It has been six months since farmers from across Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh rose in an epic and mostly peaceful struggle against three farm laws rushed through hastily in Parliament last autumn by the Modi government.
As important as what they are fighting for is how they have chosen to fight. The protest sites are luminous with their displays of solidarity and resolve. In the course of this struggle, the farmers have developed their own idiom of resistance, combining Gandhian non-violent satyagraha with the pledges of freedom, equality and fraternity of the Constitution and have woven into these the iridescent traditions of sewa or service from Sikh teachings.
They are convinced that these new laws, if operationalised, will sound the death-knell for the Indian farmer. The laws would leave them exposed and powerless before colossal corporate muscle, as the state would retreat from its role in ensuring remunerative prices for their farm produce.
The Union government has responded to the protests with its well-practised playlist for crushing all peaceful and democratic dissent, by ignoring the protests hoping that they would be wearied into a retreat, by blocking the free movement of the protestors, by refusing to negotiate with the protestors and by discrediting and criminalising the protests as violent and insurrectionary.
But none of these has worked. The farmers remain determined to persist with their struggle until the farm laws are withdrawn, however long this may take.
Indian agriculture secures livelihoods, at mostly bare levels of survival, to more than half the Indian workforce, yet it has slipped over many decades into the dark abyss of glacially slow growth, very low public investments, a possibly irreversible agro-ecological crisis, uncertain and unremunerative prices for their produce, the preponderance of very small holdings, massive landlessness and share-cropping, a continued dependence of most farmers on fickle monsoons, and debilitating indebtedness.
The despair and penury of the countryside so far manifested itself mostly in the tragic and shameful steep rising graph of farmers’ suicides, and an ever-swelling exodus from villages to lowest-end work in inhospitable cities.
Nothing therefore had prepared the government for the scale, power and determination of the farmers’ protests against the three farm laws. Nothing had prepared them for the steely resolve of the farmers. Something had broken for those who till the lands.
The government had long let them down in so many ways, starving agriculture of public investment, sustainable cultivation practices, expanded irrigation, debt from public institutions rather than usurious moneylenders and assured remunerative prices. But this time was different. They were convinced that the government was crossing with these laws a line it had not transgressed this far.
By these new legal arrangements, they believed that the government was abandoning the farmers and throwing them into highly unequal individual negotiations with super-rich corporations. So far, there was an imperfect arrangement of minimum support price purchases by the state governments in mandis. This was meant to be an assurance for 24 crops in all parts of the country.
Effectively, however, arrangements were made only in some states like Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh to assure farmers MSP purchases and that too mainly for paddy and wheat. The protesting farmers demanded not just the withdrawal of the three laws, but also a legal guarantee for the purchase of all farmers’ produce at MSPs set at a level that takes into account not only the costs of inputs but also calculations of the cost of family labour and land.
The obduracy of the government – unwilling to heed their demands or even to negotiate with them with good faith and an open mind – led tens of thousands of farmers to converge on Delhi, to persuade the Prime Minister to withdraw the three laws.
Instead, they were blocked by hasty barriers that were erected at all the entry-points to the national capital and large numbers of policepersons wielding guns and batons. This is not the first time that farmers have marched in protest to the country’s capital. There have indeed been farmers’ protest marches to the capital in the past, during which farmers have marched peacefully and in disciplined ranks through the highways of the city and then returned to their villages.
Protest with compassion
The government expected the protesting farmers, this time too, to retreat from the borders of the city. But the agitating farmers were absolutely clear. They were here to stay, as long as the government did not rescind the laws, and create instead a robust legal guarantee for state purchase of all farm produce at a remunerative MSP.
When the farmers first began gathering in large numbers at the borders of the national capital, winter was setting in. This was no dampener to their enthusiasm and resolve, as their numbers continued to swell.
When I visited one of these sites of protest at Delhi’s borders, I encountered a line of tractor trolleys stretching for kilometres. There were crowds of women, men and children, and the trolleys were filled with straw and blankets for warmth. Some even had electric heaters. Now, six months after the protests started, the farmers are braving a blistering Delhi summer, interrupted by days of heavy rain.
The lashing rains broke many of the shelters they had built for the summer, and they are now busy rebuilding sturdier bamboo structures. For sowing and harvesting, members of families returned to their villages by turns. But the struggle had to continue, so some part of the family was always at the protest sites.
In the winter, when I had walked along the kilometres of tractor trolleys, I soon realised that this was a protest that had found its own voice and crafted its own modes of protest. You could barely walk 50 meters and someone would come to you to urge you to eat at their langar. The ideas of langar and sewa – that my father had taught me were the soul of the Sikh faith – were in glorious display everywhere we walked.
