On eve of Delhi Chalo protest, Punjab farmers prepare langar at sealed Haryana border

Anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a common and recurrent aspect of the protests against the recent farm laws. In mid October, during sit-in protests across the state, a six-foot cardboard cut-out of Modi at the Harsa-Mansar toll plaza, on the national highway 44 near Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, was garlanded with footwear. Prabhjit Singh for The Caravan
26 November, 2020

On 25 November, the eve of the “Delhi Chalo” march called by farmers’ unions to protest the central government’s recently enacted controversial farm laws, thousands of families from Punjab’s peasantry class assembled at various points of the Haryana border to prepare for the next day. The Haryana government, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, had earlier announced its decision to seal all state borders with Punjab and Delhi to prevent farmers from reaching the national capital for the protest. This did little to deter the protesters, who arrived in large numbers on tractor trolleys, with ration stocks for months, ready for a long stand-off. “We have everything—ration, fuel wood, milk—and we are prepared for six months,” Balbir Kaur, a protester at Khanauri, a town in Punjab on the national highway 52 to Delhi, told me.

The “Delhi Chalo” protest has the support of over three hundred farmers’ organisations from states across the country, including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. It is spearheaded by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of numerous farmers’ unions that came together to oppose the farm laws. The protest called for farmers from across the country to reach the national capital on 26 and 27 November for an indefinite protest against the farm laws, which were introduced as ordinances in June, and enacted into law by Parliament in September.

On the national highway at Khanauri, the Haryana Police were determined to prevent the protesters from moving forward. The police had put up huge cement blocks to block the highway, around ten metres ahead of mesh wires and barricades at the border. On the Haryana side of the border, the police were present in large numbers, wearing riot gear and with water cannons stationed at the site. Om Parkash Narwal, a deputy inspector general of Haryana police and the superintendent of police of Jind district, stood at the Khanauri border. He told the media on the spot, “Section 144 has been imposed in the state so we cannot allow more than five persons to enter.” He said that heavy police force had been deployed in the area and added that a four-layer barricade had been laid to prevent the movement of the protesters into Haryana.

The Haryana government had also blocked four national highways entering Delhi, and put up blockades at its bordering areas with Punjab: Dabwali, which lies on the national highway 9; Shambhu, near the bordering district of Ambala; and Khanauri. The government had also reportedly blocked the entry points from Punjab in Haryana’s districts of Panchkula, Kaithal, Jind, Fatehabad and Sirsa for three days, starting 25 November.

But the scenes at Khanauri revealed no indications of the farmers resigning their protest. Many had come in advance to prepare food for the langar that would have to be setup the next day for the farmers, whom they expected to arrive at the border area in large numbers. They pitched tents for langar on the road sides, used logs of wood for fuel to make tea and fry pakoras. Men from the adjoining village of Dattasinghwala were busy chopping vegetables. Sukhwinder Singh from Galali village, near Khanauri, had brought in one hundred kilograms of cauliflower in his car. “In the village, we had already given the howka”—an announcement—“to request for milk.”

Some of the protesters were busy installing loud speakers and electricity wire fittings on both sides of the highway, while others prepared bonfires. The laughter of the protesters seemed to echo across the border site, creating an atmosphere that appeared unperturbed by the large police presence. Through the evening, several more tractor trolleys ferrying farmers kept arriving at the site.

Balbir had travelled from her home in Nyal village, in Punjab’s Patiala district, and was seated beside her friend,  Harjinder Kaur, and other women who had travelled from the village together. Harjinder told me that her family owned five acres of agricultural land but was still in debt, and expressed fears that the laws introduced by the Narendra Modi government, which regulate the procurement and sale of agricultural produce, would push her further into financial crisis. “This Modi will have to withdraw the black laws,” Harjinder said. “And let me say, these laws are intentionally being imposed on us to benefit the punjipati”—big capitalists—“like Adanis and Ambanis.”

