The white hatchback slowed down as it approached the toll plaza. At the wheels was a middle-aged Sikh man and in the passenger seat an old woman with flowing grey hair. Seated behind were three more women, one middle aged and the other two much younger, who looked barely out of their teens.

Toll plazas in Punjab – sites of permanent sit-ins by farmers protesting against the new farm laws – have been closed for months, free for vehicles to pass through without paying any fee.

Yet, the man stopped and gestured at the protesting farmers camping on one side of the highway, trying to catch their attention. One of them came over to the passenger seat window. The old woman thrust a Rs 500 note in his hands and caressed his head affectionately. Barely any words were exchanged. The car zoomed past soon after.

This was in Mehal Kalan at the border of Ludhiana and Barnala districts. But it could have been anywhere in Punjab, as found while travelling through five districts across the state’s three regions of Malwa, Majha and Doaba.

It is nearly six months since protests first erupted across Punjab against the three new farm laws of the Modi government. The andolan seems to be showing no signs of abating anywhere. It continues to rage like wildfire across villages and towns and cities.

The Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta flag is as ubiquitous as mustard fields, colouring the winter landscape of the state a bright protest yellow. The flags and stickers in support of the farmers are everywhere – on car bonnets, in balconies, at highway dhabas, outside shopping malls. Almost every railway station in the state has people camping outside, day and night.

If the mornings are about marathon meetings with rousing speeches in the villages, the evenings see young boys on their gediyan – evening rounds – break into impromptu bike rallies in the cities, boisterously vowing their support to the protests. The fires in the langars, the traditional Sikh community kitchens, never really go off.

Most Punjabis – whatever their religion, caste, class, profession – not only support the ongoing protests, but are deeply invested in them.

“We will fight till our last breath,” said Gurdev Singh, a farmer from Tarn Taran district. “We fought a long battle for our independence from the British. This, too, is a fight for independence, economic independence.”

Nothing, people insist, would deter them. No price, they say, is too big to pay. “Whenever there is a war, there are personal losses and people have already died in the cold in Delhi, but this is a fight for our survival,” said Raghubir Kaur, a retired professor of Punjabi in Jalandhar’s Guru Nanak Dev University. “And each family in Punjab is part of this fight. There is no going back from this.”

Anxieties about a changing economic order lie at the heart of the protests. But the depth of support for them stems from a deeper source. Not Khalistan or Sikh secessionism as the Modi government has tried to insinuate. Instead, conversations with people in the state reveal deeper undercurrents of resentment against a government that is seen as majoritarian and dictatorial.

The resentment is so visceral and omnipresent that it is difficult to imagine in today’s India, barring possibly Kashmir.

‘Rogue, thug, fraud’

On the foggy morning of February 16, around 100 farmers and retired soldiers from Punjab’s border villages gathered in Atari village in Tarn Taran district for a meeting christened Jai Jawan Jai Kisan.

It was held at the memorial of Sardar Sham Singh Attari, a Sikh general who died fighting the East India Company. The occasion was the birth anniversary of Sir Chhotu Ram, a Hindu Jat leader widely revered by the peasantry in Punjab. The theme this year, the organisers said, was anti-communalism.

Speaker after speaker tore into the government, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular. Nothing escaped the speakers’ fury: the government’s (now-shelved) plans of preparing a nation-wide National Register of Citizens, revoking of Article 370 in Kashmir, arbitrary internet blockades and more.

“This government has sold out,” said one of the speakers as the crowd nodded in agreement.

But the most popular slogan of the day was rather individualised, “Modi tere teen naam: luccha, gunda, bemaan” – Modi, you have three names: rogue, thug, fraud.

“This is not so much about the BJP as it is about Modi, Amit Shah and Piyush Goyal,” explained a farmer from a village in Tarn Taran, referring to the home minister and railway minister seen to be the closest confidantes of the prime minister. “There are others in the BJP who understand [the concerns of farmers], but these three have no understanding of agriculture, yet they are telling us what is good for us.”

‘Laws framed for corporates’

The Modi government has claimed the three farm laws, first introduced as ordinances in July, then rushed through Parliament in September, will unshackle India’s beleaguered agricultural sector by enabling farmers to sell their produce to private companies without any restrictions. But many agricultural economists disagree. They say the laws could reduce market transparency and leave farmers at the mercy of corporations.

