Gursevak barely slept on Thursday night. The 23-year-old Sikh farmer from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, anxiously watched news videos that showed the swelling number of police personnel at Ghazipur, one of the sites of the two-month-long farmers’ protest on the borders of Delhi. The administration had ordered the eviction of the protest site by midnight.
Another video Gursevak watched showed Bharatiya Kisan Union spokesperson Rakesh Tikait teary-eyed, saying that the two-month-old protest against the three agricultural laws would continue no matter what the authorities did. The message had an immediate impact. In Tikait’s hometown in Sisauli, Muzaffarnagar, slogans expressing support for him began to be chanted.
As a result, on a day when the administration appeared prepared to crack down and clear out the site, hundreds of farmers poured in to Ghazipur. The protestors at this site and other places on highways entering Delhi fear that the new laws open the doors to corporate dominance of the agricultural sector and will undermine their livelihoods.
Most of these farmers came from districts in Western Uttar Pradesh like Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr, Meerut and Baghpat. Some poured in from Jind, Sonipat, Panipat and Hisar districts in Haryana.
Several said they had come to Delhi to participate in the tractor parade on January 26 and then returned home. That event had become chaotic as some people veered off the route that had agreed to with the authorities and resulted in violence at the Red Fort. It led to the police fililng cases against several farm union leaders,
But this time, the farmers said, they would be in Ghazipur “permanently” until the government repealed the laws.
“It is useless to sit at home now,” said Gursevak, who left Bulandshahr in his car at 5 am on Friday morning and reached Ghazipur three hours later. He came with all six members of his family. Four or five tractors piled with their clothes and rations were en route to the protest site, he said.
“If someone arrests our leader [Rakesh Tikait] then what will happen to us?” he said. “We have locked our homes and we will only leave once the laws have been revoked.”
‘Tikait’s tears are our tears’
On Friday, the Ghazipur flyover was choc-a-block with incoming cars, tractors and trolleys. The area in front of the stage at the protest site was filled with a sea of farmers who had arrived the previous night and on Friday morning.
From the stage, farmers appealed for peace and compared their movement to the battle of the Mahabharata. Most of them said they came because of Tikait’s emotional appeal, reflecting his influence over the Jat community in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. “Rakesh Tikait Zindabad!”, the crowd chanted. Long live Rakesh Tikait. “Kisan Ekta Zindabad.” Long live farmer unity.
“Tikait’s tears are our tears,” said Devender Kumar, a farmer from Bhagpat in Uttar Pradesh who arrived in Ghazipur on Thursday night.
But aside from the support for Tikait, Kumar said there was another reason why farmers were pouring in.
“Haryana and UP have a roti-beti ka rishta,” he said. Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have a very strong bond.“But Punjab is like our elder brother. And this time, our elder brother has been disrespected. We will not tolerate it,” said Kumar, referring to the portrayal of Sikh farmers as “Khalistanis” and “terrorists” by mainstream media over the last few months, and particularly after the events of January 26.
Another farmer concurred. “Sardar birhadhri pe bahut bada akraman tha.” The Sikh community has been attacked, said Amit, a 45-year-old farmer from Bulandshahr. He reached Ghazipur at 6 am.
“But we have understood that this will not work,” he said. You cannot divide and rule in the name of Sikhs, sardars, Jats… till when will they [government] do this tandav.”
Change in scene
The vigour and enthusiasm at display was in stark contrast to the moodat the protest site on January 27. The stage was quiet and the protestors were silent and sombre after the violence that erupted as thousands of farmers participated in a tractor parade on Republic Day.
After protesting outside Delhi for two months in the bitter cold, farmers had entered the national capital from three directions – Singhu in the north, Tikri in the west and Ghazipur in the southeast.
Over a lakh protestors joyously drove tractors and peacefully marched down the three officially sanctioned routes. But a few thousand from Ghazipur broke through the barricades and reached central Delhi while the official Republic Day parade was nearing an end.
As they entered Delhi, clashes erupted at Income Tax Office area. A short distance away, some farmers climbed on top of one of the gates of the Red Fort to unfurl Sikh flags, resulting in more clashes with the police. The incident left 394 policemen injured, according to the Delhi Police. There was no count of how many farmers were hurt but videos showed doctors stitching up their wounds.
Protesters at Ghazipur spent the next two days in a state of anxiety. As the electricity supply was cut, they patrolled the area by their tents at night.
Fearing a police crackdown, farmers who ran a community kitchen at the site packed up and left on Thursday. But hey too returned to the site by Friday evening.
Some of them explained why they had come back to the protest site.
Before he came to Ghazipur on Friday, rumours around the protests made him restless. “We thought that the government might arrest Tikait sahab or there may be lathicharge,” he said.
Gursevak had attended the tractor parade but returned to Bulandshahr as violence ensued in the capital. The Nishan Sahib, he said, was sacred but did not belong atop the Red Fort.
“The Nishan Sahib was there on the official Punjab tableau on Republic Day. But these people took it to the wrong place,” he said. “The entire credibility of the protest is being tarnished.”
He alleged that there was a conspiracy to defame the protests and that the government was trying to drive a wedge between farmers on the basis of religion.
“When there is a farmer, then it does not matter if it is Hindu, Sikh or Muslim,” he said. “They [government] are trying to [divide] Hindus and Sikhs by using the Republic Day incident.”
But he was here to stay: “We will not leave even if we have to die.”
Ram Singh Khubru, Sonipat
Ram Singh Khubru left his village in Sonipat at 8.30 am and reached Ghazipur at 12.30 pm. This was the first time he was protest against the farm laws outside his village.
But the video of Tikait in tears had caused immense anger among the Jat community in his village, he said. “Why else would we come here if we were not angry?” asked Khubru, 65. “In the village, we discussed that they were trying to humiliate our community. They were trying to evict us [from here].”
At least 70 other farmers from his village were making their way to Ghazipur, he said. “We are not going to leave from here.”
Aditya Balliyan, Muzaffarnagar
Aditya Balliyan, a sugarcane farmer, arrived in Ghazipur at 11 pm on Thursday. He had left from Sisauli village before Rakesh Tikait’s panchayat began. “We just watched the video and we decided to leave,” he said.
The 20-year-old spent the night at the protest site in the biting cold without electricity or water. Hundreds of farmers had gathered next to the stage restless, while Tikait appealed for peace and affirmed that the protest would continue.
But as the night progressed, members of the Bharatiya Janata Party were at the opposite end of the flyover threatening to evict protestors while the police watched silently, he said. “I cannot tell you what people would have done if something happened to Tikait,” he said.
He would not return home till the government revoked the laws. “We are going to be here permanently,” he said.