The spirit of the langar is not only that you offer food and other free services to those who are in need, but that you welcome them as honoured guests. Far from them owing you gratitude for what you are doing for them, it is you who feels grateful that they gave you an opportunity to serve them. Young educated youth were offering at every turn to wash your clothes, others to iron these, yet others to repair clothes that may have been torn off or a button that needed to be fixed.
Many offered to polish your shoes. Young people invited the elderly to sit while they massaged their tired feet and limbs. There were many hospital clinics in tents, and I even spotted a dental room. Volunteers had set up libraries and ran tuition classes for the children.
This truly is a protest like few others that free India has seen. There is mass courage, determination, resilience but no anger or hate. The protests resonate instead with love and welcoming. Those who run the langars said they knew that maybe a fifth or more of those who came to eat are poor and destitute people who have no connection with the protest. But they are welcomed equally and offered the same food with the same respect.
Path of satyagraha
The path of satyagraha illuminated by Mahatma Gandhi in the freedom struggle placed two obligations simultaneously on the protestor. The first was the duty to peacefully and publicly disobey and non-cooperate with unjust laws, accepting punishment and suffering only for oneself. The second was to never hate or wish harm to one’s adversary.
The women and men from the farms in the three states who gathered for the protest seemed to have taken these duties to their hearts effortlessly. The atmosphere that prevailed at the protest sites was resolute but calm, hopeful and even affectionate. And from public platforms or in quiet conversations, farmers argued the case against the farm laws in ways more compelling, lucid and informed than any economist from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The only mass peaceful protests that reflected a similar commitment to the idea of solidarity and fraternity across religion, caste and class, was the peaceful spontaneous uprising in many parts of India a winter earlier.
For 100 luminous days, to protest against the amendment in citizenship laws that for the first time discriminated on the basis of religious identity against the country’s Muslims, in colleges and universities across the country, students of every religious identity rose peacefully against the discrimination now written into law that would create a regime of unequal citizenship against Indian Muslims. In Shaheen Bagh, I found the same climate as in the farmers’ protests, of the courage and resolve that arises from a sense of moral certainty, of the absence of hate, of solidarity and welcome, of hope and of patience.
The farmers’ protests also broke many barriers that conventional wisdom would not have thought possible. The Khalsa Aid tent carried a banner with the words “Recognise the whole human race as one”. There was a langar run by the Muslim residents of Malerkotla and I found it crowded with Sikh farmers.
Punjab and Haryana had been bitterly divided around fault-lines of religion and language, but these protests have dissolved these estrangements. Many langar kitchens reported that tractor-loads of vegetables, wheat and milk came to them daily from anonymous Haryana villages. Women farm more than men, yet are rarely recognised as farmers. Here we found women who joined the protests proudly as farmers and strengthened the collective resolve to fight as long as the Modi government does not concede their demands.
Fighting as equals
Conventionally, the farmers of Punjab employ farmworkers, mostly impoverished migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, disparagingly described as Bhaiyas. Here, we heard speakers scrupulously declaring that their fight was for both farmers and workers (kisaan aur mazdoor), welding together these unequal classes as equal comrades in this struggle for justice, indeed for the survival of farming as we know it.
In 2013, the Western Uttar Pradesh had stood witness to bloody sectarian violence, in which farmers were divided on the basis of their religious identity, and the homes and loved ones of many Muslims were brutally attacked by their Hindu neighbours. But during the protests, many Hindu farm leaders apologised to their Muslim sisters and brothers, saying that they were misled, and had lost their way; they apologised and promised in future to stand together as farmers and workers, not allowing anyone to divide them on the anvil of religious hatred.
Six months have passed of the farmers’ protest, possibly the largest peaceful resistance movement anywhere on the planet today. The protesting farmers will remain in the harsh changing seasons at the protest sites at the border of Delhi as long as the government does not pay heed to their demands.
It will be a difficult monsoon and another harsh winter. Crops have to be sowed and harvested, children have to go to school and college, there will be weddings and funerals. But they will not return to their villages, as long as it takes.
A close comrade Navsharan Singh, who has stood with the farmers throughout their long struggle, was present when they observed the completion of six months of the struggle. She asked a woman farmer – how do you find the patience and strength to fight on for no one knows how long? She replied simply, we are farmers. Our work teaches us to persist, to endure. And it teaches us patience.
Our farmers are making history by struggling for their dignity, autonomy and a more equal world for their children and indeed for all of us. Young and weather-worn, women and men, they are determined that they will not be cowed down, will not be misled, will not be divided, and will not tire.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.