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Farm Laws Protests: How Punjabi Songs of Resistance Kept the Movement's Flag Flying

From the camps at the Delhi borders to the kisan mahapanchayats in BJP-ruled states to even weddings in Punjab, witty and sarcastic lyrics by Punjabi singers served as anthems in the fight against the farm laws.

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Jalandhar: The Punjabi singers who played an important role in the farmers’ movement against the three farm laws passed by the Union government last year have arrived at the Singhu and Tikri borders to celebrate the first anniversary of the movement on November 26, one week after the government announced the repeal of the laws.

A year ago on this day, farmers from Punjab and Haryana had marched to Delhi in protest against the controversial laws and, despite repression by the Haryana government, finally settled into camps at the Singhu and Tikri borders at Delhi. The movement then went through several ups and downs till the birth anniversary of  Sri Guru Nanak Dev on November 19, 2021, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the three laws would be repealed.

One of the things that kept the morale of the farmers high in the camps at Singhu and Tikri was the support of several Punjabi singers whose songs of revolution struck a chord with every age group and gender, from the elderly to women to the youth thanks to witty and sarcastic lyrics on the burning issues of society.

Nearly all the songs by the Punjabi singers supported the farmers’ struggle via lyrics encompassing Sikh history and religion, stories of valour, Punjabis in the armed forces, pre-partition Punjab, the freedom struggle, the Punjabi diaspora abroad and the unity of the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Using sarcasm as their medium to deliver the message, the singers raised their voices against ‘Delhi’ (referring to the Union government), the godi media (lapdog media) and its fake narratives against the farmers, the arrest of young people after the January 26 violence this year, Bollywood’s silence on farmers’ movement and other issues.

Sample these lyrics from Kisan Anthem: “…Bik gaya bhawe India da media, BBC de utte jatt chaye hoye ne (So what if the Indian media has sold itself, Jats are famous on BBC News).” This was sung by 11 singers, including Shree Brar, Jass Bajwa, Mankirt Aulakh and Afsana to name a few.

In a song titled Punjab Bolda (Punjab Speaks), singer Ranjit Bawa sang: “…Dhakke nal dasi jande attwadi aj da, national media bhi keda bhala chaj da (Forcibly, they [the Indian media] are calling farmers terrorists, the national media is good for nothing).”

Similarly, a couplet from renowned Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal’s song Ailan became a slogan of the movement: “…Tainu Delhiye ekath pareshan karuga, par faslan de faisle kisan karuga (Delhi [Union government], this farmers’ gathering will trouble you, but it is farmers who will make decisions about their crops)”.

When Kanwar’s song received a massive response on YouTube, the Union government even had it removed, although it was restored later.

Farmers dance in celebration after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the three contentious farm laws would be repealed, at Tikri border in New Delhi, November 19, 2021. Photo: PTI

‘It was history in the making’

Kanwar Grewal was perhaps the only singer to stay with the farmers at the Tikri border camp from December 2020 to April this year.

Harinder Singh, Kanwar’s associate who had remained with him at the camp, said, “Since the day the farmers’ protest started in Punjab, Kanwar Grewal remained with the farmers. He joined the protest at the Shambu border in Patiala during the Punjab bandh on September 25 last year and after that there was no looking back.”

Also read: Interview: Farm Law Repeal a Win for Farmers, but Agrarian Distress Continues, Says Jayant Chaudhary

Renowned Punjabi singer Jazzy B, whose Twitter account was suspended by the Union government, also stayed with the farmers in their tractors at the Singhu border camp for more than a month, celebrating the new year with the farmers.

Talking to The Wire from Canada, Jazzy B said, “It is important for whoever is popular, whether singers or actors, to stand up for what is right. I will always be part of such movements. I was overwhelmed to see our elderly men and women living on the roads and in their tractors to fight for their rights. I took it as my duty to support them the way I support my parents and grandparents and feel their pain.”

The farmers’ movement helped to bridge the communal divide between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, said Jazzy B.

“It was all about unity and humanity. I was glad to see the people at the Delhi borders allow the farmers, especially the women, to use their washrooms when the camps were just being set up. It was history in the making and it feels amazing that I was part of it,” he said.

The singer calls the Union government’s pressure on Twitter to suspend his account with 1.2 million followers “childish”.

“India is a democratic country and I represent the people’s voice. Twitter is supposed to be the people’s platform and I didn’t break any Twitter guidelines. I didn’t indulge in hate speech or do anything wrong. My attorney from the US wrote to the Twitter India and US staff but there was no response,” he said.

Now that the farm laws will be repealed, he will soon visit India again, said the singer who was honoured in Canada for his contribution to the farmers’ movement. “And on the occasion of the first anniversary of the farmers’ protest, I will post videos to motivate them,” Jazzy B said.

Congratulating the farmers on the repeal of the controversial farm laws and the first anniversary of the protests, Manmohan Waris, part of the famous Waris Brothers, said: “This is not just an issue of a farmers’ movement. Governments should respect the people’s voice. We all know what happened during demonetisation. Before implementing any such law, the government should have conducted a survey or taken people into confidence about what they were planning to do. The protest against the black farm laws will serve as a reminder for future governments and keep reminding people of their power.”

