Caught between debt and landlessness, Punjab’s protesting women assert fight for rights

On 5 December 2020, thousands of protesters camp at Singhu, a small town on the Delhi-Haryana border. The agitation had begun on 26 November when farmers, labourers and agricultural workers from Punjab and Haryana marched to Delhi to protest three farm laws enacted by the central government in September 2020. Women protesters, though small in numbers by comparison, formed a loud and visible contingent at the protest sites. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
13 December, 2020

The sky had been overcast all day in Gharachon village, in Punjab’s Sangrur district. It was cold and by evening, it started to rain. None of that deterred Gurmail Kaur, as she prepared for the “Chalo Dilli” rally for the next day—an “onwards to Delhi” march called by farmers’ organisations of Punjab, to protest the three farm laws recently enacted by the Narendra Modi government. The plan was to reach the capital on 26 and 27 November. Gurmail was around eighty years old and as she packed a small bag, she smiled and said, “I am prepared to die for our land.” The bag contained one change of clothing, a yellow chunni, or scarf-like throw, a towel, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a blanket. She told me that she used to step out of the house only for marriages and mournings, that too with her family. This was the first time she was joining any movement.

“I used to get out of the house in a veil. Then veils went out of fashion; I never got rid of my chunni. Now, I don’t care about this chunni anymore. I do not like my house anymore. I do not belong inside even after we win this fight against Modi,” she said. A picture of her son, in the uniform of Punjab Police, hung from the wall. He died twenty years ago. Over the next two weeks, as protesting farmers blockaded Delhi’s borders with Haryana at Singhu and Tikri, Gurmail became a regular sight at the protest site in Singhu.

On 5 December, the ninth day of the protests, I met a group of women from the Kakrala Bhaika village of Punjab’s Patiala district, at the Tikri protest site. The women were rolling rotis for dinner and they pointed out the men of their village, who were cooking vegetables and a carrot kheer. Mukhtiar Kaur, an 80-year-old, told me about her granddaughter. “She is your age. She is well educated but there are no jobs. There will be no land either.” She complained about the cold and the chest pains it was causing her. And then she added, “But we shall fight. I am not afraid to die now.” Amarjit Kaur, a 60-year-old, had come to the protest with her whole family. “The agrarian condition was not good previously also. But now it is the worst. We chose this government and now we shall confront it over such one-sided laws,” she said.

Since the summer, Punjab’s farmers have been protesting against three bills—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. First promulgated as ordinances in June, the bills were passed in the Parliament between 20 and 22 September. Several farmers’ outfits in the state organised a three-day “rail roko,”or rail blockade, from 24 to 26 September, alongside a Punjab Bandh, or general strike, on 25 September. Women and the state’s youth joined the protests in huge numbers and converted the protests into a peoples’ movement.

By 26 November, the protests had spread beyond Punjab’s farmers. At the time of publishing, the protests on Delhi’s borders had been going on for 18 days, and included farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Farmers from several other states have held similar protests in solidarity with their agitating compatriots. In addition, on 8 December, hundreds of organisations representing several sectors such as farm workers, labour, dairy farmers, commission agents, retailers, women’s rights groups, cultural activists and transporters observed a Bharat Bandh. The bandh and the protests are focussed not just on the farm bills but also reforms to the existing labour codes, which were passed by the Parliament on 25 September—the Industrial Relations Code Bill of 2020, Code on Social Security Bill of 2020 and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill of 2020.

At the first bandh on 25 September, at Raikot, the women I met were hesitant to talk about the agri-laws and their own participation. Most of them refused to have their pictures clicked. Two weeks later, as the rail blockade continued in Punjab, the women I met at the Sangrur Railway Station asked me to talk to the men about the laws. The number of women at both the sites was miniscule—hundreds of men and around fifty women. When I went back to the Sangrur station another two weeks later, on Dusshera, the women were equal in numbers (The traditional effigy of Ravan had been replaced by Modi’s and burnt in protest against the laws). They were proud to be participants, loud and visible. They asked to be interviewed, they wanted to recite poems or perform the siyappa—songs sung during mourning—on camera.

