“It is developing as a mass movement”: Farmers’ protest finds support across society

Farmers protest at the Singhu border against three recently enacted farm laws. Teachers, professors, corporate professionals and ordinary people across society are joining the protests. Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times
13 December, 2020

On 8 December, Suman Malik, a retired engineer, was at the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi in support of the ongoing farmers’ protest. He is in his seventies with acute breathing issues. Since the imposition of the COVID-19 induced lockdown, he had kept himself confined at home. But after the farmers’ agitation began, he felt compelled to join the protest. Malik drove about thirty-five kilometres from southwest Delhi to the Singhu border. I asked Malik why he risked his health. “I was hurt by the inclination of the government as well as a large section of the media to label the protesting farmers as Khalistani and politically motivated,” he said. “The approach of the government, treating the farmers as if they are from some other land has caused me extreme pain. So I decided to join the gathering of the farmers and increase their number by one with my presence.”  

Ramesh Mumukshu, a chronic patient of asthma from Uttarakhand, who is in his late fifties, was also at the Singhu border on 8 December. Mumukshu is the president of the Uttarakhand centre of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, an organisation that aims to create an environment for study and research on Gandhi’s teaching and practice. “I came here to be one amongst the agitating farmers,” he told me. “They have been living in a vulnerable condition especially in Uttarakhand where basic facilities are lacking and natural water resources are depleting rapidly. It’s not possible for a farmer to earn a livelihood and depend solely on agriculture in such a pathetic condition. Though I am an asthma patient from my childhood, yet I could not resist coming here and adding my voice with those who are fighting for future generations. They are agitating with full determination to win.”

Since 26 November, thousands of farmers, primarily from Punjab and Haryana, have been protesting against three recently enacted and controversial farm laws. The protest is part of a “Delhi Chalo” rally which called for farmers from across the country to reach the national capital on 26 and 27 November. As the farmers advanced from Punjab, through Haryana, and toward Delhi, police in Haryana and on the Delhi border barricaded various major roads to stop the farmers from reaching the capital. The police also attacked them with teargas shells and water cannons.

Like Malik and Mumukshu, several ordinary people have started coming out to participate in the protests in support of the farmers. Community groups, social organisations and social activists across the country are expressing their solidarity. Protests are being organised at the district and block levels in different states by civil society organisations and people’s groups. Even teachers, professors and corporate professionals have started extending their support. Mohammad Arif, a professor in Varanasi and the convenor of All India Secular Forum UP, a civil-society group, was briefly arrested while protesting in Varanasi on 8 December. “The entire nation is there in support of the farmers,” he told me. “These bills must be rolled back. Now the intellectuals, social organisations, political organisation all have joined hands and they are determined to save the democracy. Be it pamphlet distribution or march to the villages or meetings, we would do all our best to support the farmers.”

I spoke to Jagmati Sangwan, the vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a womens’ organisation. “In my 35 years of activism, this is for the first time that I have witnessed such a broad based resistance,” she said. “Broad based on both ends—the number of organisations involved in the leadership and also the huge mass support for this agitation at the grassroots level. We salute the Punjab farmers’ initiative, courage and commitment. Along with their courage, their discipline and dignity in their conduct has won the hearts across the globe. The spontaneous support extended by the artists, sports’ persons and other eminent persons indicates the level of support this movement has received.”

Sangwan is also a volleyball player. Referring to a sports award conferred by the Haryana government, she added, “Being a Bhim awardee from Haryana, I feel very strongly offended at the way the protestors passing through the state were targeted and attacked. This goes against all democratic norms and values.” Jagmati continued, “Having been raised in a small farming family, I can say that the regimes of our country have never been honest towards the farmers. Increasing suicides among farmers speak volumes. From the perspective of the women’s movement also we have our stakes in this uprising. Ensuring food security has been one of the key areas of work for women activists in India.” Referring to the three farm laws, she added, “It is clear that these acts will only make food more inaccessible for the poorer sections and disenfranchised communities including women. Absolute withdrawal of these acts is the only way to stop further corporatisation and sell-out of our agriculture.”

Shreesh K Pathak, a senior lecturer at Amity university in Noida, visited a farmers’ protest at the Gazipur border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh on 7 December. He took leave from work and spent the entire day with farmers. “The farmers from the distant places and corners of the country are reaching the capital to record their protest,” Pathak said. “Looking at farmer protesters, one can witness a microcosm of India in it as the farmers of almost all states have gathered here on the borders of the capital, so it can be said that the farmers of the whole country are concerned about these new laws.”

Social activists told me that even in small cities and villages across the country, people are discussing the farmers’ movement within the community. They said that the ongoing protest of farmers is on the path to becoming a jan andolan, or a mass people’s movement.

 “In a remote village of Palampur tehsil of Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh, seven young boys were protesting on road with handwritten placards in support of the farmers,” Vikram Singh, the Delhi-based joint secretary of the All India Agricultural Workers Union, told me. “Such is the impact of this struggle. The mass base, commitment, self-confidence, immense patience and peaceful nature has attracted people who would otherwise be insensitive to many issues prevailing in our society.” Singh added that India is still an agrarian society and people have emotional roots to land, compelling them to support farmers. “People from all walks ranging from daily workers to TV anchors are discussing the issues of agriculture and farmers,” he said. “Many people who are otherwise supporters of the ruling party have also turned sympathetic to this struggle. The struggle which is uniting people from all social backgrounds, religions, states and political colours is bound to win.”

I also spoke to NK Shukla, a resident of Muzaffarpur in Bihar, and the national joint secretary of the Akhil Bhartiya Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ organisation. Shukla was an active member of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement of the 1970s, known as the JP movement, and spent six months in prison at the time. The JP movement was a student-led movement in Bihar, initiated by the political activist Jayaprakash Narayan, which fought against feudal landlords and corruption by Congress leaders during the Indira Gandhi-led government. Narayan had called for a “total revolution.”

Shukla told me he had been actively supporting the farmers by getting involved in the demonstrations and meetings. “I can see the direction of this movement as it could go like the JP Movement,” he said. “That time, students were supported by farmers and people from other sections of the society and this time the farmers have started getting support from students, teachers and others. It is now developing as a jan andolan. So, no wonder if it would be a second total revolution.”