On Friday, thousands of farmers marched to Parliament to demand that a special session be held to discuss their concerns. Among the crowd was Balwinder Singh, a 60-year-old farmer who had travelled from Amritsar, Punjab. He called the Narendra Modi government the “betrayer of farmers”.

“[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is trying to turn everyone to Hindutva,” Singh said. “They have just ignored our demands and diverted the focus to this temple issue.”

He was referring to the renewed politics over the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. In 1992, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party had culminated in Hindutva mobs tearing down the 16th-century Babri Masjid, sparking communal riots across India. Twenty-six years later, with the BJP in power both at the Centre and in the state, and Lok Sabha elections just months away, the Sangh has revived demands for the temple to be built. This has dominated the news as well as discussions on social media, at a time when farm distress is mounting across the country.

Balwinder Singh also counted drug addiction as a problem afflicting farmers in Punjab.

Many believe the BJP’s temple politics is a ploy to distract attention from the worsening economic situation, particularly in rural India.

But what do the farmers think? Scroll.in spoke to eight farmers at the march. Here is what they had to say:

Sita Devi, 25, Uttar Pradesh

Sita Devi from Unnao attended the Kisan Mukti March to assert her right to equal employment opportunities.

Sita Devi, a Dalit woman from Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh, came to Delhi to assert her right to equal employment opportunities. “The upper-caste people in our village do not let us gain from employment,” she said. “They call us ‘untouchable’ and all the jobs are under their control. They do not even let us work as cooks to prepare mid-day meals for children in schools because they do not want their children to eat from our hands.”

Devi, who also works as a labourer on farms, hopes that a Ram temple will be built and that she will be allowed to enter it. “We also pray but we want our rights to be able to pray inside the temple if it is built.”

Chandrashekhar Sidam, 46, Maharashtra

Chandrashekhar Sidam came all the way from Yavatmal in Maharashtra.

Chandrashekhar Sidam, from Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, joined the Kisan Mukti March in Delhi to push demands that have been pending since the Kisan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai that took place in March. “The whole district has been affected by drought,” he said. “The cotton crops we grew were all destroyed because there was not enough water for them.”

Sidam added that the question of building a Ram temple was irrelevant to him. “This is not our issue,” he said. “We did not ask for a temple but they [BJP] are the ones who have always wanted to build one. Parliament is theirs, the president is theirs, the whole government is theirs… so what has stopped them from building a temple in these last four years? It is just a conspiracy to get more votes.”

M Sellappan, 70, Tamil Nadu

M Sellappan said Cyclone Gaja had damaged fields in seven districts of Tamil Nadu.

Farmers from Tamil Nadu who joined the march said Cyclone Gaja, which struck their state in November, had severely damaged their fields. “The cyclone has affected at least seven districts in coastal Tamil Nadu,” said M Sellappan from Nagapattinam district. “The Central government is not interested in providing relief to Tamil Nadu. So many parts were just washed away. The government has been pampered by corporate houses.”

Calling the BJP’s plan to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya “cheap politics”, Sellappan said, “We are opposing this. It is just to play with Hindus and Muslims.”

BN Ravish, 40, Karnataka

G Narasimha (left) and BN Ravish (right) from Karnataka said they would visit the Ram temple if it were built.

BN Ravish, from Tumakuru district in Karnataka, said an acute shortage of water had forced farmers like him to install borewells 2,000-feet deep. “That borewell cost us Rs 10 lakh,” he said. “There is no rain so there is no water that we can use to irrigate our fields. Since 20 years, we have not received proper drinking water.”

Ravish added that farmers from Karnataka who were participating in the Kisan Mukti March were eager for a Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya. “We should have a temple,” he said. “We will definitely visit if it is made.”

Jagbir Singh, 35, Uttar Pradesh

Satprakash Singh (left) and Jagbir Singh (right), from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, demanded that their electricity bills be reduced.

Jagbir Singh from Mainpuri district in Uttar Pradesh complained that the cooking gas connections provided to families below the poverty line under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana were too expensive for his family. “The cost of a refill is more than Rs 1,000 and we cannot afford it,” he said. “Now, we are back to using wood for cooking. We were freely getting gas connections before the state elections [in 2017] but now it is of no use to us.”

On the matter of the Ram temple, Singh said he would be “very happy” if it became a reality. “At least give us a date,” he added. “If something is meant to be there, then it should surely be built.”

Vijendar Kumar, 55, Uttarakhand

Vijendar Kumar (second from right) and other farmers from Haridwar say they have not received payments from the government for their sugarcane for two years now.

Many farmers at the march said they were there to protest against the government for stalling payments on their produce. “We have not received payments for our sugarcane produce for two years,” said Vijendar Kumar, a farmer from Haridwar district in Uttarakhand. “Our expenses are so high and fertilisers, especially urea, are too expensive for us to purchase.”

He added, “Farmers do not see religion. We know the government has started the Ram temple issue just for votes and we see through it.”

Swamimalai Vimalnathan, 55, Tamil Nadu

Swamimalai Vimalnathan says first the drought and then the cyclone caused farmers in Tamil Nadu distress.

Vimalnathan lamented the loss of his crops first because of drought and later Cyclone Gaja, which he said had affected 10 lakh farmers in Tamil Nadu. “The entire country will not be able to survive if farmers are dying,” he said.

Speaking about the Ram temple, he said: “All these temple issues are only being discussed to divert from main problems. Farmers produce paddy for god only, in fact farmers are god for this country.”

Kulbhanu Kumar, 63, Uttar Pradesh

Purshottam Pandey (left) and Kulbhanu Kumar (right) from Mathura said polluted water from industries had damaged their crops.

For many farmers from Uttar Pradesh, the Delhi march was an opportunity to protest against the quality of water they receive to irrigate their farms. “We get dirty industrial polluted water that comes to our farms through the Agra Canal,” said Kulbhanu Kumar from Mathura district. “The water is so bad that it destroys all our wheat and cotton crops. It is not just the farms but also the whole district that is affected by this dirty water.”

Kumar added that his village had witnessed the deaths of several farmers and their children because of debt. “In the last week, three children of farmers committed suicide,” he said. “These children do not know what to do with their lives because they are unable to pay off their debts.”

In such a situation, no religious structure can be a solution to farmers’ problems, Kumar asserted. “We do not want anything,” he said. “Right now, religion and capitalists like [Mukesh] Ambani and [Gautam] Adani are the only ones soaring high and thriving.”

All photographs by Vijayta Lalwani.