A woman farmer leader takes to the protest stage at Tikri, a locality on the Delhi-Haryana border, on 8 December. Hundreds of farmers, labourers and workers’ organisations, among others, had called for a nationwide general-strike that day to protest recent reforms in the agricultural and labour sectors. The Bharat Bandh was part of the farmers’ protests going on at Delhi’s borders since 26 November. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

The number of women from Punjab coming out against the farm bills and the labour reforms has soared since the first protest call went out in September. For the first few weeks, the women who joined the protests were predominantly from marginal and small farming families. They are not considered farmers even though they work in the fields and do allied agricultural work. By the first week of November, agricultural workers, labourers and daily-wage earners joined in. However, women farmers were few and far in between, while there was practically no presence of women from medium and big farmer families—families with landholding of more than four hectares. While women still constitute a small percentage of the protesters on site, the ongoing movement has worked towards normalising women’s presence in the political space. Women have transitioned from a wavering audience to firm participants. They have started speaking on the protest stages after educating themselves on the laws. Their participation and contribution now includes mobilising support, spreading awareness, raising funds and sustaining protest sites in Punjab.

Gurmeet Kaur, a 40-year-old from the Mattran village of Sangrur, hails from a farming family. “I now make the gurudwara announcements regarding the material that can be sent to the protest sites. In addition, I urge other farming families to join the protests wherever they can,” she said. She told me she always wanted to be a teacher but her family did not allow it, and married her off into another farming family. She told me that as she was from a landowning household she had limited interaction with the “majdoor,” or labourer women. “Our sisters who are labourers work in the fields. I learnt about their troubles recently at a protest.” She added, “I gathered a few women in my village gurudwara and asked them to join each other’s cause. Right now, the right to a dignified life for all of us is at stake.” The movement, she said, is her chance to find “her lost self.”

Tej Kaur, a 70-year-old from Gharachon, is a farm labourer and hails from a Dalit community. She joined the Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ call for a country-wide strike on 26 November, the day farmers reached Delhi’s borders. “The first time I stepped out of the house for a cause was with Zameen Prapati Sangharsh Committee a few years ago.” The ZPSC works towards land rights of Dalits as defined by the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Act of 1961, which reserved 33 percent of agricultural “village common land” for Scheduled Castes. Tej did not participate in the first bandh on 25 September. But she said that when the farmers’ leaders began talking about the reforms in labour laws at the farmers’ protests, she decided to participate. She attended a protest on 5 November at the Kalajhar Toll Plaza on National Highway 7. She told me that the police had detained her when she participated in the ZPSC’s protests a few years ago. “I am not scared of the police. They come and intimidate us. I am old now and all that is left in me are the breaths. They can take these, too.”

I spoke to over three dozen women about their motivations to join the agitations and what role they felt they could play. Several of them told me that the nationwide lockdown because of COVID-19 created a crisis for rural women which reached its boiling point over the past few months. Women employed as farm labourers, landless workers and those from marginal farming families had found themselves trapped in debt to microfinance companies.

Narinder Kaur, a resident of Mansa town in Punjab, is a national counsellor with the All India Progressive Women Association. She is in her thirties and is a mother of two young children. She explained that rural women from these backgrounds often took loans from microfinance companies, ranging from Rs 30,000 to upwards of Rs 1 lakh at interest rates as high as 100 percent. The loans typically cover childbirth costs, medical emergencies, groceries, and in some cases, small business ventures like rearing a buffalo to sell milk, beauty parlours and boutiques. “In cases where a group of women had taken a loan, a leader is chosen, typically of better financial strength, who is made responsible for the recovery,” Narinder said. However, the lockdown severely affected their capacity to pay back these loans. 

For instance, Manpreet Kaur, from the Kot Karor village in Firozpur district, is a farm labourer who took a loan of Rs 60,000 to buy a buffalo. She said that in a normal year, she would have been able to make the monthly payments. “But this year the only opportunity I got to earn was 15-20 days of paddy sowing.” The women told me that they started taking add-on loans to pay back the original loans, resulting in a stack of loans at unbearable interest rates from multiple finance companies. When a family is in such a debt, the recovery often begins by extracting what is owned by a woman—utensils, dishes, furniture items given by parents in dowry, cash saved for medical emergencies, among others.

Narinder said that several groups of women who were not able to payback the monthly instalments to the microfinance companies approached her for help in June. She told me that since she has worked with AIPWA for over ten years, women asked her and her associates for help. “On the direction of senior AIPWA members, I organised them under the Aurat Karja Mukti Andolan”—Women’s Debt Freedom Movement. Narinder said that they organised almost sixty thousand women across 18 districts and held their first demonstration in Barnala, on 5 August.

“I have never seen women here come out in such numbers within a few months,” Narinder said. She told me that their first demand from the microfinance companies was that the women be given additional three months to start paying the monthly instalments because of the lockdown.  Jaspreet Kaur, a labourer from Kot Karor, told me, “When we confront the companies as a group, they get intimidated by our unity. Sometimes they bring police. Police threaten us with arrests and we ask them to arrest us.” Narinder said that because of their numbers and their unity, the demand was accepted. She added, “Since the lockdown was extended, our demand is that their loans be waived just like the loans were waived for rich people.”

