Left, Khaps, Gender, Caste: The solidarities propping up the farmers’ protest

Women practicing driving tractors ahead of a tractor rally planned for Republic Day, as part of the ongoing farmers' protest. Against the backdrop of the singular demand to repeal the farm laws, new and progressive social solidarities are forming on the ground in the protests. NARINDER NANU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
13 January, 2021

When the Narendra Modi government refused to allow protesting farmers to assemble at Delhi’s Ramlila crowds in late November last year, they took a smart call—one that would greatly benefit them in coming days, in more ways than one. They rejected the government’s offer to assemble at the Nirankari grounds in Burari, and decided to camp at the Singhu border instead. What began then was “a war of attrition,” as Harjeshwar Pal, a history professor who studies social movements, described it to me. “The government launched a fierce counterattack to blunt, exhaust, coerce and divide the farmers … calling the farmers Khalistani, rich farmers, foreign hand, urban naxals, tukde-tukde gang, meetings with alternative farmer unions, endorsement by some farmer leaders, and so on.”

A pliant media fanned the government’s attempts to tarnish the image of the protesters, freely repeating claims suggesting that the farmers were not united, that they were smaller groups serving their own political or economic interests. At least among the farmers themselves, the media and the government were unsuccessful. “No label stuck,” as Pal said.

In fact, these attempts by media to project cracks within the protests appear to have pushed protesting groups together. Familiar with the media and the government’s designs, farmer leaders from the thirty-odd organisations of Punjab who initiated the protest were quick to publicly condemn the characterisations. A poster emerged in response to the accusation of Sikhs being Khalistan supporters. “When we save Hindus, we are angels; when we die to save the nation, we are martyrs; when we fight for our rights, we are Khalistani,” it said.

Their firm stance and their location at Delhi’s borders brought about more support—farmers from Haryana in the south and Uttar Pradesh in the east joined the protesting cadres of peasants from Punjab.

A remarkable feature of the ongoing protest is the unified message on the lips of every protester: repeal the laws. This is even more striking for a protest spread across three geographical locations and counting. Historically, Punjab’s peasantry has rarely seen such unity—feudal caste divisions between the landowning Jatts and the Dalit labourers has sustained as much on the field as patriarchal divisions between men and women at home. Political differences, too, have not thrived. Left ideology has historically found opposition from Sikh leaders in power. But in these protests, if temporarily, and if against the backdrop of a straightforward demand for repeal, these cracks appear to be mending.

The rivalry between the Left and Sikh ideology in Punjab goes back to the Naxal movement in the state, which was taking shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and which was extra-judicially crushed by the then chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, of the Shiromani Akali Dal. A bloody decade and more of militancy followed in the late 1970s, until 1993. It is the first time since then that Left ideology and Sikh sensibility, both rich in the culture of protest, appear to be sharing space. Language and iconography are coming together, for instance, in the immense output of protest songs—about 400 songs in last three months.

In the past few years, I have seen glimpses of this among the Leftist unions. When they talked about the socialist freedom fighter Udham Singh, they also talk about the Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur. When they give the red salute, they also give the Sikh jaikara, “Jo bole so nihal, sat sri akal”—Blessed are those who say god is supreme.

On the ground, the Sikh cadre associated with Left-oriented unions see the protests as a common cause against injustice. The two strands—Sikh and Left—are wires that constantly spark in competition, creating electricity, running the motor of resistance against the farm laws. While there are Shaheed Bhagat Singh libraries at the protest sites, there is also a Nanak Hut library. The protest newsletter Trolly Times now also has Kisan Trolley Times and Morcha as competition, each run under different combinations of Sikh and Left leadership. The unions marked the day of the martyrdom of elder and young sahibzade, the sons of the guru Gobind Singh. There remains much debate and discussion about the colours and signs of the flags and badges of the various unions, but everyone is clear, they have a common opponent—the government.

At the Tikri protest site, under the metro line, I spoke to a few Sikhs about the spectre of Khalistan looming large over the protest. Harminder Singh, a youth Sikh farmer, said, “Khalistan in Hindu Rashtra? Ask them first what they have made of the nation.” Another young man, Parminder Singh added, “In Partition, we lost Nanakana Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib”—shrines associated with the Sikh Guru Nanak. “If Khalistan becomes a reality, we will lose Patna Sahib and Huzoor Sahib as well”—associated with guru Gobind Singh. “What would we be left with? Look around, everybody is recognising the Sikhs, langars are being served, jaikaras are being shouted. What can be more Sikh than this?” Harminder added, “The Gurus belonged to the whole world. We are fighting for our dignity as farmers. We are winning. Let us not get distracted.”   

