The recent debate on the contentious farm laws and the ensuing protests by farmers has primarily focused on economic and political aspects. It has analysed and examined the costs and benefits of these agricultural reforms, and the impact they will have on farmers. Political commentators have highlighted how these protests pose a major challenge to the government, with some arguing that it could represent a possible “Anna moment”.

What is absent from the debate though, is a nuanced appreciation of the cultural underpinnings and motivations of the protest and its protestors. By reducing these protests to a set of “misplaced” fears and anxieties of farmers from Punjab and Haryana regarding the dismantling of APMC mandis or the abolition of the MSP, most experts have failed to gauge the cultural dimension of these protests and what they mean for our democracy.

Drawing on the work of the Punjab novelist and Jnanapith award winner Gurdial Singh, we try to creatively use the cultural concepts of anakh and unhoye found in his fiction to understand these protests.

Being and nothingness

While deeply rooted in the culture, society and ecology of the Malwa region of Punjab, Gurdial Singh’s fiction speaks deeply to the predicament of the marginalised or those facing dispossession even today. He shot to fame with the publication of his first novel Marhi Da Diwa in 1964; his other major works include Unhoye (1966), Adh Chanani Raat (1972), and Parsa (1990).

Bringing a new consciousness to the Punjabi novel, he made the poor, dispossessed and marginalised the protagonists of his fiction. In the words of his translator Rana Nayar, Gurdial Singh tried to give “voice to the voiceless.

Singh started writing in the 1960s and tried to capture the mechanisation and commercialisation of agrarian ties and social relations in the wake of the Green Revolution. His fictive universe is peopled by socially marginalised characters like Jagseer, Bishna and Moddan, who become outcastes by virtue of their rebellion against an unjust system.

In Unhoye (1966), Bishna, a carpenter, is being forced to sell the land on which his ancestral house is built so that a road can be linked through it to the new anaj mandi (grain market). Browbeaten by the nexus of police-bureaucracy-local moneylenders, Bishna cries out in frustration, “Is it up to me whether to sell it or not?” This novel about a poor carpenter who is dispossessed by a coercive state in the name of development, bears a strange similarity to the predicament of today’s protesting farmers.

Singh’s novels develop unhoye as a state of non-being. It is a condition that springs directly from systemic oppression, such that even the hond (existence) is challenged by a brutal world. The unhoye can be visually imagined as individuals reduced to being the dregs of society, barely clinging to the insides of a glass that privilege has had its fill from. More directly, unhoye, in Singh’s book would be Dalit-Bahujans, landless labourers, small farmers on the verge of complete breakdown, powerless women bought and sold in marriages, and workers wrecked into anomie by the assembly-line method of production.

The unhoye struggle because they see the possibility of dignity and ask themselves: Why don’t I have that? This is strikingly similar to the angst articulated by the protesting farmers, as they ask: Why are you giving us something we don’t need? Why can’t we help decide that which will affect us the most?

Secondly, the treatment of their protest pushes them into being unhoye. Singers, intellectuals and young social media users supporting the movement have documented the water-cannons, batons, and tear-gas showered on crowds of peaceful protestors. Some media houses have also raised the Khalistan bogey, and constant allusions to the “fact” that this is a Sikh/Punjabi protest have erased the support from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other states.

The protest was initially given the colour of misguided, “pampered” landed elites with interests in the APMC markets, and then reviled as a militant impulse by a religious “other”. Consciously colouring their voice as a fearsome, or anti-state expression, reduced them to being unhoye.

Who is participating in the protest? This protest is being read as an agenda of large landlords and arhatiyas (commission agents), who are the prime beneficiaries of the APMCs. However, many of the participants include small and marginal farmers, landless labourers, sharecroppers, tenant-cultivators, artists, singers, intellectuals, sportspersons and now even truckers’ unions, university students, army veterans, and urban middle-class sympathisers.

The protest has found itself a broad base of support that goes beyond class, caste and religion: Malerkotla’s Muslim groups have lent support at the Singhu border, Dalit organisations like Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army and Tamil Nadu’s VCK party have expressed solidarity, unions of farmers, labourers, Dalits and progressives in Karnataka have also joined the struggle.

Fighting erasure

It’s true that the movement has elite elements, who are traditionally considered to be exploitative sources in rural areas. And besides, it does not promise any social transformation in terms of caste-class politics. But the movement marks a significant participation of systematically oppressed individuals and groups who fall under the label of unhoye.