The Waris Brothers, namely Manmohan Waris, Kamal Heer and Sangtar, had sung the song “Asi jittange zarur, jaari jung rakhyo, jari jung rakhyo (We will definitely win, just continue your struggle)” in support of the movement.

Manmohan Waris, who recently arrived in Punjab from Canada, said, “We sang this song for the first time at a Punjabi Virsa event in Canada in 2016. It was a song on human triumphs against life’s troubles, but we never knew that four years later, it would become a slogan of the farmers’ protest. Now our only concern is that the government should make a law on minimum support prices (MSP) because inflation has put prices way beyond the earnings of a farmer.”

Manmohan Waris giving a speech in support of farmers’ protest, in Vancouver Canada. Photo: Facebook/Manmohan Waris

Similarly, Punjabi singer Rajvir Jawanda’s pro-revolution song, “Uthi jedi lehar tainu yaad rahugi, Zindabaad hai Kisani, Zindabaad rahugi (The farmers movement that started, you [Union government] will remember it forever, long live farming, it will live long)” was a major hit with the youth.

In the song, Rajvir lauded not just the elderly farmers and women who left behind their families for the sake of the protests, but also thanked reporters from the independent media who went to the Delhi borders to cover the farmers’ struggle.

Also read: Slam Campaigns, Water Cannon, Lathicharge and Other Elements of PM Modi’s ‘Tapasya’

‘The lifeline of the struggle’

Mandeep Singh, who heads a group of Punjabi youth at the Singhu border, told The Wire, “Whether going to the fields, visiting Singhu or Tikri border, at weddings or just in our daily lives, we played the hit farmers’ songs. They defined our lives and kept us in high spirits. Punjabi songs boosted our confidence and made us feel that victory is ours.”

The songs in support of the farmers’ protests are also played during weddings in Punjab amidst slogans of ‘Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Zindabaad’.

At kisan mahapanchayats (farmers’ meetings), even non-Punjabi farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan were mobilised via Punjabi songs of resistance.

“Historically speaking, Punjab has had a spirit of resistance spanning centuries,” said Chandigarh-based senior journalist and author Jagtar Singh. “Every invader in this region came via Punjab. The new dimension was the emergence of Sikhism. Sri Guru Nanak Dev was the first rebel. He was the voice of resistance against Babur, who was the ruler at that time. Sikhs have been fighting oppression since the beginning. Punjab and West Bengal are the states from where the freedom struggle started. These two states made the maximum contribution in the freedom movement. Even after partition, Sikhs led the Akali Morcha. When we were in university, the Naxalite movement started, which had its roots in West Bengal and then spread to Punjab.”

In the 1980s, according to Jagtar Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale had also led a movement. “In fact, Punjab had both peaceful movements and radical movements in parallel. While the Babbar Akali, the Ghadar party and Shaheed Bhagat Singh were radicals, the Guru Ka Bagh Morcha in Amritsar in 1921 was a peaceful protest. When the farmers’ protest started, it affected every section of Punjab and the younger element was inspired. It is in the Punjabi psyche to fight oppression,” he said.

According to Binnu Dhillon, the famous Punjabi comedian and actor from Canada, since the people were upset by the farm laws, it became a collective responsibility to stand against the oppression.

“Punjabi singers and actors played a significant role in the farmers’ movement. While the elderly guided the movement, the youth was motivated through the Punjabi music industry. The fight was not just about the farm laws but also about the identity of Punjabis. I think every individual deserves accolades for their role in farmers’ struggle. In fact, I took my children to experience the historic revolution so that they too remember how the farmers gave direction to the country,” he said.

The role played by Punjabi singers in the movement was “remarkable”, said agriculture policy analyst Devinder Sharma.

“The Punjabi singers brought life to the farmers’ movement. They were the lifeline of this struggle. Not only did they mobilise the youth, they even took an interest in serious talks on how to save farming. When I addressed the farmers at the Singhu border, I noticed that all the celebrities, including Babbu Mann, Amitoj Mann, Jass Bajwa and others, shortened their speeches to listen to me. This is the vibrancy of Punjabi culture and anybody who knows Sikh society can relate to this movement,” he said.

Farmers and protesters pull a blockade using tractor during a tractor rally to protest against farm laws on the occasion of India’s Republic Day at Tikri border near New Delhi, India, January 26, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

When Modi announced that the farm laws would be repealed, Punjabi singer Shree Brar, who had held farmers’ rallies in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan along with fellow singers, congratulated his fans on the victory.

Brar told his fans via a video on YouTube that he had been all set to release Kisan Anthem 3 when Modi made the announcement.

“Soon we will sing a ‘Fateh’ (victory) song for the farmers’ protest. We support our farmers and feel equally concerned by untoward incidents in Kashmir, Haryana, Maharashtra and any other state of the country. It is our responsibility to rise up to the occasion,” he said.

The Rajasthan-based singer is vocal about major unsettling incidents on his social media pages, inviting comments from his fans.

“An artist is an artist. I am not in favour of any political party or religion. But it is our duty to speak out against anything wrong happening in the country,” he said in the video message.