One remembers it as if it were yesterday.
December 11, 2021, the day the farmers finally evacuated Delhi’s borders. After a year of determined, peaceful, non-violent protest, lakhs of farmers finally succeeded in getting the Narendra Modi government to roll back its controversial central farm laws.
As they left, thousands lined the highways to bid them goodbye. There were tears as the farmers hugged each other and the residents of Delhi with whom they had become good friends.
As the last of the tractors and trolleys rolled away from the borders and the dust in the air settled, a couple of us Delhiwalas who had spent a good amount of time in the company of the farmers sat down at a tea stall near the Tikri border and wrote a little song. It wasn’t Grammy award-winning material, but it summed up how we were feeling.
We called the song ‘Post-Andolan Blues’.
“The farmers are gone, they’ve left me behind
The borders are empty and I’m outta my mind
The protest is over, now what will I do?
I’ve got a case of post-andolan blues
Tikri is empty and Singhu is too
I feel a bit like Winnie-the-Pooh
Who’s trying to figure out what to be and do
I’ve got a case of post-andolan blues
Well, here’s a thought that’s cheering me up
The farmers have shown us how to never give up
I know what we can do
We can be andolanjeevis too!”
“Andolanjeevis” was, of course, a term of contempt coined by none other than Prime Minister Modi for protesting farmers and other activists. He meant it as a pejorative, but the farmers and those supporting their cause wore it as a badge of honour. (He also called them parjeevis or parasites, which, understandably, they did not take kindly to.)
And then on August 22, eight months after they had left, thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and even Kerala, showed up at the city’s borders once again in response to a call given by a faction of the farmers’ movement called the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Apolitical). The government tried to stop them from entering the city, but this time did not resort to force. (Perhaps the memory of international criticism from last year is still fresh.) Several thousand farmers simply pushed aside the police barricades, gathered at Jantar Mantar and protested peacefully, demanding that the government fulfil its pending promises.
For some of us in the city who were part of the year-long protest last year, it felt like a family reunion of sorts had suddenly been announced! We simply had to attend it, even though we had found out about it a bit late.
By the time I reached Jantar Mantar, it was late afternoon. There is something surreal and deeply moving about the sight of thousands of flag-wielding farmers sitting quietly and listening to their leaders’ speeches. One is not used to seeing silence and calmness in a crowd.
Jagjit Singh Dallewal, one of the leaders of the farmers’ movement and the final speaker of the day was finishing up his speech. I sat down on the road somewhere in the middle of the gathering and started chatting with Jagmeet Singh, a middle-aged farmer from Sri Mukhtsar Sahib in Punjab. I asked him what it was like to be back in Delhi again. His insightful and articulate answers brought back memories of the hundreds of thought-provoking conversations I had had with protesting farmers the previous year.
“While it is true that our protest forced the Modi government to take back the farm laws,” he said, “the real long-term gain from that protest is that the poorest people of India are now starting to realise that it is possible to stand up to a tyrannical government and win. A political awakening is taking place, and I believe that in the next 10-15 years, we will actually have genuine democracy in India.”
At a time when the affluent are leaving India’s shores in droves and much of the urban liberal intelligentsia seems to be in despair, it was heartening to see Jagmeet Singh’s quiet, reasoned optimism.
“The real tragedy of India,” he continued, “is that we are still being ruled by ‘kings of democracy’ who make promises to their subjects and then forget about them. Big people like Modi and Shah tend to get busy and forget their promises. We are simply here to remind them.”
He then proceeded to give me a brief but powerful lesson in economics and agriculture.
“M.S. Swaminathan once said that if you don’t want India to fall into economic slavery then you need to give farmers decent prices for their grains. The government of India has officially stated that it costs Rs 2,400 to grow one quintal of wheat. But last year, they only gave the farmers Rs 1,985 per quintal as the minimum support price (MSP). Imagine if, in a city like Delhi, a company makes products whose cost price is consistently higher than its sales price, how will that company survive? This is what has been happening with us. This is why we are living under crushing debt.”
Dallewal’s speech wound up and as thousands of farmers got up to leave, I asked Jagmeet Singh what the way forward for the farmers is.
“We are peaceful people, we don’t believe in violence and we will only ever use constitutional means of protest. Today’s rally was a warning to the government. If it doesn’t fulfil the promises it has made to the farmers, then we will have to return to Delhi in two or three months with our tractors and trolleys.”
Featured image: Farmers at the rally at Jantar Mantar on August 22, 2022. Photo: By arrangement
This article was first published on The Wire.