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When the farmers first came to Delhi’s borders on November 26, 2020, they told the government they would only go back to their villages once it had repealed the three new farm laws and made the Minimum Support Price (MSP) a legal right. Ten months later, they are still at the borders, and have settled in for the long haul.
Conspicuous by their absence from the protest sites, however, are the people of Delhi, even though the farmers are camped at the very gates of their city. The farmers’ leaders at the different borders have their thoughts on why this is.
Sukhdarshan Natt, a senior leader of the Punjab Kisan Union at Tikri border, for example, holds the mainstream media largely responsible. “The middle class gets its information about us mostly from pro-government TV channels who either don’t show any news about the protest or who portray us as villains. How many people in Delhi know that the protest at Tikri is 21 km long? You will only find that out if you come here or if you watch one of the smaller YouTube channels that cover us honestly.”
Natt feels the term ‘middle class’ is a bit of a misnomer and it isn’t really a ’class’ as such, because of the sheer diversity of people and occupations within it. Unlike the poorer classes who have farmers’ or labour unions, or the rich who have their chambers of industry and commerce through which they lobby the government, the middle class, he feels, lacks a cohesive identity, and ends up becoming fragmented and confused, and ultimately, self-centred and non-participatory in larger causes.
He also points to the very real fear of a government which does not hesitate to use strong-arm tactics against its opponents. The farmers, by contrast, have no such fear. They can’t be transferred like government servants or subjected to income tax raids like businesspeople, because they have no money, anyway. At most, they can be thrown in jail. But even then, they come out and go right back to their protest.
“Have you seen how much solidarity the farmers show each other?” he asks. “Look how many lakhs went to fight for justice just for one comrade who died because of the lathi charge in Karnal. By contrast, most middle class people tend to only do what is in their own individual interest. At most, they will set up an RWA (Residents’ Welfare Association) to hire a watchman or keep their housing society clean, but that is about the extent of their solidarity or their involvement in a larger cause.”
Forty km away, at the Ghazipur protest site on the eastern edge of Delhi, Ashish Mital, general secretary of the AIKMS (All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha), feels that India has been divided between ‘flyover India’ and ‘slum India’ for far too long, but that this protest is a golden opportunity for rural India and urban India to come together. He invites the RWAs of the various colonies of Delhi to send delegations of residents to come and have weekend get-togethers with the farmers at the borders, in order to understand the issues at stake.
It is not as though individuals from the middle class have not come forward to support the farmers. Jaspreet Kaur, for example, is a media professional who has taken it upon herself to create social media content for the farmers at Ghazipur border, and regularly posts appeals for help on their behalf. She also brings the farmers food items and water whenever she can, but she is disappointed that the gated community residents of nearby Ghaziabad, many of whom live a stone’s throw away from the protest site, haven’t bothered to visit.
Then there is Rishabh, a resident of Hisar and a student of history and political science at Delhi University, who has chosen to attend his classes from Tikri border, where he has been living in solidarity with the protesting farmers since January 2021. When I ask him if his friends or classmates come to visit him, he smiles sadly and shakes his head. He has told them that the protest is the best place to learn about society and politics in real time, but no one has come.
”The problem is, they don’t understand that the three farm laws directly affect their lives. The amendment of the Essential Commodities Act has made it possible for traders to hoard essential commodities, and this is causing prices to skyrocket! They also don’t understand that the farmers’ protest is the one solid resistance to this government’s tanashahi (dictatorial ways). This protest is for all the things the government is trying to tear down – secularism, democracy, human rights, equality and justice. By supporting the farmers, they will ultimately safeguard their own future.”
Natt feels there’s not much that can be done about those who just don’t care, but those who have even a bit of sensitivity and empathy for those who are suffering should come and see the protest for themselves.
“Come and talk to these farmers and ask them any question you want,” he says. “Even the simplest and most illiterate farmer will answer all your questions honestly and sincerely. Once you come here, you will start to see things differently. But you need to make that effort at least once.”
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.