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

13 December 2020
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
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

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.

Sangeet Toor is a cybersecurity analyst and writer based in Chandigarh. She is currently documenting the history of land rights and peasant struggles in Punjab.

Keywords: Farmers' Protest women empowerment Punjab Bharatiya Kisan Union Janwadi Istri Sabha Punjab farm laws 2020 labour rights Zameen Prapati Sangharsh Committee All India Progressive Women Association Farmer Suicides
COMMENT