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The last few days have been difficult for the farmers protesting the three farm laws at the Tikri border. (To be fair, every day over the past 11 months has been difficult for them, but this past week has been particularly trying.)
In the early morning hours of October 28, a truck ran over seven women farmers and a child at Bahadurgarh near Tikri. They were on their way back to their village in Mansa district in Punjab after having spent time at the protest. Two women died on the spot, and one shortly thereafter. The rest have been admitted to hospitals nearby. The driver has been on the run.
The mood at the protest site, normally feisty and energetic, has taken on a sombre hue. Hundreds of men and women are sitting on a long green carpet in front of the main stage and listening to kirtans and short eulogies by the speakers. Their faces are impassive. Occasionally, a farmer in the audience breaks down and cries. Someone places a hand on that person’s shoulder and keeps it there till the tears have stopped.
One of the older women sitting near the stage tells me in Punjabi, “Each new death reminds us of the others who have died here.” This is a community that has been forged in the crucible of pain and common cause.
Sumit Chikara, a farmer from Jhajjar who has been at Tikri since November 26, 2020, points out, “Have you seen how fire purifies a precious metal? Or how storms toughen tress? That’s us. We have been through so much this past year, we are now ready for anything.”
Like many others at the site, Chikara, too, is not sure whether the death of the women that morning was an accident or murder. The memories of Lakhimpur Kheri are still fresh. “A thorough investigation will give us answers,” he says, “but one thing is clear. This tragedy will not have the effect the government wants it to have on us. It will not weaken our resolve or scare us off. The corporates and the government are looking at us like we are fish to be caught. They are trying to figure out how to trap us. We may look weak to them but they don’t realise that in our unity is our strength.”
He pauses for a long minute and says, “Have you ever heard the saying that God is with those who speak the truth? We have been speaking the truth. God will help us win.”
Sant Singh, Beant Kaur and Sukhbir Kaur have come together to Tikri from their village in Faridkot district in Punjab. Sant Singh says he and his family will observe a black Diwali in memory of those who were killed. I ask him how he is keeping his spirits up at this time. “Haunsle hamaare kam nahi honge (Our courage will not wane).” He also wonders why the government is forcing the farm laws on them. “Yeh sarkar goongi our behri ho chuki hai. Isse hamari avaaz sunai nahi deti (This government can’t hear our voice anymore).”
Beant Kaur, a farmer leader, tells me something that brings a lump to my throat. “We have told our children that if we die during this protest, it is their responsibility to come here and take our place.” Beant is only in her mid-30s.
Sukhbir Kaur, the oldest of the three, is not just sad, she is furious! The women who were crushed to death were poor farmers with small plots of land and mountains of debt. “This is a tragedy”, she says, her voice quivering with anger. ”Everyone needs to come to Delhi’s borders and bring Modi’s government to its knees!”
I tell her I couldn’t agree more.
Shakespeare’s aphorism, “When troubles come, they come in troops” certainly seems to apply to the people at Tikri. Barely 36 hours after the first tragedy, urgent shouts wake up people in the middle of the night. The police have started dismantling — at midnight — the huge concrete roadblocks that they had put on Rohtak road back in November 2020. The farmers are alarmed. Why are they doing this now? This was supposed to happen the following morning at 10 am, in broad daylight, in consultation with both the farmer leaders and the government administration.
Navkiran Natt, an activist from Mansa district in Punjab explains to me, “We didn’t block this road. The government and the police did! We certainly don’t want to inconvenience anyone, but if suddenly one side of the highway is opened, and buses and trucks start speeding through while we are still living on the sides of the road, how many more lives will be lost, whether by accident or by homicide?” In an obvious reference to Lakhimpur, she adds, “Because we all know how much the people in power enjoy running over farmers in their vehicles.”
The farmers quickly gather and tell the police to put their regular portable barriers on the road and not let traffic through till such a time as a solution acceptable to all parties has been found. Seeing the large numbers of farmers gathering, the police comply.
By the middle of the next day, thankfully, a compromise is reached. Two lanes are opened for pedestrians and two-wheelers. The rest will be figured out shortly. Balbir Singh Rajewal, one of the senior leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, does a Facebook Live and exhorts the farmers to stay calm and disciplined and assures them that a solution to the problem will be worked out very soon.
As I head back from Tikri, I see crowds of people milling about in marketplaces at various spots in Delhi, buying sweets and doing their Diwali shopping.
None of them has any idea what the farmers at Tikri border have just been through.
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 [email protected].