist authoritarianism in the country.
Postscript: Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally acceded to the demand of the repeal of three farm laws in a televised address on November 19, 2021, lamenting the fact that his government failed to convince farmers of the advantages of the farm laws. Many believe this announcement came after it became difficult for the BJP to continue their campaign in the crucial states of Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, headed for legislative assembly in first quarter of 2022. Farmers refused to withdraw their agitation unless they were repealed in the Parliament. The repeal laws were passed on November 29, by the Parliament without any debate, which opposition vehemently demanded. After the passage of the repeal law, and written assurance from the government for formation of a committee with farmers representative to determine framework for Minimum Support Price, withdrawal of criminal cases by the State and Central governments farmers movement decided to vacate the protest sites and go back to their villages on December 11th 2021. Thus, marking the end of a historic protest marking biggest political defeat of the Modi government. This has enthused everyone, people’s movements, opposition political parties, media and all.