Stories from the farmers’ movement

These protests have not just been historical and monumental for the farmers, but also for restructuring of gender roles

The farmers’ protest against three farm laws enacted by the Modi government began in the Punjab in summer of 2020. In its current form at the Delhi borders, the protest has become a movement. Farmers from the Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are encamped at Delhi’s Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur borders. Farmers from Rajasthan and Gujarat are blockading the Shahjehanpur and Palwal border located on the Rajasthan and Haryana state border.

It is important to note that the government and mainstream media are trying to paint this movement as “limited to Punjabi farmers”. But the recent police mobilisation at Ghazipur border has led to thousands gathering every day for a week and becoming the biggest of the current protest sites. This has busted the myth that painted the movement as “Punjab protest”. It is the bitter truth of our times that our resistance is not simply noticed and responded to. Instead, it is ignored and maligned.

There are several reasons why this movement cannot just be seen as limited to the Punjab or to the three farm bills. Even before these three farm laws, the agrarian crisis in the Punjab had simmered after the green revolution of the ’70s. The fantastical crop yield, crop cycle of wheat and rice and corporatisation of agriculture have wreaked havoc on the farmers. Fertilisation and pesticide-intensive farming models have led to higher incidence of cancer and other fatal illnesses. The cotton belt of the Punjab has commenced the ‘cancer trains’ concept.

Additionally, it is important to view this movement as a part of the series of recent farmer protests in various parts of the country. Farmer protests of 2017 in Rajasthan, 2018 in Madhya Pradesh and 2018-19 in Maharashtra were symptoms of our ailing farming sector nationwide. Furthermore, the ill-managed nationwide lockdowns due to Covid-19 have created severe economic distress for daily wage labourers and farmers. The movement provided a platform to organise the resistance that had been divided by state and occupation.

Furthermore, the early decision of the farmers’ unions to lock down the toll plazas hit where it hurts the most - the corporate capitalism. The Ambani-Adani- Government nexus to loot the nation is directly affected by the loss at the hands of common people who were shelling out cents on an everyday basis to make the rich richer.

This protest has not just been historical and monumental for farmers, but also for a certain restructuring of gender roles — for the time being, but which may bring about some long-term changes for this region. It is notable that more than 50 percent of the agrarian labourers are women but their land holding is just 2 percent. So, this can be seen as women asserting themselves as farmers to make the agrarian system more gender equal. Also, women’s participation needs to be seen in the context of 21st Century global movements against gender discrimination and asserting their rights in socio-cultural, economic and political spaces. The following anecdote illustrates the blurring lines of care work, leadership and gender roles in the movement.

The movement has entered its 70th day at the capital and the mass mobilisation in support of it has put a big challenge to the government to address it. There has never been such a hazy line between the ruling party and the citizens as exists now. The government is scrambling to find ways to discredit the movement but has been unable to do so. It is the same government that successfully crushed resistance by building false propaganda. Finally, the Modi government has met with peaceful and resolute challengers — its own farmers. The movement is a ray of hope for mass movements across the world on the fundamental questions of land, food and livelihoods.

From a community kitchen at the Tikri site

“Sister, when I first arrived here, I didn’t even know how to knead dough. Now see how the rotis I am making are puffing up,” a 23/24-year-old young man told me while handing me a warm roti, “they just aren’t perfectly round yet.”

“But brother, when will Modi agree to our demands?” another guy asked, sitting nearby forming dough balls.

“The day this one starts making round rotis,” retorted a 45-year-old bhai – (bro in Punjabi) while picking up a roti from the pan and applying ghee. Hearing this, everyone began to laugh.

“Yes, bhai is absolutely right”, I agreed with him.

Bhai continued, “dear, I used to go home at odd hours and wake up my sleeping wife to demand that she make a meal for five people. It didn’t seem hard then. Now I know what it means to cook for five.”

Soon after, I finished the vegetables on my plate, and a 60/65-year-old baba ji served me more.

And my friend from Delhi, who was sitting with me, asked bhai, “Can I take your photograph?”

Bhai replied shyly, “Take it, but please don’t put it on Facebook. It would be trouble for me back home if your sister-in-law sees it.”

And there were guffaws again. Just like that, between jokes and hoots of laughter, they prepared rotis for 20-25 people.

As I got up after finishing my supper, the baba ji approached me and said, “I believe, the revolution has arrived for you?”

“Meaning?” I looked at him with questioning eyes.

“Till now, the women used to serve food to men. Look around, today we are doing the opposite and feeding you. Your revolution has arrived.” I gave him a “56 inch” smile, and saying nothing more than a “Sat Shri Akal”, I headed back to my trailer.

Navkiran Natt is an activist and researcher who works between the Punjab and Delhi. She is trained as a dentist and finished her    Masters in Film Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. Mukesh Kulriya is an activist and currently a PhD student at      University of California, Los Angeles

Stories from Indian farmers’ movement