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Our way or the highway

Shriya Mohan | Updated on December 03, 2020 Published on December 03, 2020

Here we are: Sukhdev Singh (right) drove 400 km from Hoshiarpur in his tractor to reach the Singhu border   -  IMAGES: SHRIYA MOHAN

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana have turned the Singhu border into a makeshift and vibrant village. The elderly peasants in kurta pyjamas and young men in track pants and sneakers who have gathered there are looking not for largesse — but just a fair deal

* The laws seek to remove the guarantee of a minimum support price (MSP) and deregulate crop pricing, which, the farmers hold, will leave them at the mercy of big corporations and market forces.

* Every Sikh farmer gives away a tenth of his produce to a gurudwara. So there is always an abundance of food in gurudwaras.

* When the Centre tried to get them to form a smaller committee of five to seven members to take the discussions further, the 32 groups refused to be divided. Talk to each one of us, they insisted.

***

With six months’ rations loaded onto a tractor trolley, Ranbir Singh got ready for the battleground — some 200 km away from his village in Ambala. He and his brother were aware that they were in for a long haul as they geared up for the journey to Delhi. “We knew that we will either come back victorious or not return at all,” he says.

On November 25, their tractor trolley joined 250 other tractors from Ambala. Soon, they had merged with thousands of other farmers who were coming in swathes from Punjab and Haryana on NH1 — the highway to the Capital.

They are now parked at the Singhu border, in north Delhi, which separates Delhi from Haryana. Farmers from the two states have also arrived at West Delhi’s Tikri border, and those from western Uttar Pradesh are at the Noida-East Delhi border. In total, five entry points to Delhi are blocked at the moment. This, the farmers stress, is going to be a battle of will — not force — and what they need is patience and hope, traits that Ranbir Singh and his brethren display in abundance.

“We feel assured because our farmers were never united this way before. We have captured Delhi from all corners and we are not budging until our demands are met,” the 37-year-old farmer says calmly.

Singh belongs to one of the 33 farmers’ unions that have come from Punjab and Haryana to demand that the government roll back its new farm laws or kaale kanoon (black laws), as they call it. The laws seek to remove the guarantee of a minimum support price (MSP) and deregulate crop pricing, which, the farmers hold, will leave them at the mercy of big corporations and market forces. The government states that the laws will do away with brokers, invite private investors and give the farmers the right to sell anywhere.

Hold it: “We want the Centre to know that we have arrived. We have chosen to turn off our engines here,” says Ranjeet Singh

 

“We’ve seen how the farmers of states like MP, UP, Gujarat, Bihar and Maharashtra take their crops and wait for days in the mandi to sell their produce. They actually struggle more than us, but we are the ones who speak up for everybody. If we don’t speak up now our fate will become theirs,” says Jalandhar farmer Ranjeet Singh. “Our farmers are jaagruk (aware) and literate, so they’ve risen together to come and demand their rights,” the 32-year-old farmer adds.

With about 83 per cent of Punjab farmers in debt, there is anger that the Central government hardly consulted farmers’ representatives before changing the laws. “Punjab ka kisan poore India ko paalta hai (the farmers of Punjab nourish all of India),” he says. “Go open your history textbooks,” says an elderly farmer from the midst of a crowd gathered around, all leaning into the conversation. But for farmers from erstwhile undivided Punjab which includes Haryana and western UP, the regions from where the farmers have arrived in large numbers, the anger isn’t just about MSP alone. It goes back into history.

Going against the grain

The green revolution introduced in the 1960s changed the nature of farming and Punjab’s grain economy. The region, which was predominantly a wheat belt, started to grow rice. “Paddy is Punjab’s addiction,” says Amandeep Sandhu, author of Panjab: Journeys through fault lines. While farmers found more returns in the crop compared to wheat, it came at a great environmental cost — paddy guzzled the state’s ground water.

The cultivation of paddy in Punjab meant double the water consumption when compared to harvesting it in rice bowl areas such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and West Bengal. And the tragedy is that a cropping pattern that continues to plague the region was never eased out of practice. Sandhu recalls travelling through Punjab for his book in 2017 and hearing this lament at farmers’ rallies: When the country was hungry we fed it, now we’re dying of thirst and nobody cares.

Rice is not the regular staple of Punjab, which mostly consumes wheat. But as farmers continue to grow paddy for the rest of the country, many complain that the state is being treated as no more than a food producing colony for India. “What we’re seeing play out today is anger that stems from a deep sense of neglect,” Sandhu says, speaking from Bengaluru. The threat to the MSP was the last straw.

There is anger, but the farmers want to make sure that it does not spill out to the streets. They laugh off reports that refer to the protestors as “Khalistanis”, supporters of a movement for a separate state that led to bloodshed in the ’80s.

Calm as a rock: “They want us to get violent. But we are mature enough to understand that,” says 24-year old Gauravdeep Singh

 

“They want us to get violent. But we are mature enough to understand that. They have been provoking us all along by saying this [movement] is actually for Khalistan. What does it have to do with Khalistan,” asks Gauravdeep Singh, the founder of the Ludhiana-based Initiators of Change, a platform that seeks to bring social and political change among the youth. “We are not breaking the geographical boundaries of this country. We want our own rights given to us by the Constitution. We are a Centre-state country where states work in coordination with the Centre, not under it,” says Singh, who, as a mark of protest, will be returning the National Youth Award, that was conferred to him by the union ministry of sports and youth affairs in 2018 for spreading youth voter awareness.

