The farmer protest against the recent farm laws, which is essentially agrarian in nature with overwhelming male participation has thrown up a social curveball and a very pleasant one at that! A surprising yet heartening aspect of this protest is the silent revolution being architected by its women. This male-dominated farmer movement has made visible a silent powerful trajectory through the women, both young and old, across socio-economic classes, who have donned emphatic leadership roles in it and are busy shattering stereotypes.
The desire to provide service to humanity (Sewa as we know it) and instrument change through it characterises these women. Community service in its myriad forms is evident here and no, we are not talking about traditional roles of a caregiver or a housekeeper alone. These women are not making Rotis and langar or cleaning utensils, that they have left to their male counterparts, they are at the forefront of the farmer agitation, leading initiatives and teams, making speeches, guiding others, organising effort, managing operations, making strategies and addressing the gatherings. Being here, seeing these inspiring women is a treat for sore eyes.
A student of class 9th, this 15-year-old likes to sport a ‘kesaki’, a turban. She, along with her two siblings, a sister aged 16 and a brother aged 20, is working as a volunteer. They live in Kaithal, Haryana and have been sent by their mother, a teacher there, to live, serve and thereby understand the essence of farming, the community and struggle for one’s rights. “When one lives amongst a people in trying times, you imbibe what they embody, what they stand for and this has been very inspirational for me. I like it here”, says Navpreet. My mother told me to read about the laws and if I felt they were unjust then to go and join the movement against them. “Ae haq di larhayi hain (this is a fight for one’s rights), she smiles as she gets up to bring food for older women around.
“Well, there are no exclusive male bastions here. And then no exclusive female roles too. The traditional gender roles have gone for a toss, there’s a change in the air”, says Jassi, an activist from Moga. “I am an ex-university student and I am trying to set up parallel initiatives here along with my team. We are not from a particular organisation or a political party. This team has been formed by like-minded individuals who met here, at the protest ground, and started working together”, she explains. This support group includes volunteers from Haryana and other states who want to work unitedly for the famers’ cause.
“We have set up a library here so that protesters can read and broaden their horizons about various important issues, we are printing our own newspaper called Trolley Times so that the truth about this movement should reach people. We have set up discussion and idea exchange rooms called Saanjhi Sathh. Also, we have set up a school, Phulwari, which gives education to local underprivileged children. We saw too many local children picking up litter or collecting bottles around the site, they need schools to help them. Soon we will start screening of films related to farming so that our youth can have in-depth knowledge and understanding of how farming works and issues related to it”, she ends hurriedly and waves goodbye as she is slated to be somewhere else in the protest.
Former president of Panjab University’s student council, this 24-year-old university student and leader was a part of the protest ever since it originated in Punjab. “Now we have been joined here by farmers from other states and people belonging to different professions too. This is about our food and ultimately our lives. We want people to know and understand everyone is a stakeholder in these farm laws, not just the farmer alone”.
Fiery and outspoken Kanu is happy that women are re-occupying their rightful space in this movement. “We all want these anti-people laws to go. Women are going to be the winds of positive change we want should blow through our country. Just look around, in this predominantly rural male-dominated movement, we have been accepted and reinstated as prime movers”, she says, “young men here have no hesitation in asking for guidance and carrying out instructions given by women team leaders”.
This 43-year-old rural woman from Faridkot, Punjab smiles shyly as she tells us, “I am not very educated, just passed class tenth, but I have educated myself fully about farmers, farming, our community and the problems faced by them especially small farmers”. As she talks further, one realises this is one rare, bold woman. An activist in the truest sense, she has made her life all about giving back to the farming community by fighting their battles and taking the onus of leadership to further their cause.
Yes, I am heading the women wing of BKU Ekta union but the struggle has been a way of life for me always. Ever since my father was shot down by terrorists at the age of 13, I vowed to work for the farmers and women. I am against fascism, human right violation, oppression and exploitation of any sort. A mission close to my heart is to inspire women and empower their lives to alleviate their misery in remote backward areas where misogyny rules”, she states simply.
