In Photos: Remembering the Farmers' Protest, a Triumph of Satyagraha Politics

The successful year-long protest by farmers has shed light on various aspects of collective resistance, while instilling hope in a country where space for dissent is shrinking.

Listen to this article:

After a year-long agitation against the three controversial farm laws ended with their repeal, thousands of protesting farmers at Tikri, Singhu and Ghazipur borders celebrated the moment. Some took the soil from the protest sites in a jar for memory while others clicked photos, hugged and cried in bliss after long drawn resistance against a ruling establishment that remained unmoved by the appeals of protesting farmers, for far too long.

On the other hand, the families of those 700-odd farmers who died protesting were silent, consumed by the loss of their loved ones, when asked about how they felt about the Modi government’s response to (finally) repeal the three contentious laws.

Farmers celebrating after three contentious farm laws were repealed. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

The Kisan Andolan (farmers’ protest) reflects the breaking of the trust promised by the kisan-sarkar (farmer-government) contract. It was argued before that a ‘broken farmer-state relationship’ has been one of independent India’s worst failings and is a vital contributor in breeding widespread rural-urban inequalities – in terms of both (limiting) incomes, aspirations and opportunities for the citizenry. The context of this numbing economic divide, further exacerbated by the pandemic, is bound to breed collective feelings of chronic discontentment and fuel public resentment, which was witnessed on the streets across India for over a year.

Our team in the past year and a half closely studied and documented the farmers’ agitation since the beginning and had a regular exchange with scores of protestors and farmers’ unions. Here we reflect upon the findings and observations made from the field.

Also read: After Yearlong Protests, Farmers Bid Adieu to Singhu With Charity And Memories of a Lifetime

Anatomy of the protest: Understanding the ‘Kisan Andolan’

This Kisan Andolan wasn’t simply an act of social or political mobilisation against a regime. The genesis of this movement was surely rooted in resistance against a set of laws but the principle of its resistance, in form of a sustained movement, was connected to:

  • The cultural ethos and solidarity of the Sikh community.
  • The collective historiography of peasant protests and agrarian movements of the past connected farmers against class-caste-geographical divides.
  • The collective need to put up a fight to dismantle any “perceived weakness in the identity of Jan Kisan” (the Lakhimpur incident triggered this sentiment among farmers from Uttar Pradesh who joined the movement to support other protesting farmers).

The anatomical diagnosis of this civil resistance movement, in our understanding, was shaped by the perseverance of those imbibing the cultural ethos of Sikh tradition, with an undistilled faith in the collective public action, or Satyagraha methods of protest. In other words, the Andolan’s success renewed our faith in the patient-perseverant success of Satyagraha politics, even in the 21st century.


Protesting farmers believed that the three farm laws – namely Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act (ECA), 2020 – aided the privatisation of agriculture, which was collectively resented upon.

“Privatisation has made essential things expensive, like water, transportation and education. If the farm laws are passed, then agriculture and farm produce will become expensive as well,” said a farmer speaking from the stage of a protest site in Pakora Chowk (near Ghazipur).

The resentment against privatisation in farming or agri-business is rooted in the discontents of neoiberal policies and their application in India’s economic policy-making environment from the 1990s. Farm income for most small and marginal farmers has been stagnating since the early 1990s.

This happened largely because of a package of neoliberal policies that focused India’s growth trajectory on an urban-class-based service-sector delivery model while bringing in the forces of privatisation in most sectors of production and deregulation of public-supported programmes (rollback) in the agriculture sector.

Protesting farmers at a langar. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Agricultural subsidies were reduced, cost of farm inputs increased, which made farming lesser profitable for an average farmer (see here). This prompted, especially among the youth, a gradual shift from farm work to non-farm work, with subsequent migration to urban spaces for alternative employment opportunities. However, those with agricultural land and the ones recognising the precarity of “well-secured/organised sector jobs” in the city kept themselves restricted to farming their land for sustenance. The stories of most farmers in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab echo this tale.

Also read: What Comes Next for the Farmers’ Movement?

For those still engaged in farming, the ‘land’ is what they worship both, as their Karm Bhoomi and Matra Bhoomi. One farmer from Ludhiana, at the Singhu border, remarked, “Land for farmers is what water is for fishes. There is a deep emotional bond for us with it… And the three black laws – with increased corporatisation and privatisation of farming – are aimed that taking this away from us.”


