On 10 October 2015, the fourth day of the rail roko—stop the trains—at Pathrala village, near Dabwali Mandi, in Punjab, the organisers of the joint farmer-labour protest mistook me for a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Agent. Given the extreme vigil with which the organisers have guarded the agitation, not allowing it to be appropriated by any political party, even rejecting regular party leaders from taking the stage, such suspicion towards me was completely in keeping with the aim and method of the agitation which hopes to benefit more than 2 lakh families in the state. The protest, which has farmers squatting on railway tracks to prevent trains from plying began on the afternoon of 7 October. Their demand is for just compensation for the failed cotton crops, remunerative rates for basmati crops, the payments of sugarcane dues owed by private mills, and debt relief. To this end, the protestors had urged for a meeting with Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, tentatively scheduled for yesterday at 5 pm. However, the talks that were held ended in a stalemate with neither side budging.
Dressed in a shirt and cargo pants, notebook in hand, I looked very urban to the thousands of rural men, women, elderly and children who were lying on rail tracks under white tents amidst the joint flag of eight Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) factions and seven different Mazdoor organisations. The small and medium land owners among the Jats, the Dalits and other lower castes are fighting this battle together, Lachhman Sewewala, the state secretary for the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union told me: “It is wrong to consider farming as only a Jat occupation. A farmer is not a caste. To me, a farmer is one who derives their living from farming, with land or without land.” he said. He went on to point out that small farmers and landless labourers deal with much the same issues as any other farmers, that include employment, price rise, sustainable agriculture, loans and recovery and suicides. “The expenses on agriculture have increased, the profits have decreased. The labour’s sustenance from land and their relationship with it has reduced. We no longer get fodder for cattle, straws for cooking fires, even vegetables and so on.” He went on to state that the farmer and the labour suffered under these obstacles, and that is why they had all come together. People have come from all across the state irrespective of the political party in power in their area: Shergad and Rampura in Bathinda district are represented in the parliament by Union minister for Food Processing, Harsimrat Kaur Badal from the Shiromani Akali Dal; the Sangrur district is represented by Bhagwant Mann from the Aam Aadmi Party. Amritsar is represented by Amarinder Singh of the Congress.
The loudspeakers in the vicinity were alternating between anti-government slogans and revolutionary songs. These songs described the pain of the loss of the cotton crop or white gold, the manner in which loans were recovered, the 97 farmer suicides that have taken place in Punjab between May and August this year and the proliferation of drug use in the region. Speaker after speaker took the stage, exhorting the protesters to remember the stories of Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha and Udham Singh from the freedom movement, as they drew parallels between their struggle against British imperialism and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failed Land Bill. Amidst the warnings against corporate imperialism, they also relayed instances of Sikh saints and warriors such as Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Bahadur, who fought against injustice. They asked the protestors to fight through non-violence this time, strive for peaceful agitation, and to not do anything that would give the government and police a chance to clamp down upon the agitation.
It was only as I arrived that I realised that by taking the bus to the venue I had avoided the police barriers that had been erected to prevent people from reaching the site. I had called one of the organisers ten minutes prior to reaching and had been asked to alight near a statue, at an old and now unused bus stop. As I stepped down from the bus, I saw 22-year-old Gurpreet Singh, who had been sent to fetch me on his motorbike. As we made our way to the location, I noticed the police standing a distance away. Once I reached, I realised that several protestors had come to the venue by navigating through paths in the field and other roundabout routes. A day before this demonstration, the police had arrested protestors who were coming from the nearby villages of Khudian and Faridkot Kotli to Pathrala. These protestors were released after a few hours, a technique that is being used across all other seven sites of the protest.
The loss from the stoppage of over 850 trains, their subsequent cancellation and diversion to other routes has cost the railways upwards of Rs 100 crore until now, and is also affecting the sale of hosiery and iron good among others as their stocks are piling up. The last sustained rail roko in Punjab was in 2000 and had lasted 72 hours. This one that is underway right now has long since crossed that, having already exceeded seven days. “Will the Railways impose the loss on the Punjab government?” Gurpeet asked me as we drove, “They will pay everybody else, but not us.”