“This agitation against the farm laws has to be strengthened and more and more women should join in. I am working towards raising that awareness. Of what is our due and how we should safeguard it for our children and future generations. I address gatherings and discuss our issues with the people in depth. This is going to be a long struggle but we are determined to carry on and we will win someday”, says this quietly determined woman with a half-smile.
This young lawyer and activist from Amritsar is another beacon of hope for the people she inspires. “No protest is complete if it has no women participation, we are half the earth and we will claim our roles in the agitation accordingly. I, have been with this agitation from the start, especially trying to educate rural women about the farm laws and their impact on us all”, says the confident lawyer. “I have been going house to house trying to make people aware as to what are these laws and how we, lawyers, consider them unconstitutional. The bar council of the Punjab & Haryana High court is also supporting us fully. “I am the daughter of a farmer and farming has made it possible for me to become a lawyer. I cannot let our future generations be stripped of what is rightfully theirs and am working towards raising mass scale awareness about various issues. It’s a myth that these laws will not impact the urban city dweller. The fact is they will increase inflation for everyone”, she says.
At Singhu, she and her team of women lawyers are also facilitating the housing and sanitation arrangements for children and women protesters. Distributing sanitary napkins, dealing with women hygiene issues being faced by women camping in inhospitable conditions and maintaining clean toilet spaces is one of her many tasks.
This bubbly and peppy 19-year-old Instagram celebrity and influencer is here since the last two weeks. Originally hailing from Mohali, Moose (real name Muskan) lives in Australia for the past 6 years and has flown down specially to participate in the protest. “I haven’t bought a return ticket, I am gonna support this movement for as long as it continues, it is a movement of the people and I am here to lend support and do sewa in whatever form possible”, she smiles widely as she says this.
“I feel this is not a farmer movement alone, it is a human right movement. And if the youth do not lend their support to it, our future will be compromised. I am very happy to tell you that so many people have joined our protest because they saw my posts and felt “oh she has come here for this, let us too do something’. The responsibility seems heavy at times and people feel very protective about me but the highs come with their lows too and I understand that aspect too. I, especially, want to help empower women in India”, she says.
These women have 5 things in common
◆ Strong sense of being the harbingers of change in the rural and urban landscape by being role models for women. Natural leaders.
◆ They have studied these contentious farm laws extensively, come to a conclusion and can discuss the issues at length.
◆ Burning desire to do ‘Sewa’ – service to humanity. They have volunteered for various roles and have taken charge of them decisively.
◆ They are all individuals, not part of a particular defining group or political party but have teamed up with like-minded people they met during the protest to work unitedly.
◆ They intend to stay. They will work till this protest reaches its culmination.
Gender role reversal
If one must point out the single most striking social aspect of this Kisaan Andolan it is the corrective to simplistic reductions about gender roles and stereotypes, being put in place, surely and decisively. Women have taken on myriad leadership and strategic roles upon themselves and the farmers are nodding affirmatively at this gender role reversal. From supportive to assertive, the women of the revolution have come a long way.
A day in the life of a volunteer
The protest site at Singhu Border is a good 10 km long. For Prabhjot, walking about 20 kms or more per day is a way of life for a few weeks now. She reaches the site from her home in Delhi as early as 8 am some days. A tent city has been set up at the protest site to shelter people at night and Prabhjot is part of the team expanding it and managing it. “The first priority to allot these tents is for women, then senior citizens and then everyone else. This is primarily set up to help families and women protesters and families with small children live in privacy, security and dignity”.
Her work involves allotment of tents, distribution of mattresses, woollens and langar, making and updating inventories, keeping vigil and putting other checks and balances in place besides maintaining coordination with other similar help centres at the site.
Every day upon arrival she checks how many tents are vacant, how many essential and support items are left in their kitty and how many are required. What do the occupants need, how many donated items have come in and making an inventory. Distributing langar and other essentials, getting tents cleaned twice a day and keeping contact with their counterparts in Tikri and sending them Singhu’s surplus is also part of her responsibilities. For that, she walks around different such centres in Singhu and collects stuff to be sent to the other site.
Nothing, she says, is wasted. That, along with keeping a vigil on their stock, preventing theft from ragpickers and maintaining peace and quiet in the tented community remains her and her team’s concern.