The Andolan was called a Satyagraha by most protestors and union activists we spoke to. Satyagraha, characterised by a non-violent form of protest, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, has been embedded in the fabric of Indian agrarian movements from much before independence. The Satyagraha method of mass mobilisation during the non-cooperation movement had put tremendous political and economic pressure on the British Raj through the boycott of foreign goods and picketing of shops before independence.

Women were central to the farmers’ protest. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Interestingly, in the current Andolan, parallels were drawn between the Raj and Modi government. We witnessed non-cooperation near protest camps at the borders where protestors refused to pay for tolls, or shift their site of protest, which caused the closure of toll plazas and other nearby economic establishments,

A protestor from Ludhiana, Punjab, said that in villages of Punjab, “people have now started boycotting goods from firms behind commercialisation and privatisation, such as petrol and mobile network services from the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Limited”.

Certain elements of the protests were inspired by the collective memory of the past, including that of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. We don’t want those sitting and protesting to see another 1984 anti-Sikh riots. We have seen how violent it had become […] That is why we opted for methods of Satyagraha, and we saw victory,” said a young student and block leader with the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta (Ugrahan).

The Kisan (farmer) identity, and specifically its resurgence, helped farmers unite in Satyagraha against the farm laws. Stagnation of agricultural produce and appropriation of Jat symbols of pride and glory into the communal fold had weakened the farmer identity. The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots divided rural Western UP along Hindu-Muslim lines. However, in the 2020-21 farmers protest, these differences were reconciled under the shared identity of Kisan, helped by the effort and leadership of the Bharatiya Kisan Union that brought the farmers together. The Bardoli Satyagraha of 1928 was led and similarly organised by Vallabhbhai Patel. He had mobilised farmers in rural Gujarat against the oppressive agrarian policies of the colonial state, under the shared identity of Kisan.

Farmers’ protest was able to successfully bring together people from various divides of caste, region, class. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

One of the most important elements of this Kisan Andolan was the cooperation received from people belonging to different demographics, particularly the youth and women, within the farming and non-farming rural communities.

The youth played an essential role in sustaining and monitoring movement. While they made sure that only those having an identity card entered the site and stood guard outside tents of women, their most important duty was to coordinate social media and communication. They ran social media campaigns and streamed the speeches spoken on stage live through social media handles, such as Facebook and Instagram. This also has parallels with the Salt satyagraha of 1930 where it was mainly the students and teachers of colleges among others who decided to write articles and educate people about the making of salt and the nature of the movement.

Farmers celebrating after the repeal of three central farm laws. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Elderly women were driving tractors, participating in the langar kitchens and delivering speeches on stage. If not at the protest sites, women (and also children) tended to fields and managed households back in the villages while the elderly men were mostly present at the protest sites. This way they ensured that there was no compromise in their farm produce while they were protesting to save their future income.

A poster of sorts at a protest site talking about how a large section of mainstream media demonised farmers’ protest. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Symbolism plays an important role in protests. Similar to the Bardoli peasant satyagraha of 1928 where the women dressed in khadi, the farmers’ protests too were seen to have a specific dress code (salwar kameez and yellow dupatta). This highlighted unity and their resolve to affect change, especially in a movement where the leaders were overwhelmingly men.

The spirit of ‘Punjabiyat’ in farmers’ Satyagraha

Seva (selfless service) and Kirtan (action), the two key elements of Sikh tradition, solidified a uniform spirit of ‘Punjabiyat’ that sustained the Kisan Andolan. There was a strong Sikh influence in shaping the anatomical design of the movement. All speeches we heard at the protest sites were largely given by Sikh protestors, beginning and ending with “Waheguruji Da Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh”— identifying with what assures victory for all.

Also read: A Delhiwallah’s Answers to 10 FAQs About the Farmers’ Protest

To protest and fight for a just cause wasn’t new for the Sikh community. The 1907 Punjab unrest, like the current protests, was centered on problems concerning agriculture and land, and notably reform of land ownership regulations.

