How does a dentist working in one of the most expensive private hospitals in Chandigarh go on to become an ‘andolanjeevi‘ (professional activist) living in a tent in the middle of a highway on the outskirts of Delhi?
Navkiran Natt’s story is a fascinating one. I met the 29-year-old by chance at a massive gathering of women at the Tikri Border on March 8, International Women’s Day. While trying to find the best angle to photograph the huge crowd, I noticed her taking photos of individuals in the audience. I asked her if she was a journalist.
“I’m a dentist by profession,” she said, “but I also have a degree in film studies.”
Slightly taken aback, I asked her what a dentist was doing at a gathering of farmers. That’s when I learned Navkiran had been living in a tent at the Tikri border with her mother for the last three months. Her work there involves running a makeshift library for the protesting farmers at Metro Pillar No. 783 and also editing the protest’s very own newspaper, the now-famous Trolley Times.
I asked her what a typical day at Tikri was like. “Not easy,” she said, with a smile. The temperature, on the day of my visit, was touching 35 degrees celsius, the place was buzzing with flies and it was only the beginning of March.
“Every day begins with sangharsh. There are very few public toilets here and those are not easy to use. Many mornings we have to clean the facilities before we can use them,” she said, “After getting ready, I help a bit with cooking preparation, although I must tell you I have ‘gender irritation issues’ when it comes to working in the kitchen. Some people who have recently come from the villages feel I should help prepare all the meals. I tell them if there really is no one else to prepare the food, then, of course, I will, but not simply because I am a woman!”
She points out, however, that the protest is bringing about huge socio-cultural change. Men who never did much work around the house before are now cooking and cleaning at Tikri, and women, who were out of the public eye, are now speaking from the stage.
Navkiran recalled the time a 21-year-old man confided in her that he had no idea how to make rotis when he first came to Tikri. “‘Ab rotiyaan phool toh rahi hain (Now at least the rotis are puffing up as they should, although they are still not as round as they should be),’ he told me to which I replied, ‘Don’t worry. By the time Modi repeals these laws, you’ll get the shape right too.'”
Another man told her before arriving for the protests, he thought nothing of waking up his wife at any hour of day or night and asking her to cook for five guests. “Now I realize how much work that is!” he told her.
Navkiran noted with satisfaction, “The women here are asserting themselves again and again as primary protestors. They are not simply here as wives or sisters of the male farmers, they are here as protestors in their own right. This is very much their own fight too.”
Navkiran’s mother, Jasbir Kaur is a farmer leader in the Punjab Kisan Union, and is also part of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha leadership team at Tikri. Every morning, she gets up at 4 am, washes the dishes from the night before, and then at 9 am heads off to the stage area where she organises the steady stream of speakers who make speeches all day. She returns to her tent at 5 pm, exhausted. “She just keeps going,” said Navkiran. “I don’t know how she does it.”
In fact, Navkiran’s parents are both activists who have spent time in jail fighting for the rights of Dalits in Mansa district in Punjab and have taken part in other farmer struggles as well. Her parents were sent to jail just as she was finishing her Class XII in 2009. Transitioning from school to college without having them around was difficult for her. Since she was a good student and scored well, her other relatives managed to persuade her to take up dentistry, in the hopes that she would land a good job as a dentist in the private sector or abroad.
But working in a private hospital turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience. She says that shortly after she joined one of the most expensive private hospitals in Chandigarh as a dentist, a senior doctor sat her down and gave her “the talk”, that even if there was nothing seriously wrong with the patients, they were to be manipulated into undergoing expensive procedures. Navkiran remembers quietly telling one of the poorer patients to go to a good government hospital nearby and get free medical treatment there instead.
One day, the hospital simply fired her without any warning, and that too because she broke her hand in a road accident while going home from the hospital for her lunch break.
Completely disenchanted with the private sector, Navkiran finally decided to pursue a master’s degree in film studies from Ambedkar University in New Delhi, and by the time the kisan andolan had begun, she had absolutely no doubt that she belonged with the protesting farmers.
Navkiran credits literature – and her parents – for her involvement in activism, but it was an event when she was in Class IX, that she feels put her on the path to activism. In 2006, a zamindar’s son in Mansa had raped a Dalit girl. The girl’s father, a farmer by the name of Bant Singh Jhabbar, refused to settle out of court and managed to get the offender arrested. The zamindar’s men reciprocated by beating Jhabbar with the handle of a handpump to the point that his hands and feet developed gangrene and had to be amputated.
Navkiran was so profoundly disturbed by this incident that she personally went from class to class in her school and raised money for his medical treatment. That is when she feels she truly stepped into the world of activism.
As to what kept her motivated on difficult days, she said, “When I get really mentally exhausted, I read biographies of those who struggled and won. That revives me. Or I sit quietly in a corner of my tent and watch random videos on my phone. I also like to read Russian novels. My father, Sukhdarshan Singh, who is the intellectual in our family, encouraged me to read up on the history of the Ghadar movement. The Ghadaris’ resilience and how they got up and re-grouped even after they were arrested and thrown in jail for several years inspired me.”
After a brief pause, she says with a laugh, “And filter coffee! Filter coffee keeps me going, but there’s none here, of course.”
Some days, it the lack of privacy and sufficient downtime takes its toll on her. Navkiran, however, is acutely aware of the fact that many people look to her for strength and inspiration, and she knows she cannot afford to look upbeat and cheerful around them. There are days she finds herself close to burnout.
“You must have noticed an increase in suicides here at Tikri the last few days. The other day a 47-year old farmer ended his life, leaving a note behind asking the government to repeal the farm laws. Depression and anxiety about the effect these laws will have is a very real thing. We need counsellors here. We also need to set up more movie screening spots where we can show inspirational movies like Gandhi etc. to keep up the spirits of the farmers. We need to keep reminding them that struggles like these take time and one must not expect quick results,” she said.
Navkiran recognises the need to tend to the spirit of the protestors and engage in dialogue with them to reassure them that they are not alone in their struggle. She gets particularly irritated at a question that almost every reporter asks her, “How long do you think this protest will go on?”
“How am I supposed to know?” she says. “Ask Modi that, no?” I am secretly relieved she has told me this, for that was the next question I was going to ask her, too.
As I head back from the Tikri border, I can’t help but contrast Navkiran’s honesty, compassion and profound sense of responsibility with the government’s arrogance, doublespeak and complete lack of concern.
I pull out my notebook and look at the list of items I need to carry for the protestors the next time I visit Tikri: Odomos (the mosquitos are ferocious after dark); rusks (these go well with tea); hand soap (for the kids being taught at the small school the farmers have set up); a couple of books (for the Shaheed Bhagat Singh library); and I add one more item to the list – filter coffee.
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.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.