An important part of her duties is to maintain proper sanitation facilities for women in the toilets there. Distribution of sanitary napkins and getting the toilets cleaned regularly is her job too. It also includes ensuring no vehicle is parked in front of the entrance to the tented area.
Why does she do this? Missing her own meals and working tirelessly like this for weeks now? “Sewa, service to humanity, is the tenet of my faith. We have been instructed by our gurus and elders to even help and serve an enemy to forget about the needy. And I am supporting a just cause. These laws are anti-farmer, anti-humanity so I will contribute my bit towards this protest”, she says.
And why should us Punjabis from Delhi not chip in when youngsters from Haryana, Himachal, UP are here, doing the same for brethren of all states. “Ethe ekta waala mahaul hai”, (there is complete unity here) she says as she signs off with a smile.
When asked how long would she keep doing it, she replies with confidence- “Morcha fateh karke hi hataange” (now I will return only after winning the battle.
Farmers’ movement: A spark that has become a whirlwind
A spark which has become a whirlwind aptly sums up the ongoing farmer protest on the borders of Delhi. The wake of this whirlwind has created a mass movement whose tentacles are spreading from Punjab and Haryana to neighbouring States and even across India touching the very soul of the ‘annadaata’. Even as this soul is being fed by the defiant stand at the borders of Delhi, there is a bigger realization that farmers have to unite across the country if they are to save agriculture as it exists today.
Farmers understand the NDA government wants to change the agriculture matrix altogether. The three Agricultural Acts which call for establishing private mandis and removing taxation on traders by the State besides facilitating contract farming and allowing hoarding of Agri produce – are all geared to facilitate the industry. This is the reason that repeated assertions by the top BJP leadership including Agriculture minister Narender Tomar that MSP “hai aur rahega” is simply not believed. The grand explanation that the new laws have been brought in to allow farmers to sell his produce anywhere he wishes at prices higher than the MSP is only being met with ridicule by farmers. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh understand that MSP coupled with assured government purchase is the only valve which keeps agriculture afloat. They already know that removal of this valve in Bihar and subsequent destruction of its Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) turned farmers of the State into migrant labourers. It is this system they are fighting to protect.
It has not helped that the NDA government is not ready to give any guaranteed to allow this system to continue in perpetuity. The very essence of the three agri marketing laws is to facilitate the entry of private investment in the agriculture sector. Farmers say this will be to the detriment of agriculture infrastructure and give the example of how government health and education infrastructure is being allowed to crumble to encourage private players.
In such a scenario, the fight of the farmers has become a fight against the NDA government and particularly a fight against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ambani and Adani — the corporates who are increasingly being identified with the Prime Minister. Even the centre is trying to wear down the protesters through a series of meetings; the farmer organizations are trying their best to make their movement a nationwide stir. The battle lines are drawn. For all its show of holding talks and sending repeated invites to the farmers, the government is only buying time to turn the people against the farmers. Till now attempts to paint the farmers as terrorists and Naxals has failed. Now the government is trying to paint them as obstinate groups who don’t want to talk and only want to spread anarchy. The BJP propaganda machine is going full throttle on this. The farmer organizations on the other hand have the popular support of farmers of Punjab and Haryana. They have also dug in their heels and have announced that they will only settle for a complete repeal of the three Agri laws.
The genesis of the problem
The genesis of the current strife are the three Agricultural Acts which were introduced as Ordinances and then pushed through parliament without adequate discussion and even questionable voting techniques in the Rajya Sabha. The government apparently relied on the shock and awe tactic of taking a bold decision at a time of crisis (COVID-19) to ensure there were no popular protests against its move. It did not hold any consultation with farmer organizations that were wary of the Ordinances and had started protesting against the same in June itself when they came into force. Since the protests were initiated only in Punjab and that to by Kisan organizations only with the three mainstream political parties — the Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) only offering lip sympathy – in the case of Congress and AAP or justifying the Ordinances as was done by the SAD — the central government did not take the stir seriously.