In Punjab, talk to any farmer – small, big, medium, marginal – and they will deconstruct the laws clause-by-clause. Their biggest anxiety is what they claim is unstated but implicit in the laws: the end of the minimum support price regime under which the government buys certain crops at predetermined rates to cushion farmers against market volatility. Since most farmers in Punjab and Haryana sell their wheat and paddy to the government at such prices in state-run markets called mandis, they fear a rise in private transactions outside the mandis will weaken them and ultimately lead to their demise.

“First the mandis will go,” said a farmer in Barnala district, “then the corporates will tell us, ‘sell us at whatever price we are offering you’ and we have to also because where else will we go.”

Farmers believe these legal changes are being driven by two corporations, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group and Gautam Adani’s Adani Group, which are patronised by the Modi government. Both the companies have denied the accusations – to little effect. “This is not a people’s government. This is a government for and of big corporates,” alleged Davinder Singh, a 32-year-old farmer from Raikot.

“This government is taking dictations from Ambani and Adani,” said another farmer from Amritsar. “Modi wants to sell the country to the corporates, we in Punjab will not let that happen.”

Without minimum support prices, say farmers, it would be impossible to make ends meet. In a normal year, five acres of the land yield around 150 quintals of rice and 100 quintals of wheat, worth a little over Rs 5 lakh at the government-fixed prices. Having invested nearly one lakh rupees in seeds, fertilisers, machinery, “a family of four which owns five acres of land is just living hand-to-mouth,” said Balwant Singh Uppli, a farmer leader in Barnala.

Supporters of the farm laws argue the support prices had created perverse incentives to grow water-guzzling, environmentally unsustainable crops. But Uppli pointed out that growing other crops was economically risky because of market uncertainty. “Sometimes, the price goes up to Rs 50 [per quintal], sometimes it is not even Rs 2. How does one survive then?”

Political scientist Jagroop Singh Sekhon said crop diversification in Punjab was “not possible if you don’t extend MSP to other crops”.

Besides, as many in the state point out: farmers here were drafted into large-scale commercial wheat and paddy farming for the purpose of state procurement by the government itself as part of the Green Revolution when India started using high-yield seeds and chemicals in a bid to be food-sufficient in the 1960s.

“People here feel they have been taken for a ride,” said Anirudh Kala, a psychiatrist based in Ludhiana. “For decades, you depended on Punjab’s farmers to supply grains to the rest of the country and with these laws, it’s like they are not needed now.”

Davinder Singh from Raikot said he is not averse to the idea of crop diversification, provided there are economic safety nets for farmers like him. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

A feeling of discrimination

Outside Ludhiana, in Gahlewal village, former sarpanch Avatar Singh echoed this sentiment – and even added why he thought that was the case. “For years we have fed this country, all we ask for now is some gratitude. But Modi and RSS hate the Sikhs, instead he is trying to teach us a lesson.”

Sikhs form 60% of the population of Punjab. As historian Harjeshwar Pal Singh explained, the perception that “Punjab has been discriminated against by Delhi” easily segues into Sikhs feeling persecuted.

“Ever since Modi came to power in 2014, Hindutva has become more pronounced in Indian polity,” said Pal Singh who teaches history at Chandigarh’s Guru Gobind Singh College. “In response, anxiety of the Sikhs is definitely increasing.” Indeed, according to a survey carried out before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, fewer Sikhs were favourably disposed towards Modi than even Muslims and Christians.

Gursevak Singh, a farmer from Raikot, reflected this dual concern: “For sure, this is a farmers’ issue, but at the end of the day we are Sikhs, aren’t we? And we all know Modi and RSS want to turn Hindustan into a Hindu Rashtra.”

Said Pal Singh: “The farmers’ movement led by the unions is strong by itself, but Sikh sentiment gave it an even bigger impetus, making it a mass movement. A section sees the laws as an attack on the way of life in Punjab, or you could say, the Sikh way of life.”

Parminder Singh, a retired professor of English from Amritsar, however, does not agree. The current anger, he said, had indeed transcended the farm bills, but it did not draw from Sikh anxieties as such. Instead, it flowed from Punjab’s legacy of standing up to rulers and dispensations seen as unjust. “Punjabis tend to see the Modi dispensation as tyrannical,” he said when we met at his home in Amritsar. “So, whenever movements of this scale arise, cultural and historical memories always pop up.”