On the national highway at Khanauri, the Haryana Police were determined to prevent farmers participating in the “Chalo Delhi” protest from moving forward. The police had put up huge cement blocks, mesh wires and police barricades to block the highway, and had come in riot gear with water cannons stationed at the site. Prabhjit Singh for The Caravan

The anger against the prime minister has been a common and recurrent aspect of the protests. In mid October, during sit-in protests across the state, a six-foot cardboard cut-out of Modi at the Harsa-Mansar toll plaza, on the national highway 44 near Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, was garlanded with footwear. On 24 October, one of the protesters told me, a woman who identified herself as a member of the BJP cadre had sought to remove the footwear garland from the cut-out. The protesters at the site immediately confronted her and refused to let her and travel companion leave. She was compelled to garland the cut-out once again, while being recorded on video, hit the cut-out with the footwear, and made to apologise for disrupting their protest. The video of the incident had circulated widely, in which the woman said that she had removed the garland because she “could not stand to see it.” The protester who was recording the video had responded, “This same Modi is destroying Punjab.”

On 22 November, another video from the plaza began to be circulated, after a Central Reserve Police Force jawan stopped a convoy of buses to alight and remove the garland. The protesting farmers had immediately confronted the CRPF soldiers for disrupting their protest, and lay down on the road to prevent the convoy from moving ahead until the garland had been put back on the cut-out. In a video recording of an argument between the protesters and the CRPF, a protester can be heard saying, “Look at the state of the force. The farmers are protesting, and these people are doing reprehensible things.” At one point, one soldier could be heard telling the protesters, “We have already said sorry.” The protester recording the video then points to one soldier and accuses him of threatening to shoot the protesters and not apologising for that. The soldier denies the allegation.

The protest site on this highway has also seen the farmers put up street plays. These include plays about various issues concerning the agricultural sector—such as farmer suicides, rural indebtedness, and privatisation—as well as a satire about Modi’s appeal to the Indian public bang utensils to express gratitude for health workers fighting COVID-19. “We are staging this play at many places of the farmers’ protests in Punjab, and I think that any play that conveys a certain message to the society is the need of the hour,” Surinder Sharma, one of the actors in the troupe, told me after their play, “Uthan Da Vela”—Time for Awakening—at the Harsa-Mansar toll plaza.

Farmers across Punjab under the banners of different farmers’ unions seek to pressurise the Modi government to withdraw the three farmers’ legislations enacted in September—the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Insurance and Farm Services Act; the Farmers’ Produce, Trade and Commerce (Promotion and facilitation) Act; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The farmers fear that these laws would leave the markets of their crops open to exploitation by the private sector, without any legislative accountability of the government, or assurance to procure the produce at minimum support price.

Aveek Saha, one of the key members of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, told me that the AIKSCC had sought permission from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Delhi Police to reach Jantar Mantar and Parliament Street on 26 November, and to stay the night at the Ramlila Maidan. The Delhi Police had denied their request, citing COVID. “Our subsequent letters after the denial, in which we cited several examples where the public gatherings had occurred in Delhi amidst COVID, were not replied by the Commissioner, Delhi Police,” Saha said. “We also wrote that Delhi is witnessing normal life with movement of the public and rush in markets as well, but there was no reply.”

On 24 November, the Delhi Police tweeted, “Farmer organisations from UP, Haryana, Uttarkhand, Rajasthan, Kerala & Punjab have called a march to Delhi on Nov 26 & 27. No gathering is permitted amid coronavirus. The permission has been rejected and it was communicated well in time to the organizers @CPDelhi @LtGovDelhi.” It added in a subsequent tweet, “If protestors still come to Delhi, legal action will be initiated. @PMOIndia @HMOIndia.”

At one point during the langar preparations in Khanauri, Nirmal Singh, a 40-year-old farmer from Dattasinghwala who was among those chopping vegetables, asked me, “How are the people in Delhi taking this issue?” I could not give any concrete answer, but my pause appeared to have been a telling response. “Hmm, Dilli walea lai ta eh koi mudda nahi, lagda hai”—It seems like this is not an issue for Delhiites. A remark by Harjinder seemed to capture the prevailing sentiment among the protesters on the evening of 25 November. “We have come with our children, and several thousand more women will be joining by tomorrow,” Harjinder said. “You just watch our strength in numbers as we confront the throne at Delhi.”