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.