Narinder told me that as the protests against the farm bills started gaining traction, a lot of the women she had helped organise started attending those protests too. She said that the women grasped that although their fight was against the microfinance companies, the real reason why they ended up in the financial quagmire is the lack of financial resources. Their indignation became more focussed towards the central government for amending the labour codes, the agri-reforms and the electricity bill.

The women protesters’ anger can be better understood if one takes a look at their demands—loan write-offs and suspension of debt recovery, revocation of the new labour laws and the farm bills and two hundred days of confirmed work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The highest daily-wage rate in Punjab, for the financial year between 2019 and 2020, was Rs 236.62 a day per person, according to the official MGNREGA website. If one hundred days of employment is in fact guaranteed to one family, then the highest household income would be Rs 23,662 for the year.

Several of the women labourers I spoke to did not want to be identified. They pointed out that with the privatisation of electricity and food supply under the new bills and acts, even paying for basic household expenses was impossible—the math simply did not add up. The division of labour within households has pushed and pigeonholed them in traditional roles—the household economy culminates in the kitchen. When the kitchen crumbles, the woman’s identity crumbles, too. Neelam Ghumaan, the general secretary of Janwadi Istri Sabha Punjab, an organisation that works for womens’ rights, echoed Narinder. She told me that she has worked with JISP for over twenty years, but this was the first time she saw women coming together on economic and political issues on this scale.

Women protesters raise slogans during the farmers’ protests at the Tikri boder between Delhi and Haryana, on 8 December 2020. The number of women participants in the protests against the recently passed farm laws has grown significantly since the first call for agitations went out in September. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

The JISP is one of the main organisations leading the mobilisation of women during the ongoing protests. Gurinder Kaur, a 60-year-old from Raia in Amritsar, is one of JISP’s well-known faces and has worked with the organisation for more than thirty years. I met her in Fatehgarh Sahib, a town in Punjab and one of the most sacred Sikh pilgrimage sites, on 26 November. She was leading a convoy marching towards Delhi. “This is the land of sacrifices. Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s younger sons were martyred here,” she said, referring to the Sikh guru. “Today, we begin our march on Delhi because the tyranny of Modi must be met with the spirit of our collective will.” Gurinder was at the Singhu border protest site till 13 December and said that she will participate in the protests till the laws are repealed. 

Ghumaan pointed to another outcome of the presence of women in the ongoing protests—recognition of the socio-political realities of women from different castes and classes in Punjab’s agrarian society. “It is so difficult to organise women on social issues. They don’t even know their own rights as daughters, wives or mothers. They hardly come out against their own social discrimination.” But, she added, “as soon as you talk about their economic rights, they step out and become a part of the organisation.” This time around, the presence of several women’s organisations in the protests has created a space for exchange of lessons.

Balbir Kaur, from Mansa, is the Punjab women president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakonda). She is an advocate and has worked with the union for over a decade. She believes that the protests have opened up a channel for interaction between women who work as labourers and daily-wage earners and their more privileged counterparts from the landowning and upper-caste sections. “These interactions have the potential to significantly alter the feudal system,” she told me. “Farm women realise that the current agitation is ultimately the fight for their own identity too. If their land is lost, they will be forced to do labour. Women who do labour have problems far bigger and challenging than their own,” she said. According to Balbir, women from landowning-farmer families, who are mostly upper caste, are not sensitised to the oppression faced by women who work as labourers. “They are getting a first-hand account of not only the oppression but also their own caste privilege.”

Sukhwinder Kaur, the general secretary of the Lok Sangram Morcha, a workers’ rights organisation, also spoke of such interactions. “I am hopeful this time that farm women will learn to press their agency everyday inside the house. I see that they talk about patriarchy on the stage,” she said. “We sat down with the kisan”—farmer—“women and pointed out the strength and dedication of the majdoor women, and that they must tread the distance to learn from them.” Sukhwinder was a lab technician who took premature retirement to work with the morcha and has been a part of the organisation for more than twenty-five years.

There is another subtext to the limited participation of women from farming families, especially those from landowning families that are considered medium or big. Most of these families have at least one family member living in another country, such as Canada. According to Canada’s 2016 census profile, almost two percent of its population is Punjabi or Punjabi-origin. Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Canada and there are more Sikh representatives in the Canadian parliament than there are in the Indian parliament.

Satwant Kaur, a resident of Gharachon, is in her late thirties, has two children and hails from a farming family with a medium-sized landholding. “My sister lives abroad. My school and college friends are all in Canada. There are better facilities for children.” Satwant told me that her brother lives in Australia and her family was also waiting for their immigration papers. “The situation here won’t improve and I don’t want to put my children through life here. There are no jobs either,” she said. 

