Far Away From Media Attention, Rural Punjab Keeps Farmers' Protest Alive

Despite the fact that the media and public have shifted their focus away from the farmers' protest due to the COVID-19 crisis, protesters are still finding novel ways to keep the momentum alive.

Mohali: “Sannu saal ho chaleya, Modi da pit syapa kardey” (‘We’ve been crying against Modi for over a year now but we won’t stop’), exclaimed Gurpreet Kaur, a woman in her late thirties who is the movement in-charge at Baras village in Patiala district. Her two children and her husband accompany her everywhere.

“We have just come back from Delhi. Right now I am at a morcha near my village and our next trip to Delhi will take place after May 30,” she speaks loudly over the phone. A nearby loudspeaker at the protest site she was at kept drowning her voice. 

Gurpreet leads a village-level committee for her union, Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan). She mobilises over 100 women from the village. Gurpreet is among the many people in Punjab’s rural areas who have become full-time protesters. She has not taken a break from protesting and says that she is unafraid of the consequences.

There’s a person like Gurpreet in every village of Punjab. The deep sincerity in every protester appears to be the very element that has fuelled the movement into one of the largest protests against an elected government in India.

Also read: Samyukt Kisan Morcha to Observe May 26 as ‘Black Day’ Marking Six Months of Farmers’ Protest

This one-of-a-kind movement has been reeling under a health crisis, which too is a first. It is natural for a large, prolonged movement to have its low points – especially when the media and public look away from it. But, given the scale of the pandemic and its consequences in India, the movement is also fighting a natural and inevitable setback.

Shadow of COVID-19

Over 20 villages in Punjab became COVID-19 containment zones earlier this month. Shocking stories of death from rural parts of not just Punjab but Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have alarmed many.

Sandeep Singh, a young activist from Khamano village has told The Wire that people are afraid to go out. “Hun COVID tan hai hi (There is COVID, you know),” he says. “Nothing can be done about it,” he adds in a dispirited tone. “But when there are protest calls by the leadership from Delhi, we do as much as we can.”

He was referring to the event of May 26 – the day the farmers’ protest completed six months in Delhi. Almost every village participated in a show of support. Those who couldn’t go out of their houses tied black flags to their terraces and balconies. 

Protesters raise black flags on their homes to support the national black day call given by farmers’ unions on May 26. Photo: Twitter.

Last year, when the protest was gaining momentum in Punjab, many in rural Punjab had been least worried about the coronavirus. There was hesitancy towards testing, health teams were boycotted or driven away and masks were made fun of. But this year, several villages themselves imposed lockdown-like restrictions and villagers are now trying to get vaccinated as quickly as they can. 

Avtar Singh of Niamian village tells The Wire that there are not any COVID-19 cases in his village, but over 70% of the people there have inoculated themselves. The aim is to get vaccinated so that the protest against farm laws can get “back on track”. 

“See, most of us are back right now. But there’s always one person from this village at the border. There has to be. Yes, there’s COVID but we’re also back because we wanted to sell our wheat and sow our paddy. This is our livelihood. But, you see, after we’ve done the sowing, the numbers at the protest site will increase,” Jagroop Singh, another farmer from Fatehpur says. 

The support of artistes, youth

But it’s not just about the numbers. This agrarian uprising has made rural communities extremely conscious, especially the youth. Songs and pop culture on social media were major drivers of this last year.

Sandeep Singh of Khamanon accompanied many regional artistes across Punjab during their rallies in the months of December and January. He has told The Wire that some artists have been busy with their families and work, so they don’t see most of them now. But “Jass Bajwa is among the few,” he says, “who started campaigning once again a week ago. He has also toured a few villages talking to young people, telling them that they shouldn’t lose hope in the movement.”

Bajwa is a famous Punjabi singer and quite influential. From Mohali, on May 19, he says that the farm laws must be fought to “save the existence” of farmers in India. He appeals to other artistes to re-join the movement as soon as they can. He says this while announcing the release of his new song on farmers’ movement – Hokka. The catchphrase of the song – “Dilli nu fer dovaara chaliye, dharney to hokka aaya hai” can be loosely translated to ‘let’s go to Delhi again, the movement is calling us’. 

Speaking to The Wire, Amandeep Singh Bains, who is behind the Tractor2Twitter account on the social media site, says that in the meetings with their cadre, in the last couple of months, they came to a clear conclusion that it wasn’t the right time to populate social media with content about the farmers movement, instead they took to creating COVID-19 resource kits for those in need. 