Post-Independence, until 1966, Haryana was part of East Punjab. Since then, and in part due to the ambiguous wording of the Panjab Reorganisation Act, which governs the division of river waters between the new independent states, Punjab and Haryana have politically been at loggerheads with each other. In Punjab, the resentment led to the Dharam Yudh Morcha of 1982, a public rally over a proposed link between the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers, overlapping with the early years of militancy that changed the face of the state.

But surprisingly, the Sarv Khap, or Supreme Khap, in Haryana was among the first out-of-state groups to announce its support for the protesting farmers of Punjab. Where electoral democracy failed to prevent the farm laws from being passed, Khaps, the parallel lineage-based groups prevalent in northern Indian villages, rose up. Controlled by Haryana’s powerful Jat communities, Khaps have largely served to reinforce regressive social hierarchies. Here too, their support was spurred in part by caste—the Haryanvi Jats backing the Punjabi Jatts, who hold the same place as them in the Brahminical caste order.

Tasveer Ahlawat, a member of the Ahlawat Khap in Haryana’s Jhajjar district, said that when protests began against the farm laws in June in Punjab, villages in Haryana too woke up to them. Farmers in Haryana began protests parallel to demonstrations in Punjab. During the protests in September, the government filed cases under the Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, referring to an intent to kill, on Haryana union leaders and began imprisoning them.

But it was not until the “Delhi Chalo” rally that the Haryana farmers came out in support of their Punjabi counterparts. “When Punjab famers marched to Delhi, they were labelled Khalistani,” Ahlawat said. “Jatts from Punjab and Jats from Haryana are brothers. When our brothers were falsely labelled, we took offence.”

Ahlawat referred to how members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Chaduni faction in Haryana, including its head Gurnam Singh Chaduni, faced a police crackdown on their way to Delhi. “We knew BKU Chaduni members had been beaten even before protests had started in Punjab. The Punjab unions contacted the Sarv Khap,” Ahlawat said. On 29 November, the Sarv Khap decided to support Punjab’s farmers. By this time, having been stopped at the Punjab-Haryana border and then again the Delhi border, the farmers had begun their sit-in around Delhi. “Within hours of the decision, the Khaps reached Delhi, dug in their tents, joined the protests,” Ahlawat recalled. On 30 November, Somveer Sangwan, formerly a BJP MLA who had since turned independent, resigned as chairman of Haryana Livestock Board and extended support to the protests. Sangwan is the head of his community khap.

Despite their prominence, the Khaps have stayed out of the farmers’ discussions with the government. “The Khaps have entrusted the unions and farmer organisations with all decisions,” Ahlawat said.  “The farmer unions have the right to represent the farmers. The Khaps have extended their unstinted support, as of now on the back-end. If unions ask, then on front-end. It is complete solidarity.”

Ahlawat continued, “You see the government wants to break us, sometimes on basis on Haryana and Punjab, sometimes over river waters. That is why Khaps have decided, the unions will manage the stage, the Khaps will support. We have come prepared for the long haul, backed up for a year.” According to him, the Khap support would have political ramifications too. I asked Ahlawat about Dushyant Chautala, Haryana’s deputy chief minister and the co-founder of Jannayak Janata Party, who won on Jat votes and whose party supports BJP. “His Jat constituency has moved on. For us, by not supporting us, he has lost,” Ahlawat said. “A seasoned politician would have sensed which side the wind is blowing.”

The interstate solidarity in the protests also extends to western Uttar Pradesh. In 1988, Mahendra Singh Tikait, who founded the western UP chapter of the BKU, had led a rally straight into Delhi’s Boat Club, where farmers with tractor trolleys camped out for nearly a week. Ranbir Singh, from Muzaffarnagar, was part of that rally, too. I met him under the Ghazipur flyover, where the UP contingent is conducting its sit-in. “We came two years back as well but committed some mistakes. A few drunk youngsters became violent at the police barricades,” he said, referring to protesting demanding loan waivers and implementation of farmer-friendly laws. “This time we are committed to total non-violence but the laws have to be repealed and we must get the minimum support price.”

A surprising solidarity visible in these protests is the significant presence of patriarchal Punjab’s women. I spoke to Harvinder Bindu, the acting general secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan). The BKU (EU) has the largest cadre at the protests, over a lakh. Bindu was 14 years old when her father was killed during the militancy. Since 2012, Bindu has been active on the ground, driving a truck, bringing more and more women to the union’s rallies. When I said I wanted to speak specifically to her, she laughed and said, “Now we have made our place, veere”—brother. “Now we have shown that we women exist.”

Just as in the protests in 2019 and 2020 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, here too, women have prominent roles. They are visible on stages, in audiences, at tents, at langars—shoulder to shoulder with men. Balbir Kaur, an advocate and the head of the Mansa unit of BKU Dakaunda, said, “From langars to stage management and as speakers, women are participating in the protests. They are conducting meetings, at the protests site and in nearby Haryana villages. These days we are busy with preparations for the Women Farmer Day on 18 January. We are calling women who can drive any vehicle to join the march.”

