Field Notes

Dispatches from the farmer protests

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) celebrates International Human Rights Day, on 10 December, at the Tikri border, where farmer families from Punjab and Haryana are sitting in protest against three recently enacted farm laws. The BKU (EU) avows wider demands than the repeal of the laws, including the release of dissident intellectuals, scholars and activists jailed by the Narendra Modi government. Randeep Maddoke
25 January, 2021

ON NEW YEAR’S EVE, the wind on the Ghazipur flyover, on National Highway 24, was cold and harsh, and the temperature was creeping towards zero. A quiet stage stood on one side of the flyover. Three historical figures kept watch from larger-than-life posters next to the stage: the farmer leaders Chowdhary Charan Singh and Mahender Singh Tikait, and the socialist freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.

Surrounding them lay their followers: thousands of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, blocking a major road into Delhi to protest farm laws recently enacted by the Narendra Modi government. The layout of their camps—a patchwork of plastic, polyester and tarpaulin tents—mirrored the geography of the places they called home. Farmers from the flat-lands of western Uttar Pradesh spread out on the level ground below the flyover; those from the terai, or foothills, were on the slip roads; and the ones from hilly Uttarakhand perched atop the flyover.

The farmers had faced various hurdles just to get here, to the border of the national capital. Mukhtiar Singh, a middle-aged Sikh farmer from Rajpur, a village in the Baheri tehsil, told me that the Uttar Pradesh government was trying to stop farmers from coming to Delhi. According to him, the deputy inspector general of police had visited the local thana and held a meeting with police officers. Then, the head of his local gurudwara, Niranjan Singh, who is a member of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, had personally asked Mukhtiar to stay home, in a meeting at the gurudwara. Mukhtiar recalled that Niranjan told him to “be his guest, not go to the protests.” Mukhtiar refused.

Rakesh Kandwar, a local farmer leader from the Rashtriya Kisan Morcha and a friend of Mukhtiar’s, said he had also refused a request to stay behind. He and his friends began leaving their village, also in the Baheri tehsil, in groups of ten or twelve people, on motorcycles, with a few hidden clothes and blankets. Kandwar told me the government informally enforced Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area, disallowing assemblies of more than a few people to discourage any talk against the farm laws. “The police guards big and small farmer leaders, prevents them from leaving their homes.” Mukhtiar said. “CM Yogi”— the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the self-styled “yogi” Adityanath—“conducted a farmer meeting and asked the local administration to arrange for 35,000 farmers to attend.” The chief minister wanted to discuss the farm laws. The state government generally ignored the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, Mukhtiar added, “but when farmers want to do their meetings, there is corona. We are not even allowed mics in our farmers’ meetings.” Shivlal, an elderly farmer who was close to sixty years old, told me, “Singhu and Tikri gave us courage to come here.”