Fallow Market

Why protesting farmers are taking their own lives

Saraswati, the wife of Rajveer Singh. Singh died by suicide on 7 March. Saraswati’s 27-year-son has now joined the protests in his father’s stead and she is the sole earner in her family.
Saraswati, the wife of Rajveer Singh. Singh died by suicide on 7 March. Saraswati’s 27-year-son has now joined the protests in his father’s stead and she is the sole earner in her family.
Photographs and Text by Varinder Maddoke
30 August, 2021

Citing the martyrdom of the socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh, the suicide note of Rajveer Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Haryana’s Sisai village, read, “I would request the government to fulfil my last wish which would be to repeal the farm bills and send these innocent people happily back home.”

The people Rajveer wrote about, had found his body near the Rohtak-Delhi highway at the Tikri border protest site in Haryana, on 7 March. For over seven months, Rajveer alongside tens of thousands of other farmers, had been protesting in Haryana, Punjab and on the borders of Delhi against the three farm laws. The protests have remained active and growing despite police violence, incessant media criticism and several inconclusive rounds of talks with the government. Upwards of 500 farmers have reportedly died, most of natural causes, during the protests. Alongside them, several farmers have also died by suicide, a few of whom specifically noted that it was as a mark of protest against the farm laws and the government’s authoritarian treatment of Indian farmers.

Karamveer Singh’s body surrounded by mourning protestors at the Tikri border protest site. The government’s authoritarian reaction to the protests, still active nine months after they started, has deeply demoralised some sections of the protestors.

Rajveer had been able to make small profits on his crops because he could sell his grain at the government mandated minimum support price in mandis, government designated wholesale markets for grain. The MSP was the lifeblood of most farmers in the region. The farm laws have made many farmers fear that the stability offered by MSP cannot be easily counted on in the future. The importance of MSP was something he stressed in his suicide note too. “Don’t let my death go in vain, fight till they guarantee MSP for every farmer in this country,” it reads. Rajveer is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.

A suicide note left by Karamveer at the Tikri border protest site. In the note, Karamveer demands that the farm laws be repealed. The note reads, “There is no estimate to when these laws will be repealed. We will not leave this place till these farm laws are repealed.”
Karamveer Singh’s youngest daughter stands alongside a photo of her deceased father. In December 2020, her father, along with several others from her village left to join the swelling protests on the Delhi border.

For the past nine months, I have documented the stories of several farmers who died by suicide either at the protest site or following their return to their villages. Though from vastly different places, and owning different amounts of land, each of their stories is similar. Four weeks before Rajveer’s death, Karamveer Singh, a 55-year-old farmer, from the village of Singhguwal in Haryana’s Jind district, also took his life at the Tikri protests site. Karamveer owned two acres of land and had recently been able to raise enough money for the wedding of the oldest of his three daughters. Karamveer’s wife, Santosh Devi, told me that while the cost of the wedding was a financial strain, her husband was sure he could break even with his annual crops selling at MSP. That hope ended the day the farm laws were passed.

“My husband got together with several other farmers in our village and decided to join the protests,” Devi told me. The Singhguwal region did not have any active farmers’ unions at that point, and so Karamveer and his neighbours decided to create their own. They named it Bharatiya Kisan Union, like the more than thirty BKUs that had already begun protesting the farm laws. They went on to join the swelling protests camps around Delhi’s border in October 2020. Karamveer too left a suicide note demanding that the government repeal the farm laws. “The only justice for his death will be a complete repeal of the laws,” Devi said. “He died because the government paid no heed to the demands so many thousands of farmers have raised.”

A farmer from in Haryana’s Singhguwal village, rides a bike across a flex board picturing Karamveer Singh. Karamveer died by suicide at the Tikri protest site. The crossroad he is riding across is named after Karamveer.

Farmers’ suicides have not been rare in Punjab and Haryana. The Punjab governments’ own data shows that between 2000 and 2019, 3,300 farmers died by suicide in the state because of farm debt alone. Unlike in other parts of India, in Punjab and Haryana, it is not only small and marginal farmers that often take their own lives, but large farmers too. The preponderant reliance on the government mandated MSP meant that larger farmers were as affected by the ravages of climate and debt as farmers with less than three acres of land. Though the Haryana government has not published any data about farmers’ suicides for the past decade, in most years, the number in Haryana is several times larger than that of Punjab.

The spectre of farmers’ suicides in the two states has become a constant symbol in both the Singhu and Tikri border protest sites. A common slogan I heard at the protests over the past seven months at the sites was “Khud kushiyan ra shadke, loko pe jao ra sangarshya de”—Leave the road of suicides and fight for your rights. On 16 December 2020, the families of several thousand farmers who have died by suicide in Punjab over the past decades held a rally at Tikri border. The widows, daughters and sons of deceased farmers, many still burdened by the debt that likely sparked the suicide, held aloft photos remembering their loss.