The account of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, standing up to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and paying for it with his life, for instance, is often invoked in conversations about the current agitation.

Kaur, the retired professor Punjabi from Jalandhar, explained: “There is nothing religious about this andolan, but we are obviously drawing inspiration from our glorious history.”

Several Sikh farmers interviewed for this story tended to broadly share this idea. “Punjab has always defended this country whether the enemy was Aurangzeb or the British,” said Nirmal Singh, a sexagenarian farmer from Barnala. “We are doing the same now.”

In the border village of Naushera Dhalla in Tarn Taran, Harpal Singh, a well-off farmer who owns 17 acres of land, said the prime minister’s zidd (stubbornness) in refusing to repeal the laws was a “textbook example of autocratic behaviour”. “Isn’t that what dictators believe – that everyone else is wrong except them?” he asked.

In Tappriana, a picturesque village of just 250 people near Ludhiana’s Samrala, sarpanch Gurpreet Singh declared that “Modi is running a dictatorship”. “There is no democracy left in India,” he insisted.

As the Punjabi poet Gurbhajan Gill who lives in Ludhiana put it, “It may have started with farmers, but now this has become an outburst of anger against [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s arrogance by all sections of the society in the state.”

Cross-cutting support

Support for the movement cuts across community lines in the state – most of the Punjab’s upper-caste Hindus and, increasingly, Dalit labourers have joined ranks with the Jatt Sikhs.

“What happens when the corporates take over?” asked Shivinder Lal, a businessman in Jalandhar city. “Things are cheap for a while, then prices hit the sky.”

“So how can this just be the fight of the Jatt Sikhs?” he continued. “We are all going to be affected, after all.”

Dalit leaders say the community’s participation was largely because of the influence of left-leaning unions that have over the years stood by them in times of crisis and injustice, shunning caste loyalties. “Yes, there are caste contradictions between malik-kisani [upper-caste landed farmers] and Dalit labourers,” said Harmesh Malri of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, a union of landless agricultural labourers. “But the andolan is now starting to transcend that because the Dalits know these new laws will also harm them.”

Indeed, contrary to what is perhaps the popular perception in the rest of India, the movement in Punjab is not being led by large and affluent farmers, but by farmers with small and medium holdings – with financial support of the large farmers, of course.

“This is no spontaneous uprising,” said Parminder Singh, the retired professor of English in Amritsar. “For the past thirty years, many grassroots organisations have been working hard to organise peasants on matters of indebtedness, suicides, land acquisition by government for private purposes, and forceful confiscation of indebted land.”

As political scientist Sekhon pointed out when we met at the strikingly good-looking campus of Amritrsar’s Khalsa College where he now teaches: the state has a long history of peasant uprisings. “Peasant movement is in the blood of Punjab,” said Sekhon. In 1907, for instance, there was the Pagdi Sambhal Jatta agitation, which had much in common with the current protests. The movement, led by the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh, was against three laws brought in by the British colonial government in 1906, also ostensibly to “reform” the farm sector.

There are undoubtedly people who have a less rosy view of this “people’s revolution” – as many in Punjab describe the current movement. The fiery Punjabi poet and writer Desraj Kali, for instance. He largely saw the movement as a protest by the landed Jatt Sikhs’ efforts to “safeguard their economic interests.”

But even cynics like Kali acknowledge that new solidarities are building. Over the course of a long late-evening conversation in his one-room office behind a medical diagnostic centre, he conceded: “At the gatherings at the Delhi border have broken down some old barriers and made people realise that they are all farmers. Win or lose, I believe people will come back home changed for the better whenever this ends.”

Outside a shop in a major market in Ludhiana: "We stand with farmers." Photo: Arunabh Saikia

The bogey of Khalistan

In Punjab, the solidarities are deepening. But people are keenly aware of the growing attempts elsewhere to highlight differences.

On January 26, when a section of protestors taking part in a tractor rally on the outskirts of Delhi smashed police barricades, stormed the Red Fort and hoisted the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh religious flag, detractors of the protest wrongly claimed it to be a flag of the secessionist Khalistani movement. The misinformation, much of it deliberate, people in Punjab believe, was part of the Centre’s attempts to delegitimise the protests by painting it as being driven by pro-Khalistani elements.

