Novelist and journalist Amandeep Sandhu has covered the year-long protest against the Modi government’s farm laws, now being repealed, mostly from his home in Bengaluru.
He felt the “moral responsibility” to keep telling the farmers’ side of the story, which he did with about 250 explainers and posts on Facebook, all in English to overcome the language barrier, 25 articles, and 25 talks with journalists and students, among others.
“When the farmers started marching (towards Delhi) last November and broke the barricades, I felt scared. A lot of Punjabis and Sikhs, including my family, know what it means to be on the other side of the ‘state’. We have suffered the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 and I didn’t want to see a repeat. It prompted me to write and inform the rest of the country about the truth,” he said over a call from his cousin’s house in Ropar, Punjab.
He admits he “is on the side of the farmers” but he wrote truthfully at all times, with facts. “The government was trying to hand over the largest private sector, agriculture, to corporates,” he says.
The protesters countered the government’s accusation that they were separatists by “running their own IT cells, newspapers and information centres”, making it a one-of-a-kind protest, says Amandeep.
“Resistance is in the DNA of Punjab,” he explains, referring to its 3,000-year history of invasions. It is this indomitable spirit that saw thousands of protesters camp on the roads through the cold, heat, rains, and the pandemic. “Never was the protest site vacant. People took turns to be there, even during Covid,” he says. Farmers told him they might have to kill themselves in four or five years because of an adverse farming environment, so it was better to stay back and die as martyrs.
As for the food, toilets and power, these fell in place quickly.
“Farmers are magicians. They make food out of earth. They innovate, they survive, that’s what the protests show,” he says.
He camped with them and did not once feel out of place despite his urban lifestyle. The youth sang protest songs while grandparents inspired the protesters with their presence and confidence that “Modi will relent”.
The research Amandeep put into his 2019 book ‘Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines’ came in handy.
A question he is often asked is why only farmers in Punjab and Haryana were objecting while protests in states like Karnataka, were scant.
“The rest of the country hasn’t experienced the MSP (minimum support price) regime, so they don’t know what the government has deprived them of. The northern belt has been enjoying MSP on wheat and sugarcane,” he explains. The laws also proposed to eliminate the middlemen, which Amandeep says is not practical: “Yes, there is exploitation in the system but middlemen play an important role.”
Amandeep admits that the government’s U-turn has surprised allies like him, but the victory is hard-earned.
He will continue to engage with the farmers albeit from his “sanctuary” in Bengaluru, 2,000 km away.
“Protest is about bodies (on the ground), narration is about mind. I am narrating why farmers are protesting, which is difficult to do from the protest site as you get consumed in the action,” he signs off.
Why they are still protesting
Now that the government is rolling back the contentious legislation, why are farmers not calling off the protest?
“They want MSP for 23 crops across the country. They are fighting for all farmers across so they don’t stay impoverished,” he says. This will push the government to procure food and distribute it among the poor under the Public Distribution System scheme. “About 25 crore poor are solely dependent on PDS,” he points out.