Those like 24-year-old Gauravdeep, seen distributing medical kits at Singhu, have ensured that the youth show up in large numbers at the protest, and feel a part of the movement. “Ardaas karke nikale hain. It’s like a sacred prayer. We don’t return until it is fulfilled,” he says.

Duty to nourish

Yet, at Singhu, the mood isn’t one of unrest. While the blockade stretches to over 25 km, with more tractor-trolleys arriving each day, the highway has been turned into a makeshift village. Trolleys have been turned into caravans with soft beds of straw, mattresses, fleece blankets, tarpaulin sheet roofs and solar lights. Radios are out, as are decks of cards, bags of peanuts and gajjaks — a winter snack of jaggery and peanuts. Groceries, gas cylinders and pots and pans come out at the right time for a hot meal.

Colourful turbans gather in small circles to prepare rotis on a stove made of loose bricks. “This is the first time we’re all cooking. When we go back home we’re going to tell our wives to step aside and we will take over the kitchen,” one of the farmers says, laughing heartily.

Nourishing India: “Come, eat with us,” is the warm invitation for langar that often comes from a random passer-by

 

Then there are langars — community kitchens — that serve hot food through the day, ensuring nobody goes hungry. “Come, eat with us,” is the warm invitation that often comes from a random passer-by.

The amazing part about a langar is that it builds bridges when none is in sight. Last week, even as the farmers were storming through NH1, breaking down barricades and covering up trenches dug by state authorities at various points to stop their entry, after being caned and sprayed with water cannons and tear gas, a gurudwara at Karnal, Haryana, invited the Haryana Police to join their langar. In a touching video that went viral on social media, the police can be seen profusely thanking the volunteers. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” they say, while accepting the servings.

“This is Punjab’s hospitality. It feeds Iraq to Syria to the Rohingyas,” Sandhu says, referring to the Sikh community’s service in troubled spots.

In August 2019, when Punjab faced its worst flood in 40 years, Gauravdeep recalls going to several parts for flood relief and finding that even amidst a flood, the langars cooked up enough for everybody, including those who had come for relief work.

“Every Sikh farmer gives away a tenth of his produce to a gurudwara. So there is always an abundance of food in gurudwaras. Our langars have saved lives every time the nation has been in a crisis. The MSP law threatens this abundance,” he says.

An ode to dignity

For most middle-class city dwellers, brought up on the image of impoverished, rustic farmers, the sight of the Punjabi cultivator can be somewhat disorienting. He isn’t a starving, poorly clothed and illiterate peasant. At the Singhu border, the young farmers are in track pants and sneakers, have earphones plugged into their ears, and are tech savvy. They look you straight in the eye when they speak — and, no, they aren’t looking for mercy or largesse, not even if every third farmer among them lives below the poverty line.

There is a Punjabi word that captures the core of their spirit. “The word is anakh. It describes the self-respect that lies at their core,” Sandhu says. It is the reason why their farm leaders refused to break bread with the government this afternoon and instead had the langar brought in by a van.

It certainly captures a moment — clicked on phone cameras — when 20-year-old Jasmeet Singh from Ambala, locally known as the barricade hero, cleared six cement barricades on NH1. “Josh itna zyada hai. (There’s just so much zest),” he says, with a smile. He whips out his phone to proudly show video clips of how he used his tractor, some metal chains and often just his bare hands to break through.

Language of unity

The farmer protests in Punjab and Haryana gathered steam in September. “We would have never had to come in these many numbers if it weren’t for state apathy. We’ve fought so many battles. It’s in our gene to not be afraid to give up our lives. Breaking this barricade and going further into Delhi isn’t a problem for us. But we want the Centre to know that we have arrived. We have chosen to turn off our engines here,” says Ranjeet Singh, explaining the leverage of blocking a national highway.

In the eight days since their arrival the government has been holding rounds of talks with the farmers at the capital’s Vigyan Bhavan — a government conference complex in central Delhi — on the new farm laws introduced in the Lok Sabha in September this year. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Farm Services Bill will be dissected on the negotiating table.

Cross my heart: “We knew that we will either come back victorious or not return at all,” says Ranbir Singh

 

When the Centre tried to get them to form a smaller committee of five to seven members to take the discussions further, the 40 groups — 33 from Punjab and Haryana and seven from other states — refused to be divided. Talk to each one of us, they insisted. “We have come to secure a future for our children. There are no caste, class or age divisions among us. This time we’re in it together — old, young, rich, poor, men, women, Punjabis, Haryanvis, Jats and others,” Ranbir Singh says.

Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmers’ rights activist, says, “The unifying factor this time around has been the collective mistrust against Modi sarkar.” Verbal assurances won’t do, he holds: The farmers won’t go back without the laws being revoked.

At the Tikri border, Kanwar Grewal, Punjab’s home-bred rock star, whose song Ailaan, penned for the farmer’s protest in 2020, has become an anthem of sorts, sings into the microphone in front of thousands gathered around him. The song articulates the plight, fight and journey of Punjab’s farmers.

Tenu Diliye Ikath Pareshan Karuga

Tera Fayde Naalo Jyada Nuksaan Karuga

Par Faslan De Faisle Kisaan Karuga

(Oh Delhi! You are going to be troubled by this gathering!

More than welfare, these laws bring adversity

But only a farmer will have the final word about his crops)

And as a turbaned audience sings along, with grit, resilience and calm, they are fully aware that their voices have, at last, reached the corridors of power, who now know the might they must confront at their doorstep.

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Published on December 03, 2020
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