Darshan Singh rummaged through old photos of his ancestors, beaming with pride as he pointed to those who had served in the Indian military and fought in past wars. The 76-year-old farmer now had good reason to see himself as part of a historic moment too. It was Nov. 22, three days after the repeal of India’s controversial farm laws, which drew hundreds of thousands of people like Singh to the streets in protest over the last year.
“Long after I am gone,” Singh said, “my grandchildren and great grandchildren will look back at the farmers’ movement and talk about how I was a part of it.”
Since leaving their homes in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in late November 2020, farmers have been protesting at Delhi’s three borders, which were barricaded to keep them out of the nation’s capital. Each about 20 miles apart, the borders — Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur — have become synonymous with the movement.
The farm laws at the center of the protest were seen as bending the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of produce. Farmers believed these laws would dismantle the “mandi” system, which currently allows them to sell their produce at government-regulated wholesale markets with guaranteed minimum prices. Doing away with this system would open the markets to corporations and force farmers to sell to private buyers not required to pay the minimum prices.
However, on Nov. 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the three farm laws would be withdrawn, saying the government could not convince farmers of the value of the laws. The move comes months before elections in five key states, including the farmer strongholds in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
Following Modi’s announcement, a week of festivities ensued. On Nov. 26, the one-year anniversary of the protest’s beginning, farmers poured into the protest sites outside Delhi. Among them was 29-year-old Kuljeet Kaur from Punjab, along with three of her children.
She and her family members have been taking turns visiting the Singhu protest site, while the others stay home to tend to their fields. Like many other protesters, they built a semi-permanent structure at the Singhu protest site. It has a bamboo structure, beds, colorful curtains, ceiling fans, and other necessities.
Kaur’s youngest child, three-year-old Chahat, often says, “I want to go to Delhi for the farmers’ protest.” Meanwhile, Kaur’s daughters, who are 12 and 13, were able to take a week’s leave from school in order to be present at the protest. Their teachers frequently grant such extended absences as a way of helping the parents who are participating in the movement. In fact, many teachers were also involved in the protests over the last year and took their classes along with them.
During the recent celebrations, solidarity events were organized all over the world and tributes were paid to those who died during the struggle. On Nov. 29, both houses of parliament passed the Farm Laws Repeal Bill 2021. While this too was cause for celebration, many protesters still refer to the repeal as “aadhi jeet,” or a half victory, and say they won’t stop until all their demands are met.
The remaining demands
Darshan Singh was among the thousands of farmers at the borders who celebrated the repeal, though he didn’t hide his disenchantment with the government. He believes that hundreds of lives could have been saved if this decision had been made earlier.
A farmer from Sri Muktsar Sahib district in Punjab, Singh was among the first wave of farmers to arrive outside Delhi last November. When they weren’t allowed into the capital, they stayed in their tractors. The first few days, locals from nearby villages offered them use of their washrooms. Eventually, tents turned into homes, and the roads and highways around the borders turned into mini townships. “I have seen so many protesters come and go, but I have not moved ever since,” he said.
During all the downtime, many activities were arranged to keep everyone healthy and active, particularly the elderly. Singh took part in all that he could, including races for those over the age of 65, which earned him medals and certificates from various farmer organizations. When he completed 10 months at the protest site, farm leaders gave him a shield for being among the few protesters to stay put at the borders.
Back home, Singh’s family has a 12-acre land holding, where they grow wheat and rice. While he misses home, he said that everyone in his family understands that this is the need of the hour. He has three children and six grandchildren, and he speaks to them regularly on his mobile phone. “This place has become home,” he said. “When we leave, we will be sad and so will the locals who have grown a connection with us.”
Protesters do not know when they will leave but, as of now, they say that they will stay until the repeal process is complete — and they receive written guarantees from the government regarding all their demands. On Nov. 22, Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or SKM, the organization leading the farmers protest, wrote to Prime Minister Modi to say that they welcomed the repeal decision. At the same time, however, SKM put forward six demands, foremost of which is a legal guarantee to “minimum support price” for their produce, across the nation.
The farmers are also asking for the withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill, which they believe will end subsidies for the high cost of electricity; the withdrawal of criminal cases imposed on thousands of farmers during the protests; the arrest of Union Minister Ajay Mishra for his connection to the murder of four farmers; and compensation and rehabilitation support to the families of those who died during the protest, along with a memorial in their name at Singhu border.
While the government dismisses the call for financial aid — claiming they don’t have enough data on the deaths — the protesters are keeping track. At the Singhu border, an organization called Mitti Aid, has recorded more than 700 deaths, whether from illnesses, age or accident. The number appears on a white board, along with the number of days and hours since the protest began. Passersby stop to look and pay their respects.
Too far to turn back
At the epicenter of all the activity is 86-year-old Nachhattar Singh, who is one of only a few at the border with distinct memories of India’s independence and the partition that followed. He has stayed put at the border since the protest began, barring the one time he went home to visit his wife when she was unwell.
Singh is quick to share his views on the farm laws, which he thought would foster the “corporatization” of agriculture and force food prices to skyrocket for everyone. Now he proudly wears what he refers to as “a symbol of freedom” — a “basanti” or saffron turban from Punjab, gifted to him by another protester on the day the repeal was announced.
Singh’s tent is not far from the stage, where protesters sing songs, students perform and leaders take the stage to address the protesters. Langars, or community kitchens, set up by volunteers are spread throughout the encampments and have been feeding hundreds of protesters daily. Over the course of the year, libraries and protest art can be spotted across the sites. Tikri border has an eye-catching mural depicting the face of a farmer with the universe painted inside of it. According to the artist, it’s “a metaphor for the relationship between the universe, our existence, food and the farmer.”
At the Ghazipur protest site, which is home to many farmers from Uttar Pradesh, the crowds were slightly less dense — but no less energetic — on the day of Modi’s announcement. SP Singh from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh sang poems at the border, attracting an audience. His poems touch upon the farm laws, the protests and how the government has failed farmers time and time again. He has written over a 100 poems since he joined the protest and believes that if he does not write about the wrongdoings of today, he will have no answer to give his successors years later.
While protesters at all the sites said they knew that the repeal was a politically motivated move, they agreed that it was still a win and that they felt validated after having struggled at the border for a year. Others said they would continue to visit the sites in “rotation.”
Irrespective of where the protesters are from and which border they are staying at, their conversations revolved around how they have come too far to turn back — not without their demands met. Unsurprisingly, trucks filled with wooden logs, winter clothes and blankets have started showing up, signaling that the farmers will be there for however long it takes.
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