Narinder Kaur, who works with the All India Progressive Women’s Association, was at Tikri but had to return to Punjab to help organise the last rites of another woman protester, who died in a road accident. According to Kaur, this is the “second battle of freedom,” after 1947. “We are aware of patriarchy, we work against it but for the moment, our attention is on the repeal of laws,” she said.

Narinder believes that women must not beg for their rights. “Our equality with men is a guaranteed by the Constitution,” she said. “Like we manage homes, contribute to farms, to upkeep of domestic animals, we will demonstrate our practice through these protests. The men in the movement consider us equal, accord us respect. Other men too will do so, equality will happen.”

New, more equal social behaviours are taking shape, at least on the protest sites. Several people told me how men keep an eye on each other, and do not tolerate misbehaviour with or harassment of women. The changes are slow, but definite. Navkiran Natt, a dentist turned filmmaker, said that the protests were changing men’s engagement with public spaces. “Though in private their language is full of women-related abuses, in public, they are being careful,” Natt said. “In a patriarchal society like ours, land is associated with men. But when women say that this protest is a fight for their existence too, they are claiming their rightful space in this society.”

Caste, the fundamental fault line of all Indian society, remains prominent in Punjab. For now, the primarily Dalit labourers are extending their solidarity to the dominant Jatts. All slogans—sometimes organically, sometimes upon the caller being reminded—mention both kisan and mazdoor, farmer and labourer. After centuries of blood feuds over caste lines, this augurs well for a semi-feudal society such as Punjab. 

In early December, Gurmukh Mann, the founder of Sangrur-Barnala based Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Committee—an organisation that works to secure land rights for Dalit labourers—said in an interview that it was imperative for Dalit workers to support the farmer movement. “Our struggle against Jatts is possible within the current structure. If this structure erodes, our struggle against corporatisation of agriculture will be much worse,” Mann said. Referring to one of the acts that are part of the three laws being opposed, he said, “Even if we get the doles from the government, the watering down of Essential Commodities Act would mean we will not be able to afford even basic food.” Mann was clear that at his level, the results of the solidarity would show if henceforth the Jatts treat Dalits with dignity.

Lachhman Sewewala, the general secretary of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, a labourer union, said, “A farmer plants the crop and then maintains it periodically but a labour has to go to work every day. Even if labour does not earn enough per day for food, they have to forage wood for fires. That is why, though there is solidarity, labour cannot be present in the same numbers as farmers at the protest.”

Early January, Sewewala organised for about 1,000 labourers, including women and children, to join the protests. The BKU (EU) arranged for their accommodation and langar. On 8 January, the union offered the stage to the labour leaders, who addressed the audience all day. Farmer leaders have often reiterated how important the labour solidarity is to the protests. Sewewala said, “In spite of this solidarity, the projection of the protests is that it is a farmers struggle. Given the amendments to ECA, the message that must go out is that the laws hit at the food security of the nation. That is how more sections of society will join the protests.”

I asked everyone I spoke to what lay ahead, in the future beyond the protests. Would the solidarities of the protests play a role in the reorganisation of society? They were cautiously optimistic. Protesters from Punjab asserted that they would release water to Haryana. Union leaders had recently condemned some misogynistic posters and reaffirmed that women were the strength of the agitation. Sewewala said, “As long as labour participates, they”—the Jatts—“will have to remember.”

More solidarities await—one more is coming up with the farmers of rest of India. Farmers from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat are participating in farmer press conferences, and have announced the movement of their cadre from respective states. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have already seen large protests that were curbed by state governments.

In early December, a seemingly panic-stricken government, having failed to prevent the farmers from reaching Delhi, had announced that it was ready to make significant concessions to the farmers in the form of amendments to the farm laws. The protests then entered a war of position—the government that had screamed from roof-tops that farmers did not understand the laws became ready to vacate these. It was a clear admission that the farmers were right. But the farmers have remained adamant on their demand for a repeal. Rajinder Singh, the vice president of the Kirti Kisan Union, said, “Laws are like boxes, one can put anything in them. If government recognises the laws are wrong, why leave the boxes open? When we go back, the government will again make amendments to the laws. That is why we insist on repeal.”

On 12 January, the Supreme Court stayed the laws and recommended a committee of four people to examine the laws, all of whom had already publicly spoken in favour of the provisions. Farmer leader Darshanpal, speaking on behalf of the protesting unions, told the media that, despite respect for the Supreme Court, the committee was a futile exercise that the farmers would not participate in. The protesters have dug in deeper on their resolve: repeal the three Farm Laws. In the war of position, they remain as they were on day one—steadfast, their unity seeming only to strengthen.