A young farmer leader on how seven months of protests created democratic spaces

07 July 2021
Rajinder Singh Deepsinghwala, the vice president of the Kirti Kisan Union, at a sit-in at Singhu border, on 27 June. At 38, he is the youngest member of the panel of 32 leaders from the unions who had been attending several rounds of talks with the government at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan.
Prabhjit Singh
Rajinder Singh Deepsinghwala, the vice president of the Kirti Kisan Union, at a sit-in at Singhu border, on 27 June. At 38, he is the youngest member of the panel of 32 leaders from the unions who had been attending several rounds of talks with the government at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan.
Prabhjit Singh

On 26 June, around 25,000 farmers marched into the bureaucratic area of Chandigarh to submit a memorandum to the governors of Punjab and Haryana. The memorandum said that the 2020 farm laws need to repealed, as farmers have been demanding in their many protests for seven months. In response, the Chandigarh police barricaded the roads, lathi charged the protesters and used water cannons. Facing the full-frontal blast of a water cannon, the turban of Rajinder Singh Deepsinghwala, the vice president of the Kirti Kisan Union, who was at the forefront of the march, was ripped off. Despite the crackdown, the protesters were able to hand both governors the memorandum. A day later, I met Deepsinghwala at a sit-in at Singhu on Delhi’s border, sitting calmly among the KKU’s cadre. He told me that despite their core demands not being met, the past seven months of protests had won a major victory in how they had democratised politics in northern India.

Deepsinghwala is one of the leaders of the many farmers’ unions leading the farmers’ protests against the three farm laws promulgated by the union government in September 2020. At 38, he is the youngest member of the panel of 32 leaders from the unions who had been attending several rounds of talks with the government at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. While the official talks have stalled, Deepsinghwala told me that the farmers’ protests had carried out a revolution in Haryana and Punjab by giving space to people from the margins, who were previously silenced, to make political demands. “We have re-established a democratic space in a country where the Modi government, in its seven years of ruling, had resorted to tyranny and a fascist approach,” he told me.

Deepsinghwala built a political clout during his days as a law student in Punjabi University, Patiala, between 2014 and 2018. During this period, he was the president of the Punjab Students’ Union, and the core of his political support continues to come from former PSU members. Deepsinghwala shot into the media limelight on 2 January 2021, when in a press conference organised by the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella group of 32 farmers’ unions, at the Press Club of India he said, “The government’s dilemma is not of a mere issue of the three farm laws but it is looking at this movement as a challenge to the Modi’s aura.” He said, “The government thinks that Modi never backtracks from any of his decisions whether it is demonetisation, that took the lives of the people standing in queues, or other anti-people policies, and it is for the first time that the government has dithered and now is talking of amendments in the farm laws.”

The 26 June protest exhibited a defiance of this government’s control, Deepsinghwala said. He told me it had been 12 years since Chandigarh witnessed any large-scale protest, particularly near the centre of the city. In November 2006, the Chandigarh administration issued a notification banning any form of protest in this area—the Matka Chowk, the intersection of Sectors 16, 17, 9 and 10. This restricted protests to the city outskirts of Sector 25, adjoining a cremation ground. This ban has largely been effective since 2006, despite several instances of large-scale protests in Punjab and Haryana. Only once previously, in 2009, did protestors enter Matka Chowk, facing severe police repression that left one protestor dead.

For a week before the march to the residences of the two governors, the SKM unions began mobilising farmers from across Punjab and Haryana to march toward Chandigarh and the protest sites on the outskirts of Delhi. “The SKM leadership of Punjab criss-crossed the state to mobilised people for the Chandigarh march,” Deepsinghwala said. “We also wanted to sustain the large crowds at Singhu border. The second half of June is the peak season to transplant paddy in Punjab, and still the people came in thousands for the Chandigarh march.” Similarly, over 8,000 farmers from Haryana also joined the march.

Prabhjit Singh is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Farmers' Protest Farmers' Agitation Punjab Haryana Chandigarh
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