Agitation enters next phase –
The agitation in Punjab entered its next phase from September 26 onwards when the farmer organizations started a ‘rail roko’ movement by sitting on the tracks. Instead of listening to the farmers immediately, the centre again tried to tire them out. However, when the ‘rail roko’ entered mid-October the government called farmers to “explain” the benefits of the new laws to them. Later in a vindictive attitude, the centre even delayed restarting of freight trains even when the ‘rail roko’ stir was lifted. This was clearly aimed at making the farmers villains in the eyes of the trade and industry as well as the urban population.
March to Delhi
The central government even took the call for a march to Delhi for November 26 lightly. It was apparently confident that it had the buffer of Haryana and that the Haryana government would not let the march through. Earlier the Tractor rally of Congress President Rahul Gandhi had been tamely stopped in its track before it even entered Haryana. Both Haryana as well as the centre however did not reckon with the grit of the farmers who had been preparing for the march since a long time. The farmers started the march in tractor trollies and braved water cannons and brushed aside barriers and even crossed huge pits made on roads to reach the borders of Delhi at Singhu and Tikri. This success bolstered the agitation and thousands of farmers started arriving at the borders and continue to come to the fro on a rotation basis even now. As of now roughly 40,000 farmers are parked at Singhu and Tikri. While 32 representatives of 32 organizations are camped at Singhu, the Tikri border is being manned by the largest Kisan organization of Punjab — Bhartiya Kisan Union — Ugrahan.
Central government overtures to farmers
Five rounds of talks have been held with agitating farmers without any result. The first two talks were a complete washout. On October 14, farm organization representatives were called by the Union agriculture secretary to explain the benefits of the new laws to them. They simply walked out. In the second meeting on November 13 union ministers Narendra Tomar, Piyush Goya and Som Parkash assured farmers that a high level committee including their representatives would be formed and asked them to postpone their protests. This was not agreed to. The only real concrete gesture made to farmers was done on December 1 when the centre finally climbed down and agreed to introduce certain amendments to allay their fears. Though the offer was good on paper and appeared reasonable there were two reasons why it was not taken up. One reason was that the main Kisan organization – BKU (Ugrahan) was not invited to the talks. Secondly things had changed on the ground at the Singhu border where the 32 Kisan organizations were leading the protest. The decision was in the hands of the youth who forbade their leaders to accept anything other than repeal of the Acts. This resulted in the famous “Yes or No” response from the farmer organizations. Though another attempt was made on December 8 to break the deadlock by Home minister Amit Shah the farmer organizations stuck to their stand. A fresh undated invitation for talks was extended to the farmers on December 20.
The way forward?
The waters have been muddied. Mainly by the central government which did not move in time to resolve the issue. If the government had held serious talks with farmer organizations in the early phase of the agitation even amendments to the farm laws could have been acceptable. Now however with the movement becoming a popular one the farmer organizations have also dug in their heels. The protests are likely to continue for such a time till the centre feels it has built a national consensus to get them lifted.
Politics of the protest
It is for the first time in the history of Punjab and Haryana that the mainstream political parties are not leading the protests. The command is in the hands of the Kisan organizations and this is clearly very frustrating for the political parties be it the Congress, SAD or AAP. Congress MPs including Gurjeet Aujla and Ravneet Bittu tried to enter the protest but had to beat a hasty retreat. They are now camped in Delhi and completely isolated from the popular mood. The SAD is caught in a cleft. It had supported the farm laws stridently with union minister Harsimrat Badal giving interviews in their support. SAD President Sukhbir Singh Badal also defended the laws for three months before the popular mood forced the party to make a u-turn. The Punjab AAP unit raised a lot of steam in favour of the protests but its Convener Bhagwant Mann was also made to beat a hasty retreat. Same is the position in Haryana with the Congress party merely giving lip support to the agitation.
In the case of the BJP, it has become a pariah in the villages of Punjab and Haryana and things have taken such a turn that its leaders are being physically attacked. The party is still hoping against hope that it will sway urbanites to its side but it will definitely be an uphill task and the saffron party will face the brunt of the popular mood for some time to come. It is presently trying to create a new formation of Hindu and scheduled caste communities in the next assembly elections in 2022. But with the SAD and the Congress both vying for the SC vote, it is not going to be easy for the BJP.