At Bahadurgarh near one of the largest farmer protest sites on the Delhi border, a small group of women lay on charpoys in the afternoon sun in mid-February, listening to an article being read out to them. It was about young labour activist Nodeep Kaur, who has been in jail for nearly five weeks for organising workers near another farmer protest site. Published as the cover story of a newly-founded biweekly Punjabi newsletter called Karti Dharti, it had found a rapt audience.

“We are very interested in Nodeep Kaur’s case,” said Gurmehar Kaur, a farmer from Barnala in Punjab who was reading out the article. “Is there any update on her? Do you know if she is okay?”

Among the listeners, Manjeet Kaur, also from Barnala, added, “Puttar, we don’t know how to read or write. Girls these days are educated even in our village, but in our day and age women were not sent to school.”

Naseeb Kaur, another listener, angrily interjected, “If we were educated maybe we would have voted for better people than this present government.”

The Modi government is facing sharp anger from farmers after it passed three new laws that make fundamental changes in the way agriculture markets are organised, which farmers fear could undermine their livelihoods. Punjab was the first to protest, but the movement has now spread to other states in north India, with farmers camping on the borders of the national capital for nearly three months. Many of them are women.

Karti Dharti was born from a need to communicate their stories, said Sangeet Toor, the founder and editor of the newsletter.

“A lot is happening in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, especially since January 26 that isn’t being reported as it should be,” said Toor. On January 26, lakhs of farmers rode tractors and marched to Delhi in a parade that was overwhelmingly peaceful. But the news coverage came to be focused on clashes between some protestors and the police at Red Fort.

To provide an alternative source of news on the farmer protests, young writers and activists have started new publications like the Trolley Times. But Toor, a freelance journalist based in Chandigarh who has actively contributed to these publications, felt the need for one focused on the experiences of women and led by an all-women team.

Pointing out that the protests were centred in states “where women don’t usually step out of domestic spaces”, Toor said: “We felt we needed to document how womens’ engagement with political and social issues is slowly evolving.”

While some news reports have foregrounded the participation of women in the farmers’ movement, their stories are still largely framed as interventions in a male public sphere. The focus is on women’s roles in keeping critical supply chains running, feeding people, keeping morale up, raising funds and awareness, and performing emotional labour. But what women think, their voices, anxieties, solidarities and rebellions are rarely given space.

“This is where Karti Dharti is important,” said Vijeta Saini, a PhD student from Boston who came back to India to stand in solidarity with farmers and organise relief. “It doesn’t just report events but also creates a space for women to tell their personal stories. This helps us understand how the movement affects women but is also shaped by their presence.”

‘The dictator is intimidated’

By giving women a chance to step out of their domestic confines and fight for their rights, the farmers’ movement is triggering wider change, said Toor. “This has allowed family dynamics to change and shift. Men are becoming more open to domestic labour and women more vocal about their grievances.”

The stories of Karti Dharti’s first edition reflect this self-confidence. Sharanjeet Kaur, a farmer from Moga, who travelled to Delhi to witness the Republic Day tractor rally, writes about what she felt about the events at the Red Fort. Another article written by Rajveer Kaur points out how since January 26, the number of women at the Ghazipur protest site on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh dropped drastically because they were asked to go back home for safety reasons. To call women back, she argued, takes away their agency. Navneet Kaur, a farmer from Uttarakhand, recounts how she was also asked to return home with her mother and sister, but on hearing of Rakesh Tikait’s heartfelt speech she returned to Ghazipur in a state bus.

The inaugural edition of Karti Dharti featured a cover story on labour activist Nodeep Kaur. Photo: Tanushree Bhasin

Addressing the recent attacks on women activists, journalists and workers, the newsletter features an article titled ‘Tanashah Darta Hai’ (The dictator is intimidated) which argues prime minister Narendra Modi is scared of tweets by two young women, a reference to American singer Rihanna and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Pointing out that many of the activists arrested in recent times are young women, Saini, the PhD scholar, said: “This government often uses the slogan of ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ where they want women to be educated and speak up, but when women actually do exactly that, they silence us.”

“Visibility is a double-edged sword for women,” she continued. “It is crucial that their work gets attention and exposure but the same visibility makes them targets of abuse and state sanctions in our patriarchal society.”

The media has a role to play in this, the inaugural edition points out. An article titled ‘Kund waali aurat di taqreer’ (Speech by a woman in the veil) slams the news media for spreading lies and perpetuating pro-government propaganda.

Another article examines the way many pro-government TV channels labelled a slogan raised by some women farmers – “Modi mar ja tu” or Go die, Modi – as “unpardonable” and “aggressive”, without once turning their microphones towards the women and asking them why they were raising it.

“In the tradition of protest, there is a long history of using the death form,” explains Kopal, a researcher based in Delhi, who wrote the article. “These are traditional forms of protest that include burning effigies like Ravana Dahin [on Dussehra], arthi or the last rites of the corpse. The same social symbolic process is at work when we chant the ‘Murdabad’ ‘Zindabad’ slogans.”

Land and gender

Karti Dharti will carry stories not just from the large, sprawling protest sites on the Delhi border, said Toor, but also from villages and small towns where women are actively engaging with wider struggles. “We aim to carry contributions by writers from west Punjab [in Pakistan] as well, because not only do we share a common heritage and history, we also share this agrarian crisis,” she added.

While the newsletter has been printed in Gurmukhi in India, it will be printed in Shahmukhi in Pakistan. The name of the newsletter reflects the common ground that Punjabi women share on both sides of the border.

Karti Dharti comes from the common phrase karta dharta [the doer] but flips its gender,” explained Toor. It was coined by Nosheen Ali, a Pakistani academic who teaches in New York and runs an ecological farm near Karachi. “They practice natural and organic farming that focuses on nurturing the earth rather than exploiting it for higher yields,” said Toor. “Therefore, for us karti implies a woman who works the land, dharti, lovingly with her hands.”

The inaugural edition, in fact, features an article by Asma Qadri, a writer from Pakistan’s Punjab province, who writes about the importance of soil in our lives and the ethics of care.

The editorial written by Ali connects ecology to the politics of gender. It points out the difference between how men and women describe the land: for men, dharti is their mother, while women refer to it as their child. “Why don’t women farmers consider the land, the earth as their mother?” asks Ali. “Perhaps, in our society mothers belong only to sons.”

In a patriarchal society, she explains both women and land are considered property that has to be protected. For women farmers, however, land is something they nourish and care for. Their participation in the current protest movement, therefore, comes from a place of familial love, she writes, but also creates an opportunity for them to step out of a world shaped by it.