In a way, Canada has become an extension of Punjab for several families. Some of those who are yet to move, and have means to move, refuse to join the movement. For them, the protests are a distraction. “I am ready to do labour in Canada but I won’t live in Punjab. I am doing it all for my children,” Satwant told me. She and her family have not participated in any of the protests. 

But then, there are those like Sham Kaur, a 70-year-old from Kalajhar, who belongs to a farming family. Her son, daughter and daughter-in-law live in Toronto. For her, defiance, like land, is ancestral heritage. “The protest site is my gurudwara. If we lose our land, we lose our honour. Our children will forget what our religion has taught us.” She also packed her bag on 25 November to go to Delhi and has been at the protests since then. 

There is another segment of women at the protests whose participation has been prompted by a darker strain. According to a 2017 study, a total of 9,007 farmers of the state died by suicide between 2000 and 2015. The study said that debt was the reason behind most deaths. Several farmers do not see selling their land to pay off the debt as an option—the land holding is so small that it does not guarantee an honourable life in Punjab. I spoke to a few women who had lost family members to deaths by suicide—they saw hope in the protests. 

Kiranjit Jhunir, a young farmer, lost her father in 2016. A lack of moral support pushed her to organise meetings with other families who had suffered similar bereavements. She said that the initial idea was to just talk the loss out and listen but slowly, it became apparent that they needed to find a political voice for themselves. “Together, we can be heard,” she said. She formed a committee in 2017 called the Kisan-Majdoor Khudkushi Peerat Parvaar Committee, or Peasant-Labourer Suicide Victim Families Committee. Jhunir said that in their first public gathering in Mansa in 2017, 600 widows joined them. In the subsequent year, they established units in six more districts. 

The committee has taken an active part in the ongoing protests. Jhunir said that the committee members have been travelling across protests sites in Punjab and mobilising support, and talking about the policy changes needed to be formed. “The organisation and participation, the fight is important because the new acts will push more families towards choosing death.” She added, “The relief package is needed now in the form of overturning the farm and labour acts, and electricity amendment bill, and not after the suicide.” 

The presence of such a varied cross-section of women has also contributed towards porous gender roles at the protest sites. Harinder Kaur Bindu has been a member of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) since she was 14 years old—the organisation is chief among the leaders of the protest, with a large cadre on the ground. She told me that as she travelled across villages to garner support for the protests she saw that “men prepare and serve the food, and wash dishes. They keep dinners ready for their wives.” At the protest sites on the Ladda Kothi link road near Dhuri in Sangrur, I saw young mothers help their daughters and sons read the protest pamphlets. Young children would take to the stage and sing songs and recite poems of Sant Ram Udasi and Lal Singh Dil, both famous revolutionary Punjabi poets who foregrounded Dalit consciousness, and Pash, another renowned revolutionary poet. At Kalajhar, an eight-year-old girl explained the current crisis briefly and the importance of her and her peers’ presence in the protest. 

Women and children get together under makeshift night shelters at a farmers’ protest site at the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu, on 5 December 2020. Scores of women, children in tow, have decided to join the protests against the farm laws. The women have been educating their children about the protests, teaching them revolutionary poetry and songs and asserting their presence in the political spaces usually reserved for men. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Narinder, the AIPWA member, is also a district secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions. On 26 November, she led a march of transport workers and labourers in Mansa.  “The first time I held a meeting with Punjab Roadways Transport Corporation drivers and conductors in Budhlada, they felt awkward. Once I told them how their problems can be solved through organising themselves, the differences of gender disappeared,” she said. 

Surinder Kaur is a retired professor, and lives in Ludhiana. She is the president of JISP. She has been going to the protests in Ludhiana, Moga and Faridkot districts. Surinder decided to stay back in Punjab and organise the women in villages near Ludhiana to participate in the protests in Punjab and at the Delhi borders. “I have seen that women from Ludhiana district are participating less because the farm unions did not have a big presence here. Women are not allowed to go to Delhi. We have been taking out marches in the villages now to convince the men.” She added, “We tell them, women make homes strong, women will make all the protests stronger. The men see our point and agree.” 

Hoping for a revolution, Pash, who is often quoted at these protests, had written, “I wanted to write a poem you could read for the rest of your life.” I thought of these words often while speaking to the protesting women of Punjab—especially Gurmail, the 80-year-old from Gharachon. On 8 December, she suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and died at the protest site at the Kalajhar Toll Plaza on NH7.