It’s noon on a Tuesday. It is summer and the air is thick, hot and humid. It is 46 degrees in the shade (which is scant). At the Northern border of Delhi, close to Singhu village, cars roll past on the highway. The farmers’ protest site extends across the highway, and the cars see the camps for a full fifteen kilometers before getting a glimpse of open, guilt-free tarmac. There is a portion of the highway completely blocked off.
The camp dates from last November when protesters built it after trying to enter India’s capital. The police had restrained them and erected barbed wire and cement blocks, forming a barricade. Beyond this, the protesters have formed their own physical symbol of resistance: a stage equipped with mics, table fans, chairs and a fully functioning battery powered sound system where the union leaders speak.
“This is for our future,” says a young, bearded man who is running a small, improvised library next to the stage. “And we have to fight to protect it.” He hesitates before giving his name, Zia Ur Rehman. He has a soft voice, wearing a white t-shirt that says ‘Facilitate’ 'Educate' 'Agitate'. You can buy one of these for Rs. 100 at a stall right next to the stage. Capitalism meets revolution. I ask him why he is here.
“To tell you that I have to trust you,” he says. “And you have to build trust. It takes time.”
The protests were sparked by the Indian government’s Farm Bill, passed last September. It included three new agriculture laws — and sought to open the Indian agriculture markets and boost income, trade and economic growth. It provoked outrage among India’s mostly agrarian population. According to the farmers’ unions it will bind farmers to unfavorable contracts, which largely benefit big companies. Many have even compared it to a form of indentured labour.
Huge protests broke out – and continue to this day – even though their form has changed: The anger around Delhi has not disappeared, but has stabilized: They have evolved from spontaneous street demonstrations to enduring protest camps.
In part, this development happened because of the time of year they started: The first protesters arrived in the winter. As temperatures dipped, they improvised, finding new ways to ensure that the elders in the community were comfortable. Tents were equipped with heaters and hot air blowers, ovens popped up across the sites and warm food (which included oven-baked pizzas) was served to visiting leaders, student unionists who had travelled in support and even members of the media.
Having gorged on the pizzas gleefully, the state-aligned media went on to attack them on prime time. How could uneducated farmers, people brought up in rural India without exposure to ‘urban culture’, think of making pizzas in the middle of a revolution? Surely there were ‘anti-national’ or ‘external’ forces facilitating this protest against the government. At times the attacks bordered on parody.
Sukhdev Singh laughs at all this. “Why do you say so?” he says as I comment that these pictures might have harmed the protests “You think farmers don’t use washing machines, mixers, microwaves and cell phones?”
Sukhdev comes from Hoshiarpur, the headquarters of a district by the same name in Northern Punjab. A professional footballer currently out of contract, Sukhdev comes from an agricultural family, who came to the protest sites in December last year. When his agent told him there was a chance he could get signed for a club, he shaped his fitness routine around the protest sites, carrying weights and equipment every time he went there. A personal fitness project became community based as many young farmers soon joined in the workouts.
Jagmeet, a young, ardent football fan, saw Sukhdev’s Instagram workout posts in the beginning of the year and had a bright idea. Shortly before he had lost his job as a driver in the first Covid-19 lockdown. He returned to his home town Ludhiana and was working as a delivery boy for Your Seva, a UK based non-profit providing medical aid to families in distress. Why not collect money so that even more people at the protest camp can stay fit? Jagmeet asked the organisation if they would be willing to provide funds for some equipment for a gym at the Singhu border. They agreed. Today Jagmeed mans the camp’s first open air gym, nestled within the premises of the Indian Oil pump on the highway. There is also a medical facility, a filtered water cooler and two washing machines — all funded by Your Seva.
As I ask Jagmeet if the owners of the pump protested at the incursion, and he recoils in shock. “They even asked us to use this space!” he says, “And before you ask, no they don’t ask for money. And we don’t ask people who use the gym for money either.” The only condition for using it to take care of it and clean up after you’re done.*
Back in the library, Zia Ur Rehman’s mood has changed. The stage has broken for lunch and few of the attendees look eager to come back. Their tents and encampments offer better shade, and most importantly, cots on which they can lie and ride this heat wave out. The library — one of three at the protest site — is deserted and Rehman has time to talk. Why did he come here? I ask him again. And now he explains.
I learn that Rehman was studying Political Science in Hyderabad, when the Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, that would pave the way for their Hindu nation. Rehman, along with his peers decided to take to the streets. Protests erupted across the country, but Rehman wasn’t protesting. He was educating. He printed the laws in the three dominant languages of Hyderabad and went door to door, telling people what was going on.
When the farmers’ protests broke out around Delhi in November, Rehman joined with two friends from Hyderabad. “Frankly, I just wanted to come here and be part of something revolutionary,” he says. His parents opposed the idea of their son travelling up north to show support, as they both work for the government while his sisters are employed by big private companies. “I told them that I had to do this, because someone has to give back to society, to fight for equality. Because if we don’t, no one will fight for us,” says Rehman who then went to the capital. He hasn’t been home since, not even when one of his sisters married in January.
“My purpose here is twofold,” he says. “The first is to offer these farmers – who form the real backbone of our economy - my personal support. This is my duty. The second is to help them understand how we got here today. “
Rehman set up the small library at the border a week after the protests started. In the early days, it was just three cartons of books, a carpet and a plastic chair (which he nicked from the stage area) under a tarpaulin shade. Now, books are arranged in three bookcases inside a neat and large tent. The carpet and the chair are still around, but have been supplemented with pillows and a desk facing the main window.
In the early days, he started off by keeping revolutionary texts, the writings of Bhagat Singh, MK Gandhi, Chandrashekhar Azad and even Nelson Mandela. He mixed these up with abridged condensations of Marx, Engels and BR Ambedkar. The books were procured via funds from his university friends and acquaintances. Then he brought some books on trade law, agricultural law and economic policy. Now, professors and small writers send over copies of their work for him to keep. He lets people take these books with them and doesn’t ask for them to be returned.
“There is a lot of anger and resentment here, but very little actual knowledge,” says Rehman.
The numbers at the protests have stayed steady despite the extreme weather conditions, the Covid-19 surges and the arrival of the sowing season. What once was a pulsating energy for change has given way to a general acceptance that it will take time. The government isn’t listening right now, people say, but if we stay put long enough, heads will turn.
The farmers' protests barely feature in the mainstream media anymore, as they are nothing new. Only when they come up with eye-catching events, like burning political effigies do they pop up in the news cycle. Those at the site are highly critical of the media whose lack of coverage has hurt them. Recently a group of youngsters decided they would take news dissemination into their own hands and created the newspaper “Trolley Times”. Rehman helped conceptualize it. He keeps copies at the library and offers suggestions, most of which, he says, are rejected. “There’s too much politics everywhere my friend,” he says. “I just want to do simple work, person to person. It's easier that way. Everything else… is drama (the Hindi word he uses, natak, literally translates to theatre).”
By the early evening, the fierce heat has eased off and an old sardar man peeks through the window, eyeing items strewn across the desk. “Babaji, tussi ae lo, changi kitaab hegi,” meaning something like, “Uncle take this one, this is a good book for you”, Rehman says. He riffles in one of his boxes of books and plucking out a scientific take on the effects of the farm laws.