It is important to note how the farmers were rendered unhoye in light of the blatant violation of parliamentary procedures. The three farm bills were neither referred to a select committee, nor was there proper discussion or deliberation of these bills within Parliament and even the opposition’s demand for a division was dismissed.

In this context Pratap Bhanu Mehta has observed that, “The Indian Parliament is quickly moving…to be a site for the acclamation of authoritarianism.” He also notes how “…the betrayal of procedure in Parliament is not just about technicalities. Some deference to process can build trust because it is a sign of a government that listens.”

The condition of the unhoye not only denotes the state of the marginalised and voiceless but also denotes a process ie, the process of the erasure of the marginalised from collective memory or the imagination of a community. There have been systematic attempts at ascribing sectarian or ideological motives to this protest in order delegitimise it. Systematic erasure or refashioning of protest as a public inconvenience as led by vested interests or as a threat to the nation’s unity ignores the possibility of accommodating diverse voices in a democracy.

Centralisation of power, absence of institutional checks and balances and lack of a robust political opposition has meant that marginalised groups do not have a say when it comes to decisions that affect them. They have been reduced to the state of the unhoye or to borrow a phrase from a commentator, they are the subaltern of contemporary India.

Protest consciousness

In such a political environment, anakh is a cultural code which becomes the basis of protest. Anakh is a complex word with layered meanings, variously understood as dignity, pride, caste arrogance, superiority, self-respect or patriarchal honour. A pre-capitalist dominant caste value, it can be found in the colonial stereotype of the Punjabi as a “martial race”, or in the Jat farmer sending a son to the army.

However, Gurdial Singh inverts the traditional usage of anakh by assigning this value to the most suppressed of his characters, people pushed to the end of their tether, but fighting to keep the embers of their pride alive. In his literary universe, anakh becomes an expression of the resistance offered by the downtrodden against an oppressive and unjust system.

Singh especially evokes it when the small farmer is on the verge of losing his land to large landlords (Adh Chandni Raat,1972), or Dalit labourers working on relations of oral trust are displaced by the urban elite, (Marhi Da Deeva, 1964) or the carpenter fights a losing battle to protect his ancestral house from being demolished (Unhoye, 1966). It is in that moment of tragedy, when the character hangs from the precipice, that they pull back up.

Extrapolated to the dispossessed and the marginalised of today, anakh represents the dignity, pride and self-respect of the marginalised who simply refused to become unhoye. The very act of protest by the unhoye, whether staging a dharna or blocking a highway becomes a powerful mode of dissent. It also enables them to become visible and assert their presence in the face of conscious attempts to misrepresent their protest.

Anakh can be found in larger protest consciousness, because the very act of claiming change in the interest of justice marks protest groups as anakhi kaum (anakh-community).

In the case of the farmers’ movement, the anakh becomes the basis of forging solidarity across diverse demographies. When the farmer is photographed being beaten by police batons, and later recorded on video serving langar to the same policemen, they imbue protest with anakh as dignity. When the farmer marches peacefully, sings songs to drive out the stark cold of north India, they pragmatically build a broader coalition. Anakh thus becomes a powerful way of articulating a new political imagination and offering resistance.

In light of how this protest has been called a protest of only Punjab and Haryana farmers, despite evidence to the contrary, we would like to suggest that the anakh which Gurdial Singh characterises his protagonists with is not exclusive to the Punjabi farmer. It instead becomes a quality which can be ascribed to all those who resist being made politically irrelevant or marginalised ie, the unhoye of our democracy.

Occupying public spaces or blocking highways does not only become a form of registering protest, but also of becoming “visible” in the face of attempts at invisiblising them. The assertion of anakh thus emerges as a way in which the unhoye assert their claims as democratic citizens, as equal stakeholders who must have a say in the policies which affect them.

So, at one level this assertion of anakh is symptomatic of the dysfunctional nature of our democracy in its current form. The decline of independent institutions, centralisation of power and the government’s bias towards business-oriented policies has rendered the “people” marginalised or voiceless. At another level, the assertion of anakh by the unhoye can be seen as a response to this very crisis, an attempt to make their voices heard. The battle being fought by farmers at Singhu border is not only about their economic future, it is a battle for the very heart of our democracy.

Madhav Nayar completed his Masters in Modern South Asian History from SOAS. Tript Kaur has completed her MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies from University of Cambridge.