Daljit Singh from Patiala says dramatically that he is very grateful to the Narendra Modi government.
Just when you think you have found one Bharatiya Janata Party supporter in the sea of humanity spread over 15 kms on the border of Delhi, he delivers the punchline: “I am grateful because this farm law has united us. We farmers were sleeping while the country was being sold off to corporations. Now we are awake and will protect all of you.”
There is no shortage of punchlines from the farmers who have set up camp and are encircling the national capital. They have so much determination and clarity of thought that the government knows it has to either step back and make big dilutions to the new farm laws or repeal them altogether.
The government has already offered to roll back some provisions, suggesting perhaps that the great farmers’ uprising is on the verge of compelling the Narendra Modi administration to eat humble pie.
This is an agitation of strapping farmers, led by Sikhs from Punjab, but functioning as a lightning rod for those from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and farther afield. This is a large force that arrived on tractors, jeeps, buses, four-wheel drives and cars to camp out for several months. Like medieval armies of the past, they have pitched elaborate tents that house the leadership of gurudwaras from Punjab and elsewhere.
Tarajit Singh is from a family that runs an influential gurudwara in Gurdaspur. He is enraged at the description of the movement as being run by Khalistanis. “They will call us tukde tukde gang [which aims to break India into pieces] or Khalistanis to discredit a movement that is about our agrarian problems,” he said. He added that he has refused to talk to those journalists who start conversations with questions about 1980s separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Khalistan.
The head of a powerful gurudwara in Nanded, Maharashtra, has just arrived in a convoy and said that more participants from the region are on their way.
There is a fascinating intermingling of traditional Sikhs and long-standing activists, some with links to Left parties, who have worked on agricultural and labour issues for decades. But they are all speaking the same language about being sold off to corporate interests.
Jasbir Singh Piddi, vice president of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti has travelled from Tarn Taran in Punjab and spoke of efforts by the government to divide the protestors into different groups by the government.
Things will drag on for a while, he said. Our people are still coming. Providing him support is a taxi operators association from Delhi, pitching in with a large langar (a free community kitchen) and many stump speeches about selling India off to corporations.
Everyone I speak to mentions the 2004 Swaminathan committee report on farmers and asks why the government has never implemented it. They know exactly what they are fighting against. Simply put, they say they would rather work with known middle-men in traditional agriculture markets than allow corporations sitting afar and dictate terms for the sector.
“It’s about self respect,” said Garvinder Singh, from Gurdaspur. “The government thinks we are fools.”
Besides the many magnificent men with their flowing beards who are now seen on television, there are many youth scattered all over the large camp-site on the highway that links Delhi to Sonipat, Haryana, the route to the elite Ashoka and OP Jindal Global universities.
Loitering around a large hookah were a group of young farmers from Haryana who laughed and said that they were now“wela” (with spare time on their hands) and could stay until April, which is when they would have to return to their villages to harvest the wheat crop.
Some distance away, some radical young trade union workers are also giving speeches and interviews. They had put up a sign on their tractor that says, “Godi media not allowed” – lapdog media not allowed.
This is the largest protest I have seen and the most well-fed. At every step, cauliflower is being chopped, bags of potatoes being carried and outstretched arms offer laddus, halwa and lassi. There are health camps too, the only place where volunteers are wearing masks.
The visual image that stays with me of a line of policemen on the border, helmets and bullet vests in place, while casually walking towards them is a jatha (an armed body) of Nihangs, traditional warriors, distinct in their blue turbans with their long swords and horses.
This is a significant protest because it’s not just about resisting new farm laws. It is from the fields and granaries of India that a strong articulation against big corporations is being made. Modi, Ambani and Adani are being critiqued robustly in the same breath.
It’s potent, it’s organic and it’s hard to see how the government can shut this down.
Saba Naqvi is a veteran journalist in New Delhi and the author most recently of Politics of Jugaad.