Even this time, despite all the teargas shelling, lathi-charge and use of water canons, the most striking pictures coming out of protests were of Sikh protestors caring for the police officers stationed. They continued to provide food and water to the police personnel at the border sites as every protesting farmer (we spoke to) felt there is divine light in all, whether (s)he is a friend or opponent.

The ethos of Sikh consciousness resulted in mass-langars being organised that sustained the delivery and access of food for both demonstrators and residents.

Langars were not seen as an extra effort to be put at the protest sites; it was seen as a ‘duty’. Some Gurudwaras collected ingredients such as milk in large amounts, donated by nearby villages.

A farmer at Ghazipur border remarked, “There is no lack of food at the Langar here. Some bring 50 bags of grain, and some bring 4-5…We have earned this money through our own labour and sweat: This is our funding.”

Volunteers, in that light, have been the backbone of the movement. They have helped langars to procure ingredients, fundraising, among other things. P. Kumar, at Ghazipur, mentioned, “I am not from any union. I have come as a volunteer on my own.”

The presence of the Nishan Sahib — the revered symbol of Sikh identity — and Nihangs (Sikh warriors) in the camps was symbolic. It showed the camp was protected and people could feel safe.

The presence of Nihangs at a farmers’ protest site. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

Symbols of martyrdom and sacrifice were also present on the stage, observed from the pictures of Bhagat Singh and Sardar Udham Singh that decorated the stage. The movement thus received sustained traction by invoking these cultural symbols and shared history. Protestors also stated that artistes, who sang songs invoking the life of martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, have helped them stay motivated and amplify the messages from the protest sites. One main form of dissent in the protest sites was the playing of Punjabi songs on loudspeakers.

Role of unions in collective action

From building traction in Punjab to organising the protests at different borders, Kisan unions played a huge role in this Andolan.

The Bhartiya Kisan Union and its different factions, along with other smaller unions, joined together and managed the events at Ghazipur, Tikri and Pakora Chowk respectively. They were responsible for bringing protestors from different strata of the society — from the landowners to the landless — and giving a common stage to express their dissent. For example, a roster system of speakers was maintained at the Pakora Chowk site by the union, to make sure representatives from all villages and their voices were heard.

These unions were also responsible for the active participation of women. At the Pakora Chowk protest site, it was the goal of their farmers’ union to have as many women as possible at all sites of protest, making sure there was an equal representation of men and women at the protest site, to represent the farming community. Sufficient arrangements were made accordingly, such as separate rooms within tents and toilets for women.

Instilling of hope

For many who have lamented India’s weakening democratic credentials (including us, the authors) over the past few years, the success of Kisan Andolan encourages us to take some solace in the fact that if resilient constituencies such as the women and youth (as seen in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizensand farmers (in context to the Andolan) demonstrate peacefully on the streets against an unjust set of law(s) for a long time, leaders have no choice but to listen and act.

The success of farmers’ protest has instilled hope in a country where democractic space is shrinking. Photo: Jignesh Mistry.

It is also a difficult policy lesson for any government that perceives itself as ‘decisive’ to abandon a coercive, top-down governance style and to pursue deliberative, decentralised models of governance while operating within the constraints of constitutionally-safeguarded federal principles.

The Kisan Andolan, as argued, also highlighted the value of collective public action, of Satyagraha politics by organised union groups while representing the concerns of the most economically vulnerable groups. Local (and regional) farmer unions across India are not just electorally important for parties during elections but their presence has significant importance in representing (and amplifying) farmer concerns when mistakes are made.

Note: Most names have been changed, or kept anonymous, to protect the identity of the respondents. This story is produced by the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) Visual Storyboard Team. For photo essays from this story, please see here, and for video essays, please see here. All pictures in this article are taken by Jignesh Mistry.

Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts, OP Jindal Global University. Richa Sekhani is Research Associate at ICRIER and a Senior Research Analyst and Research Projects Team Lead at CNES. Jignesh Mistry is a Senior Research Analyst and the visual storyboard team lead with CNES. Siddharth G. and Krishanu Kashyap are Research Analysts with CNES.

The authors also would like to thank Sakshi Chindaliya, Ruhi Nadkarni, Tavleen Kaur, Ada Nagar, Mohammed Rameez and Rajan Mishra for their assistance in editing, and archiving the photo and video essays from this storyboard.