Fifty-eight-year-old Jasbeer Singh listed the names of the places in Haryana where he had to negotiate police barriers before finally arriving at the state’s Singhu border with Delhi as he travelled from his home in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district about 250 km away.
Shambhu, between Punjab and Haryana, had been fortified with cement road dividers. In Karnal, the authorities had parked approximately 150 driverless trucks in the middle of the highway. At Panipat and Sonipat, eight-foot-deep trenches had been dug across the highway.
Singh was among the tens of thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh who were driving their tractors to the Capital to demand that three new agricultural laws be rolled back. They fear that the legislations will end the minimum support prices they receive from the government on key crops, leaving them at the mercy of corporations.
But Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had tried to prevent the farmers from crossing state boundaries. When the farmers burst through the barricades, they were met with police batons, tear gas and water cannons.
“We first broke [Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal] Khattar’s ego and then we broke Modi’s ego,” said Jasbeer Singh. He finally reached Delhi’s borders on November 27.
Several BJP leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi have claimed that the new laws will actually improve prices that farmers receive by giving them more flexibility. Modi claimed that Opposition parties were fanning rumours to misguide the farmers.
Some members of the ruling party went further in their attempt to discredit the profestors. Haryana Chief Minister Khattar claimed that the government had received reports that the ranks of the protestors included a “Khalistani presence”, claiming that separatists who want an independent Sikh homeland had joined the agititation.
This claim, for which no evidence has been offered, has been amplified by many news channels.
It has hurt and outraged the protestors.
“The Modi media is calling us Khalistanis,” said Joga Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Kapurthala in Punjab. “We have been sitting peacefully for two months. That makes us terrorists?” he asked. “Please be with us. If you do not give us a voice, then how will Modi know?”
‘National media not with us’
On Monday, the protestors continued to be parked on Delhi’s borders, refusing the government’s efforts to move them to a plot of land in North West Delhi. This plot, they said, was merely an “open jail”.
The Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana stayed shut as hundreds of tractors stayed stationary on the GT Karnal Highway. The protest site, surrounded by barricades and concertina wire, now hosts a stage, a community kitchen and a several medical kiosks.
The area echoed with chants of “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!”, long live the soldier, long live the farmer, the slogan popularised in the 1960s by India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Amidst the bustle, a small group of farmers held up placards criticising the national media for calling them terrorists.
“Do we have any weapons?” asked 26-year-old Prabhjit Singh, a farmer from Ludhiana in Punjab. “On whose behalf are they saying that we are terrorists? We are farmers, educated farmers.”
Another man contended that the national media was not reporting on the protests truthfully. “The national media is not with us…Aaj Tak, Zee News, ABP,” said 34-year-old Sukhchain Singh, who had come from Ambala in Haryana.
Sukhchain Singh explained why accurate reporting was essential. “The day the stock limit gets over, that is the day the common man will die,” he said. He was referring to the provision in one of the new laws that lifts limits on the quantities of stocks of essential commodities like cereals and pulses that traders can hold.
“The common man is not yet aware of how this will impact them,” Sukhchain Singh said. “And the national media is not showing it.”
Singh’s journey to Delhi was also marked by water cannon and tear gas in Shahbad, a city between Ambala and Kurukshetra. “My foot slipped under the tyre of the tractor and got injured,” he said, displaying his bandaged limb. “The pressure of water is a lot from the cannon.”
Future of farming
BJP leaders have claimed that farmers do not understand the laws properly. Several farmers at the Singhu border dismissed this idea. “I am an illiterate man but let one person even satisfy me as to why this is beneficial,” said Jasbeer Singh.
He said that the entry of private corporations into the agricultural sector that the laws facilitate could pose a threat to the minimum support price.
“The minimum support price is already at its minimum,” Jasbeer Singh said. “They [government] says that [corporate] buyers will pay more but there is no one to buy at a higher price. They will buy for two years and then store it. The mandis will be finished and then we will have to sell it [at a lower price] by force.”
Others denied allegations that the protest had been organised by Opposition parties.
“Modi says these are Congress people who are sitting,” said Satish Kumar, a farmer from Karnal, Haryana. “But Mr Modi, this is not about any party.”
He added: “No one is coming under anyone’s influence. Our blood is boiling because we know what is going to happen to us.”
Some farmers said that the farm laws were the result of crony capitalism and had been framed to benefit corporations with ties to the ruling party.
“They want to make the rich richer,” said 35-year-old Gurpreet Singh from Fatehgarh Sahib. “They want to hand over our land to the capitalists.”
Kumar added that the protests were crucial for the future of agriculture.
“They say they are removing the middlemen but they are keeping only two middlemen [Mukesh] Ambani and [Gautam] Adani,” he alleged. “We will have to leave farming. There is no guarantee of payment.”
Bhawan Deep Singh, 26, said that it was actually the government that was misguiding people.
“They called us anti-national….when the Delhi protests [against the Citizenship Amendment Act] happened they called them anti-national,” said the young man from Ludhiana. “Then who is the country’s citizen? Normal citizens do not create problems. It is always the government that does.”
Preparing for the long haul
Several farmers said that they had come prepared to dig in for a prolonged struggle.
As the day drew on at Singhu, the site took on a domestic air. Trucks at the site were piled with utensils, clothes and mattresses. Some people finished the day’s laundry and hung their clothes to dry on a line hung between two tractors.
Joga Singh said that when he got into his tractor in Kapurthala, Punjab, on November 2, his baggage included a gas cylinder, rations for six months, a rolling pin, a mattress and five pairs of clothes.
“Even if we have to sacrifice ourselves to get rid of these black laws, then we will do it,” Joga Singh said on Monday afternoon. “We will sit peacefully even if we have to sit for six months.”