Six months on, farmers at Delhi’s borders are here to stay

Farmers at the Singhu sit-in against the three contentious farm laws on 26 May 2021, the six-month anniversary of the anti-farm laws movement. Protesters marked it as a Black Day.

 Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times
03 June, 2021

When thousands of farmers began sit-ins on Delhi’s borders against the contentious  2020 farm laws in November that year, they announced that they would sustain their agitation for six months if need be. In subsequent months, the sit-ins received massive global support, faced a government that refused to withdraw the laws and continued for over six months, even through the brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In end May this year, thousands of farmers were still camped in makeshift homes at the most prominent sit-ins, in Singhu and Tikri. Built with iron frames, bamboos, tarpaulin sheets and green garden-shade nets, these makeshift homes form settlements that span several kilometres. “We have settled here with the resolve to continue our fight till these laws are repealed,” Surjit Kaur, a protester at Tikri, told me.  

In the second half of May, I visited the sit-ins thrice and saw that none of the protesters had any plans of leaving. Many volunteers were carrying equipment to build new shelters. Several people were also rebuilding their makeshift homes as they had been damaged by torrential rain that hit the sit-ins for three nights in a row in the third week of May.

Lakhbir Singh, a native of Haryana’s Jind district, was among them. “Today, it has been five months and 20 days since I came here,” he told me on 24 May. Lakhbir said he only visited his home, in Datta Singh Wala village, for one day due to an urgent family matter. “I told my family back home to garland my photo,” he said, referring to a ritual carried out for dead people. “And I would remove the garland myself once I return after victory, but I won’t return empty hand.” The next day, I saw that he had successfully reconstructed his makeshift home with iron, bamboo, tarp and green net.

While many people like Lakhbir almost never returned home, several protesters from Punjab said that their villages had a rotation system to send people to the sit-ins. One of them was Milkha Singh from Muktsar district, who was also supervising welding work to fix his damaged makeshift home at Tikri. Milkha told me a committee in his village chalks out the schedule for their visit. “This is my fourth round here and I am scheduled to stay here for a month, then another group will arrive,” he said. Kaur, a middle-aged woman from Kishangarh village in Punjab’s Mansa district, said her village had a similar system. “We take turns in the village to come and stay here for a good number of days.” Kaur was on her sixth visit to Tikri in a fortnight when we met on 22 May. When asked if the protesters were tired, she replied, “Thakkan layi te assi jamiya nahi, kisan”—Farmers are not born to get tired.

Kaur told me that when she and her fellow villagers first visited the sit-in in November 2020, they would sleep in their trolleys. But for two months now they have been sleeping in sheds of bamboo and tarpaulin. “We are camped here, even if it takes two or three years,” she said. She was making kheer and sitting among a group of six women, all of whom agreed with the statement. “It is a question of our children’s bread and butter. And sitting here in misery is as good as sitting at home,” Kaur told me. When asked if she was scared of COVID-19, she said, “COVID or no COVID, the onus is on the government.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was hardly discussed at the sit-ins. Balbir Singh, a doctor who was camped at Singhu, told me that prevention norms were being followed and masks were being distributed. “Farmers are aware and most of them arriving here from Punjab are now vaccinated,” he added. Balbir told me doctors volunteering at the Singhu have set up a ten-bed makeshift hospital called “Kisan Ekta,” which has oxygen cylinders and concentrators. He said specialist doctors take turns to stay at the hospital. However, Balbir added, the government had provided no assistance to deal with COVID-19 at the sit-in.

Swaiman Singh, a doctor from the United States who set up Pind California, a health centre for the protesters at Tikri, reiterated that the government had not assisted them. Pind California is located in a few rooms at a new bus stand complex a few kilometres away from the main stage of the Tikri protest site. Commenting on the COVID-19 situation at the sit-ins, Swaiman said, “No doubt the disease is there, but people here have no major complaint of high fever or cough.”

Swaiman set up the centre about five months ago and told me he would be at Tikri “as long as the farmers are here.” He acknowledged that although tens of thousands were still present at the sit-ins, the strength of the protest currently was about half of what it was in December and January. According to him, the number of protesters would increase when the farmers’ unions leading the movement delineate a future plan of action. “People are now waiting for an announcement,” he told me. Several tractor trolleys were deserted at different spots at the protest sites—protesters told me their owners would be back soon.

Even though the crowds had thinned, Swaiman told me that more iron, bamboo, tarpaulins, green nets and folding wooden cots were needed at the site to prepare for the summer and monsoon. “We will be needing thousands of new shelters for those who are still facing rains and mosquito bites in their simple tents and trolleys,” he said. Swaiman told me that urban middle-class families of Delhi were earlier assisting the protests, but stopped after violence unfolded during a tractor rally by the protesters on 26 January. “Now help has started coming in again, though gradually,” he said.

According to Randeep Maddoke, a filmmaker who has been documenting the movement since it began, the 26 January incident had made it clear that the government’s effort “to exploit untoward situations is not working.” He told me the protesters still had the will to keep the agitation alive. “It is their fight and not of the leaders of the kisan unions. People have stayed put here for so long due to their own will. This is unlike any rally where people are brought in by the leaders and the political parties.” He added, “The mindset of the protesters now is that they staying here is a normal part of life.”

But no one could estimate for how long the agitation would continue. Milkha told me, “We do not know for how long this struggle will continue. It can prolong for two years, years or even five years.” Dharminder Singh, an executive member of the Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ union, pointed out how the government had not made any effort to resolve the matter for four months. Referring to how farmers were marking the six-month anniversary of the protests on 26 May as a Black Day, Dharminder said, “You can see black flags atop houses all over Punjab and Haryana today and the government is still silent.” He added, “The country’s agriculture minister, Narendra Tomar, is still silent. Does the government exist for us?”

Dharminder told me he was among the men who broke barricades to come to Delhi’s borders on 26 November. Dharminder said he had visited Punjab multiple times since then to mobilise and organise more people to join the protests. When asked for how long he thinks he will be here, Dharminder replied, “For long, I think. We are surviving here anyway.”