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

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 for the Caravan
07 July, 2021

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 The memorandum said that the 2020 farm laws need to repealed, as farmers have been demanding in their many protests for seven months.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.

The Chandigarh police had blockaded several of the key roads leading to the centre of the city where the residences of the two governors are. “They began by using water cannons on the Haryana farmers who were marching to the governor’s house from the Panchkula side,” Deepsinghwala told me. “But despite that the march continued, breaking the police barricades and continuing to the centre of the city. You can’t stop them now—breaking the barricades is a strong symbolism, and a physical outburst where they seek freedom and counter the state repression.”

The following day, videos of large crowds of farmers chasing away the police and ignoring water cannons became viral on social media. Referring to the huge police deployment around the Ghazipur farmers’ protest site in January, Deepsinghwala said, “You see, Ghazipur, where the tried to arrest Rakesh Takait, proved counterproductive.” He continued, “The show at Chandigarh was a mirror that showed how helpless the government is in curbing this movement.”

The memorandums the farmers gave to VP Singh Badnore, the governor of Punjab, was  addressed to president Ramnath Kovind. “We, the farmers of India, are writing this letter to you, the head of the nation, with deep anguish and indignation,” the memorandum said. “Today on 26th June, upon the completion of seven months of our continuous protests at Delhi’s borders, and on the 47th anniversary of Emergency in this country, we are writing to you from all parts of India about the twin challenge of saving our agriculture and saving our democracy.”

Alongside calling for a complete scrapping of the three farm laws, the memorandum noted, “Today, it is not just the farmers’ movement that is facing repression, but the movements of workers, youth & students, women, minority communities, Dalits as well as Adivasis. As in the time of the Emergency back then, many true patriots have been put into prisons. Draconian laws like UAPA”—the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967—“are being misused against ones who are resisting the authoritarian regime. Media is shrouded in fear and favouritism. Judiciary’s freedom is under attack. Human rights are being violated routinely. Without declaring an Emergency, democracy is being throttled every day. In this context, as the main custodian of our constitutional framework, there is a great responsibility on you, President Sir.”

Deepsinghwala told me the tone of the memorandum represented that of the farmers’ movement as a whole. “The movement has demanded not merely a removal of the farm laws but the expansion of democratic space in the country” he said. “You see, it has actually been nearly a year now. Ever since the government cleared the ordinance of the three farm laws on 3 June 2020, the entire Punjab peasantry was up in agitation mode, mobilising the crowds. That’s what finally culminated in this historic movement on Delhi’s borders.”

“If this movement witnesses a positive ending, it will open paths for other struggles too,” he told me. Over the past year, there have been several instances where the solidarity Deepsinghwala speaks of has been visible. From December 2020, the farmers at Delhi borders began helping migrant workers in surrounding factories get their salaries that previously went unpaid. At various instances, protesting farmers unions have called for the release of political prisoners in the country as well as the removal of draconian laws that have been used to target human rights activists and journalists. Most recently, members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Chaduni), a largely Haryana based farmers’ union, stopped the police and Haryana government authorities from demolishing the houses in Khori Gaon, a village on the outskirts of Delhi which authorities claim was illegally settled on forest land. 

On 26 June, parallel protests also took place in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Deepsinghwala told me that the protests in Lucknow had been a low-key affair, and that this was “a matter of concern.” At the Lucknow event, different small splinter groups of the farmers’ unions reportedly thronged the state capital, each with a strength of not more than a hundred. These groups were stopped at three different points—Shaheed Smarak, Parivartan Chowk and the OCR building—all near Raj Bhawan the residence of the Uttar Pradesh governor, Anandiben Patel. Rakesh Takait, the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Arajnaitik faction and the most prominent face of the Ghazipur protest, opted to stay put at Ghazipur. A press release issued by the SKM at Ghazipur stated that a delegation of their members had finally submitted a memorandum to Patel.

Deepsinghwala told me that mobilisation had been far more successful in Haryana and Punjab, than in Uttar Pradesh. “The crowds from UP should also show up at Ghazipur, especially when the UP elections are also round the corner,” he told me. “Let us keep it for some other time, but yes Takait needs to strengthen up at Ghazipur.”

As I was leaving Singhu, I heard Satnam Singh Ajnala, the general secretary of the KKU address a gathering of farmers. He explained how paddy transplanting season would largely end by 20 July. He said that in August they planned to mobilise a few lakh more farmers and decide on bigger protest actions. Speaking about the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, that had been drafted in April 2020, he said, “It is because of this Singhu protests, that the government didn’t dare to bring in the Electricity Bill in the parliament.” Farmers’ unions fear that the bill would lead to the privatisation of power and the removal of electricity subsidies. The bill was not passed in December but is likely to be tabled again in the parliament’s monsoon session, that begins in July.

While recounting other recent victories for the farmers’ movement, Ajnala told the crowd, “We have already attained political victory, social victory and moral victory.” He continued, “Modi is resorting to an unannounced emergency and he will also taste the same defeat that Indira Gandhi faced in Bareilly for her Emergency tenure.” Deepsinghwala echoed Ajnala. “This movement not only led to a slowdown in the BJP government’s aspirations for a Hindutva state, but it has also created space for the resurgence of grassroot democracy,” he told me.