After boarding a train on the yellow line, my friend Ayushman and I reached Jahangirpuri metro station. From there, we took an auto to the Singhu border. We were welcomed by barricades on the roads, with security personnel patrolling all over.
On the surface, the atmosphere was calm. But if one were to look closely, it was clear that it was not so simple. The mere number of security personnel spoke volumes – they were fully equipped with riot gear. From that vantage point, the panorama was one of predatory armed men overlooking unarmed civilians; a case of “too much democracy“, as our ruling oligarchs would put it.
On our left were shops, mostly eateries, which were infused with excitement and tension. We also came across a jeep that was embellished with hoardings that read: “We are well educated (PhD) farmers”. One could only relate to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that the farmers are being misled. The message was clear – the protesting farmers are not docile, apolitical or illiterate.
In a few minutes, we reached a podium from which an old man with a white beard and white turban was speaking. The podium was small and the faces unfamiliar. There were two tractors beside it, emblematic of the farmer cause.
The man, likely in his 70s, was addressing a group of at least a hundred protestors. ‘Annadata’ was a word that ran through his speech. The political message was that farmers are producers.
The other frequently used word was kisan, and there was a sense of pride that came with its usage. It was strikingly in contrast to what we often see in middle class discourse – of the poor, marginalised unfortunate kisan.
The next thing I noticed in the speech was a sense of historical consciousness. As a student of history, I found some of them academically inaccurate. But these were not meant for academic caricaturing. The lumping together of Mughals, Nehru and Modi might be painfully problematic for those of us who quibble over objectivity in history. But in that speech, there was much more at stake. It was the contestation around centre-state relations where the Mughals, Nehru and Modi temporally collapsed into one – Delhi, the centre of political dominance and economic exploitation. Their history then is a narrative of honour – of the region and its farmers.
Fused and confused into the anti-Modi government sentiment was the anti-corporate narrative. Placards exhorted people to boycott Jio and use Airtel.
Also read: The Fate of Farmers
The ease with which prices of several commodities were discussed would leave many of those who questioned whether those protesting are farmers red in the face. All the prices were mentioned in quintals and not kilogram. Unlike consumers, producers do not talk in kilograms.
The man ended the speech by chanting “Jai Bharat, Jai Kisan.” One could only speculate if “Jai Bharat” was resistance against charges of anti-nationalism. Still, over the five kilometres we walked, there was only one tri-coloured flag. The hundreds of flags fluttering all around were otherwise white, red, green and so on, representing different farm, labour and Sikh organisations.
‘Jai Bharat, Jai Kisan’
The dominant idioms that one could find were of class (farmer and labor), religion (Sikhism) and region (Punjab and Haryana). This was in stark contrast to the protests at Shaheen Bagh, where tri-coloured flag dotted the space with leaflets of Ambedkar, Gandhi and the constitution. While those at Shaheen Bagh protested by reclaiming and redefining emblems of the state, Sikh farmers of Punjab are using vernacular slogans rooted in Punjabi tradition. One must not miss the fact that the speech ended with ‘Jai Bharat, Jai Kisan’. It was neither ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ nor ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, thus creatively reshaping nationalism and class.
The most widespread poster at the protests read, “We are farmers, stop showing us as terrorists.” If millions of farmers assert that they are not terrorists, it joins the voices of millions of Muslims, Adivasis and Northeastern communities that have so conveniently framed as terrorists by the state.
As we walked on, we saw posters of Kisan Morchas and Majdoor Sangathans. And among them, what stood out were posters of Kangana Ranaut and Modi, garlanded with slippers, creating a moment where popular opinion confronts power in an attempt to invert structures of hierarchy.
Thinking of hierarchies, I reflected on the communities that were sweeping and cleaning the streets. Apart from a few Nihang Sikhs, in their blue warrior-dress, most of the cleaning and sweeping was done by communities who traditionally do such jobs. When I talked to one such man, he said, “We are sweepers.” I could infer that caste and class hierarchies always find their own way to remain intact, even if slightly changed.
On the other hand, we sat and ate with some kids from economically underprivileged classes. It was a case of class hierarchies melting down, momentarily, though not insignificantly. On a similar note, the langars fed many people for whom sleeping on a hungry stomach is the reality of daily life.
There were luxury hotels on both sides of the road, all shut. In front of them, free food was being served without discrimination or wastage. As I had those hearty meals in a world pregnant with solidarity, I wondered whether creating a food shortage is a necessary element to conform people to labour. If food, health and shelter become universal and free; who would remain whose servant? Wouldn’t the engines of capitalism come to a shuddering halt if people are content? These questions were running amok inside my head as I explored that world full of life and energy.
Moving on, we saw horses and hay. Trucks and tractors had been turned into shelters, tents, bedrooms and godowns. There were men sitting in circles around a hookah and playing cards. Just nearby, there was free medicare with professional doctors in attendance. There were people split into groups everywhere, protesting through passionate speeches, folk and pop songs, art and decoration. People living with disabilities came on wheelchairs. From protests against the Vietnam War to the parliament march by students of JNU, people with disabilities have led from the front.
Book stalls were peculiar because they had been either set up by labour unions or by religious organisations. The labour unions had a pamphlet of John Reed’s ’10 days that shook the world’, reflecting the old communist traditions that they still carry. A majority of the books were on current themes and on concrete issues of governance. Books on proper policy making of the Modi government would embarrass many of us who self attest ourselves as educated and well informed. While I ran my eyes past them, I thought it would be beautiful if education was not restricted to a few.
Muslim brotherhood Malerkotla
We continued to walk, through throngs of people and vehicles, with occasional halts at food stations where we ate kheer, laddus, pakodas, chai and even biryani. When I looked at the sign at one outlet, I read ‘Muslim Brotherhood Malerkotla (Punjab)’. While we were returning, we noticed at this outlet a graphic display of what it said – brotherhood!
Sikhs and Muslims offer their prayers together, with great ease. In the rancorous world of a divided nation, such symbolism cannot be considered as mere tokenism. Even for an atheist like me, I could feel the force of humanity pushing itself through nodes of religion. Religion in and of itself is neither divisive nor inclusive. It is what we decide to make of it.
Unlike the hollow and banal institutions of parliaments and assemblies, the streets we walked are spaces where democracy goes beyond tokenism. There was life, there was love, there was organisation, there was decision making. And above all, there was hope.
When I talked to some of the people sweeping the streets, handing out water, serving food and singing prayers; it was this hope that they figuratively told me to pass on to others. It was this hope that they have carried with them from Punjab, they said. It is this message from the farmers that I seek to take to my readers with this column. These are their words, not mine.
The farmers of Punjab and Haryana are writing their own history. We must, in the very least, read it.
Jyotishman Mudiar is a Btech graduate in Civil Engineering from NIT Rourkela. He is currently pursuing an MA in Modern history from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.