“We were bothered about decreasing media attention to the movement but soon enough we realised that social media was being used to cry for help. So religiously, for two months, we stopped what we were doing, re-aligned and helped netizens with links to oxygen cylinders, ICU beds and everything else we could. Now that the situation is a bit under control, we will populate our channels differently.” 

Sikh diaspora and international support 

While there have been calls for the revival of the movement by artistes, the cadre and the farmers’ union leaders, a large part of the Sikh diaspora feel the union leaders should ‘reach a settlement’ with the government. Amaan Bali, a Sikh activist and author, believes that the protest has been allowed to go on without resolution for far too long. He was active in mobilising the diaspora on the internet and amplifying international support for the movement during the peak of the farmers’ agitation. 

“I am in close contact with many influential individuals from the Sikh diaspora all over the world. Some have lakhs of followers on social media and I can say on behalf of them that the diaspora feels the farmers should now reach a settlement with the government. This has gone for far too long. Most of us don’t expect the government to repeal the laws entirely. It has to be two steps forward and one step back. Some of us are citizens of progressive countries, we have families, old people back home and are genuinely concerned about the situation of coronavirus as well”. 

But in spite of this, the incidents of January 26, Bali says, have also reshaped the opinion of the Sikhs in the protest. 

Protestors at the Red Fort on January 26. Photo: PTI.

“Sikhs have felt that the comrades (the farmer unions) did not give them their due for participation in the movement. We are unapologetic about the hoisting of the Sikh flag at the Red Fort too. Having said this, there is definitely support for the cause, but most people don’t want to put their lives on the line,” he says. 

The said resentment among Sikh groups is a reflection of the diverse nature of this protest. But like Lacchman Singh Sewewala, the general secretary of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, which represents the cause of Dalit landless agricultural labourers tells The Wire that this movement has given a platform to many to raise their demands “but it must be understood by each stakeholder that the repeal of the three farm laws and the legal guarantee of a minimum support price are immediate causes.”

Also read: A Protest, a Veto and a Committee: The Story of a Farmers’ Protest

Dalit landless labourers

“We think this movement will let each person achieve what they’re here for. But it’s far from the truth,” says Sewewala. He believes that the repeal of the farm laws will not solve the fundamental issues of agrarian distress, especially those of landless agricultural labourers. 

“Old feuds with landowners and agricultural labourers haunt most of us. They are remembered. Many agricultural labourers have died fighting for their due, but this is the time to stand against the privatisation of agriculture and everything else can follow,” he says. 

The harvesting and sowing season coupled with the pandemic restrictions has decreased the already small support of Dalit agricultural labourers. As part of the revival of the protest, Sewewala says he is raising awareness among labourers in the fresh rounds of mobilisation. 

“We’re saying that if today they’re together with the landowners, tomorrow the landowners will speak out in favour of land rights, loan waivers and employment as well,” he says.

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha has given a call for a Sampoorna Kranti or total revolution on June 5. Farmers will burn the copies of the farm bills and remember Indian independence activist Jayprakash Narayan’s similar call for total revolution against the Central government in 1974. 

“It is with spaced out events like this, the movement will gain momentum again,” says Abhimanyu Kohar, a leader of the SKM

Talks with government and ‘political damage’ 

Kohar says that the farmers are willing to talk with the government about their demands. But with a deadlock this strong, there isn’t much left to talk about between the two sides. 

“It is unfortunate that the government has been putting conditions on us for talks. But at least from our side, we are open to the invitation,” he says. 

Meanwhile, farmers’ unions and many across Punjab feel that it’s not the talks but the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh that will determine the fate of this protest. Especially after the loss of the BJP in the panchayat elections – a strong marker of rural and agrarian sentiments in the state. 

“We have already announced ‘Mission UP’, where we will mobilise rural communities against the BJP’s failure in reviving the economy, a grim failure of managing the COVID-19 crisis in the state, and will definitely raise awareness on minimum support price,” he says. 

Citing victories in the breaking the alliance of SAD and BJP in Punjab, deep hostility against the Khattar government in Haryana and the loss of BJP in the West Bengal elections, Kohar believes that UP will be a big loss for the Modi government. A situation where rural communities are pacified by a guarantee in MSP will be a win-win for both sides.