In Punjab, almost everyone believes that the entire sequence of events the day was orchestrated by the Centre. “How do people just enter the Red Fort without someone in the establishment guiding them?” asked Harpal Singh, the Tarn Taran farmer.

This has made the effort to delink the protests from Sikhism even more pronounced on the ground, not just by ideologues and union leaders, but also by a large section of the Sikh cadre. “We know that Modi wants to suppress minorities, but we do not want to make this movement about our religion – we want to keep it about farmers,” said Mukhtar Singh Mahawa, a farmer from a village called Mahawa in Amritsar, when we met at the Jai Jawan Jai Kisan meeting in Attari.

Most fear any acknowledgement of the role of Sikhism in the protests could be misconstrued as an endorsement of Khalistani ideas. “According to the current pro-Modi media narrative, Sikhism is equal to Khalistani,” said a government veterinary doctor in Jalandhar who did not want to be identified.

The political scientist Sekhon explained, “People know that the government will try and put words in their mouth, and the media will join unconnected dots to try to project their Sikh identity as Khalistani.”

Sekhon said while religion was certainly “a powerful mobilising factor in the movement”, it was the benign artefacts of Sikhism such as the langars – community kitchens – that were aiding the movement.

Indeed, even people who do openly invoke Sikhism and acknowledge its role in the current protests show little enthusiasm for anything remotely Khalistan-related. “Khalistan is dead. No one cares for it now,” said Avatar Singh, the former sarpanch from Ludhiana. “Our gurus have taught us to hold on to our ground come what may, and we are doing that to safeguard our lands.”

Across the five districts of the state where travelled, person after person in village after village expressed a decided disdain for the idea of Khalistan. “What will we do with Khalistan?” asked a farmer in Taran Tarn, once the hotbed of Sikh extremism. “All we want is to be able to sell our produce at a fair price and get on with our lives.”

The historian Pal Singh also agreed that Khalistan was an idea of the past. “You will hardly find anyone who talks about it in Punjab. The few political parties who contest elections on that plank barely win a couple of hundred votes,” he said. “It is kept alive by NRIs [non-resident Indians] sitting in Canada and UK and is used by the government agencies whenever they want to divert attention from a genuine people’s movement.”

Yet, many including chief minister Amarinder Singh have cautioned that an obstinate and hardline stance by the Centre could have dangerous repercussions in Punjab. “No one in Punjab wants Khalistan, but this government is doing the same mistake the Congress did that led to terrorism in the state,” said Darbari Lal, veteran Congress leader and a former deputy speaker of the Punjab Assembly. “At the time, Delhi did not listen to us despite us trying to reach out. The same seems to be happening again.”

A senior BJP leader from the state admitted as much. Speaking in private at his home in Jalandhar – which has round-the-clock police presence since the protests broke out – he said the state unit’s attempts to impress upon the Central leadership that the mood of the people was emphatically against the laws went unheard. “There is a saying in Punjabi that even if you discuss something with a wall, there will be some introspection because the walls will reflect back your words,” he said. “So if not us, the leadership should think out loud at least.”

A challenging future

Pal Singh believes Khalistan is more of a manufactured threat but if the government chose to not accede to the “reasonable demands” of the farm unions, it was only natural the more radical strands would get emboldened. “I don’t think there’s much of a leadership to revive Khalistani sentiments, but the overall mood could become more radical forcing the moderate politicians of the state to take more radical positions,” he said.

The political scientist Sekhon also warned that the situation could take a “challenging” turn if the government did not accept the unions’ demands. “Kisan bhi humare, jawan phi humare – the farmers are from Punjab, so are the soldiers,” he said. “And if our boys in the forces come back home to empty homes for too long a period with their parents camping at Delhi’s borders, it will be bad for the country given our history. Let me just say that.”

There are other fears too. The psychiatrist Anirudh Kala said he was not concerned so much about terrorism as about deteriorating mental health and a resurgence of drug addiction, a major problem that has plagued the state for years. Although the protesting farmers vehemently deny it, Kala said he suspected a feeling of despondency was starting to creep in. “We have the addiction problem under control for now, but I fear we could be in trouble if the farmers don’t get anything from the Centre after months of agitating and so many people dying in the cold,” said Kala.

Few people on the ground, though, even want to discuss the possibility of a bad ending. As a farmer from Barnala, who has been camping in the highway the Mehal Kalan toll plaza for nearly 150 days, said: “Punjab never loses – history is testament to that.”