Widows of farmers who died by suicide hold up photos of their deceased family members. On 16 December 2020, the families of several thousand farmers who died by suicide over the past few decades held a rally at Tikri border.

In the past few months, I also documented the suicides of farmers who had returned from the protest sites near Delhi to their villages in Punjab and Haryana. On 17 March, shortly after returning to his village in Punjab’s Bathinda district, Ranjit Singh, a heavily debt-burdened farmer, died by suicide. Ranjit, alongside his grandfather Joginder, had gone to the Tikri protest site in December. He had returned in March and was threatened by a money lender he had borrowed from. Joginder told me his grandson’s debt had climbed over the past decade. Only the hope that the government would act to reduce this debt as a result of the protests had kept him going. The government’s reaction to the farmers over the first four months of the protest had disheartened him.

Joginder told me Ranjit left behind a two-year-old daughter. He too had seemingly lost hope when I spoke to him at the protest site. “Now we are sitting here, is anybody listening to us?” Joginder told me. “I have been part of farming unions for 30 years and have taken part in many protests, but I feel like I can’t do anything here.” He continued, “I’m 84 years old now. Can I fight with this world? Can I grab anybody’s collar? Can I protect my family? They can kill me; I am already dying. Only the government can end this, if they care to listen to us.” Joginder added, “These laws are the most dangerous thing we have faced. These laws will snatch our lands and food from our children’s plates. We will have nothing. We will die.”

Joginder Singh, an 84-year-old farmer from Punjab’s Bathinda district, holds a photo of Ranjit Singh, his grandson who died by suicide on 17 March. Ranjit had joined the Tikri border protest site alongside his octogenarian grandfather. Joginder said the government’s reaction to the farmers over the first four months of the protest had disheartened his grandson deeply.

Forty-one-year-old Beant Singh, a farmer from Roorkee village in Punjab’s Ludhiana district, also died by suicide days after returning from the Singhu protest site. Jaspreet Kaur, Beant’s wife, told me that three years ago he had been cheated of the little farming land he owned by another large farmer. For the past three years, Beant had taken plots of land on a contractual basis and farmed them. “We had loans from before this, loans on our tractor, loans on our cattle, loans on our house,” Kaur told me. “If you added up all the loans we had, it was nearly 18 lakh rupees. Of course, just on contract land we couldn’t make that money. For the past few months, he barely spoke at home, he was always worried about the debt. A week before his death he went and joined the protest in Delhi. It meant a lot to him.” Referring to his suicide she said, “But it couldn’t change this.”

Jaspreet Kaur, the wife of Beant Singh, a farmer from Roorkee village in Punjab’s Ludhiana district, holds up a photo of her husband, along with her daughter, Banpreet Kaur. Heavily burdened by loans, Beant Singh took his life days after returning to his village from the protests in Delhi.

At the protest sites in Delhi, I often heard similar stories from farmers of how debt is haunting every moment of their lives. It was in every alternate conversation I came across. The story of farmers’ debt in Punjab and Haryana is different from that in other parts of the country and is more often dismissed. Even if loans are needed, they invest heavily in good education for their children, hoping they will join a growing diaspora from the region that can bring in remittances. Alongside crop failures and bad weather, it is also a story of an aspirational class of people. They borrow for weddings, festivals. These are essential parts of the stories of farmers that are either ignored or disparaged, as if a farmer will not have the same hopes and dreams as others.

Harbhajan Singh, Beant Singh’s father, showed his son’s loan papers. “We had loans from before this, loans on our tractor, loans on our cattle, loans on our house,” Jaspreet Kaur, Beant’s wife, said. “If you added up all the loans we had, it was nearly 18 lakh rupees. For the past few months he barely spoke at home, he was always worried about the debt.”

Each loan taken for this aspirational growth is carefully planned. Agriculture has been a stable investment in the region, and the surety of mandis, MSP and widespread irrigation meant farmers could afford to think long term. It is exactly this stability that the farm laws have fundamentally disrupted. The shock of this disruption is what brought thousands to protest sites. It is this shock that has turned to determination despite seven months of government apathy, media criticism and suicides—at least ten of which I have heard of since I began reporting on this. That tenacity was as widespread in the protest sites as frustration, because if this movement did not succeed, rural Punjab and Haryana could never be the same again.

It was a determination that had bled through each of the generations present at the protests site. Near the end of my reporting, I met Rajveer’s 27-year-old son who did not wish to be named, at his house in Sisai. “My father has always been a follower of Bhagat Singh,” he told me. “I will fulfil my father’s dream. Until the three black laws are repealed, I will sit at the protest site even if every other farmer gives up and goes back to their houses.”

Widows of farmers who died by suicide hold up their husbands’ photos at the Tikri border protest site on 16 December 2020. The widows, daughters and sons of deceased farmers, are still burdened by the debts that likely sparked the suicides.