On Delhi's doorstep: A spirited protest

On Delhi's doorstep: A spirited protest

In the peaceful protest by the gritty farmers, one actually sees many abstract ideas of democracy in action

New Delhi: Farmers during their ongoing agitation against the new farm laws, at Singhu border, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan)(PTI22-12-2020_000192A)

The farmers’ agitation is in full swing over the issue of the three farm laws enacted by the central government. Farmers, coming in on their tractor-trolleys from all over Punjab, have taken the fight to Delhi and have lodged themselves at Kundli-Singhu and Tikri borders. The dharna (sit-in protest) has been on for over three weeks now. People from different walks of life are visiting the protest site to show solidarity with the farmers. Many groups of lawyers from Punjab and Haryana are also visiting the site. A good number of lawyers belong to the farming community. I also got a chance to visit the Kundli border last week with one such group of lawyers.

As you walk down the site, you see unending rows of tractor-trolleys. Many of these trolleys have been modified and covered with plastic tarpaulins. Crop stubble (paraali), which has attained much notoriety in recent times, is spread in layers on the floor of the trolleys and covered with a bedsheet, and a comfortable bed is ready for the farmer; you see milk being boiled in huge karaahs, there’s langar service going on somewhere, tea being prepared in large quantities elsewhere, and kinnow and sugarcane are being juiced on trolleys in another corner.  Everything is available to everybody to partake of, be they protesting farmers, visitors, residents of surrounding areas or even beggars and ragpickers. 

You see people coming in with their contributions of truckloads of vegetables, rice, flour, water bottles, blankets, etc. Punjabi songs expressing resentment against the Centre and the farm laws rent the air; books on Sikhism and Sikhs’ valiant past are being distributed free; then you see the rows and rows of washing machines; and the free medical camps with volunteer doctors and free medicine stalls.

No sir, you are not at a meticulously planned Kumbh Mela, but at a protest site. There are men of all age groups here, and a large contingent of women have accompanied them. Farmers from Haryana are also making their presence felt. The atmosphere is not tense or sombre, but full of enthusiasm and positivity. The air is charged with the anti-farm law sentiment. The farmers feel that these laws will sound the death knell for the relatively well-off farmers of Punjab and Haryana in particular.

As you talk to them, they express their concerns and explain to you that no farmers’ body ever demanded these legislations. You move on to another group, and they ask: Have you noticed how Reliance Jio killed the competition in telecom? The same thing will happen in agriculture, too, within the next few years, they say. A few large corporates will start to call the shots.

But these are the issues that are being discussed in the media, too.  Let’s take a different view and approach the protest site with an open mind and without entering into the question as to who is right and who is wrong about the farm laws. Let us only see it from the point of view that the government has enacted some laws with which a segment of citizens are dissatisfied and they decided to lodge a protest. The farmers are sitting at the doorstep of Delhi and pressing for their demands in a peaceful manner. Peaceful and unarmed protest is the right of all who live in a democracy and our Constitution enshrines this as a fundamental right under Article 19. The protesters are confident that they can bring the government around to their point of view, and say they will sit stay put there until then.   

The protest has taken its toll already. Though no exact count is available, at least 25 of them have died since November 26, either at the protest site or on the way to it or while coming back from Delhi. But that has not dampened the spirit of the protesting farmers. They are standing their ground.

To counter the biased narrative that is especially emanating from the television news channels, the protesting farmers have started publishing ‘Trolley Times’, their own bi-weekly newsletter which has photographs, poems, news reports and opinion pieces written by leaders of farmers’ unions. To take on the smear campaigns being run against them on social media by vested interests, Punjabi youth have volunteered and have created social media pages and handles -- Kisan Ekta Morcha -- across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, reaching out to millions within days. The protesting farmers have refused to take anything lying down.

This is a protest the likes of which we have not seen before. The manner and scale of the protest, to which we all are witness, is unprecedented in many ways and yet still strictly in line with democratic values even as the protesters and the government test each other’s nerves. If there was anything undemocratic about the protests, it came from the government’s side: the national highway was dug up to prevent the protesters from marching into Delhi.

The protesters are alive to the uphill task they face. Nobody knows what the final outcome of it will be. But the takeaway from the site is that when citizens unite around a cause, they have the power to shake the throne. They may win or lose, but what is important is the hope and faith in democracy. That hope and faith must sustain democracy.

We returned from the site full of respect for the indomitable spirit of farmers in general, and of the Sikhs in particular, who have been there since the last three weeks -- away from their homes, braving the freezing winter nights, cold waves and the occasional showers. In the peaceful protest by the gritty farmers, one actually sees many abstract ideas of democracy in action. This protest will be remembered for a long time.

(The writer is an advocate practicing in the Punjab & Haryana High Court)