How an Army of Badass Indian Farmers Put Delhi Under Siege
If there’s one group of people who could fuel a protest encampment the size of a city for more than a month, it’s the resilient—and enraged—farmers who feed India.
NEW DELHI—If you want to get through to the authoritarian prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, you’re going to need one hell of a protest. So, when India’s farmers feared their incomes would be wiped out by government reforms, they mobilized a protest army with the same population as Baltimore.
In November, an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, marched towards New Delhi on trucks, tractors and on foot to let Narendra Modi know what they thought of his agricultural reforms.
They set up camp at the edge of New Dehli, and many of them have stayed put ever since. Sitting inside his truck alongside farmers from his village in Rupad, Punjab, Surmukh Singh, 67, told The Daily Beast he has been at the protest site since Nov. 26, and has no plans to give up anytime soon. “If Modi thinks he can survive by attacking us or our lands, then he lives in a fool’s paradise,” he said.
Among the thousands assembled on the border connecting the capital New Delhi with the agricultural state of Haryana, most of the farmers are decked out in colorful head turbans. Delhi is suffering an unusually chilly cold snap with temperatures slipping below 40F, and most of the protesters are wearing only sweaters or shawls. More than 20 of the protesters have died so far, some due to hypothermia caused by the weather, according to the farmers’ representatives.
This is no ordinary protest. For the first time on such a scale, farmers from numerous states have come together and settled on the roads for weeks on end. As of now, there are about 150,000-200,000 people in this makeshift shanty town.
On the Singhu border of Delhi-Haryana Highway, long carpets are spread out on the road for people to sit on. There are tents, small and bigger ones. For each stretch of a few miles, basic amenities have been made available.
A protest this large and this long is a vast logistical challenge that has been maintained by the fiery determination of India’s largest industry—according to official figures agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people.
As the farmers are stocked with dry grains and pulses, they have started numerous community kitchens to feed themselves and more people are joining them every day.
Every day at 5 a.m., Satnam Singh drives 50 miles from his hometown Karnal, in the Indian state of Haryana, to deliver food at one of the community kitchens at the protest site on the borders of the capital city.
In one of those massive community kitchens or langars, lentil soup and rice are being cooked in huge containers. Men and women micro-manage those kitchens all the time, including through the night.
Singh, who is a student pursuing masters in economics from Punjab University, told The Daily Beast it was a fight for survival. “No doubt, by volunteering here, my education is getting affected. But what can I do with such an education when they are after our primary source of income,” he said.
Two people, on rotational basis, leave with cooked food from Karnal for distribution at just one of the kitchens on the protest site.
The food includes 260 gallons of buttermilk, 1800 pounds of vegetables, 150 pounds of butter, 25 pounds of honey and 660 pounds of rice, among other things.
Food from this kitchen is provided to approximately 30,000 people throughout the day, Singh said.
“We have made a team of 20 members who are responsible for ferrying and distributing the food at the protest site,” he said.
The epicenter of the protest is a five-mile stretch on the Delhi-Haryana highway which is lined up with hundreds of tractors and trucks standing on both sides of the road.
Makeshift tents and community kitchens can be seen everywhere along the stretch. It is a bold image of dissent against the ruling government: the farmers are there to stay.
The outrage is against three farm acts—now known as the black laws—which were passed earlier in September by the right-wing government led by Modi.
The new laws collectively aim to offer multiple marketing avenues for farmers and pre-arranged contracts with buyers among other things. The farmers believe the new laws would allow big corporates to exploit them.
While the government has agreed to make some amendments, it is refusing to repeal the laws which has sparked further protests across India, converging towards New Delhi.
Protests picked up in September, particularly in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, where farmers have been leading the demonstrations. Protests were also reported in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh as well as Odisha, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala.
As the protesting farmers raised anti-farm law slogans, they were met with police personnel along the New Delhi-Haryana border.
Days of scuffles between the farmers and police followed which resulted in the police resorting to teargas shelling, baton charges and water cannons to disperse the farmers.
Hardeep Singh, a farmer from Gurdaspur in Punjab, said, “I have come all the way from Punjab to register my protest against the government for imposing three black laws for the farmers.”
The 68-year-old farmer, who owns 15 hectares of land, said the government should understand that if thousands of people are protesting, it means something is wrong with the laws.
“Under the new laws, the commodities which we will sell for 25 INR [34 cents] will be sold back to us at 150 INR [$2],” he said.
Hardeep is currently a part of another makeshift community kitchen, popularly known as the Langar.
Being run by Delhi Sikh Gurdwara community with the help of 200 volunteers, this Langar serves food to 50,000 to 60,000 people.
“The Langar begins at 6 a.m. and continues till late into the night. Pulses, rice and different kinds of vegetables are cooked, in addition to custard and other Indian sweets (Halwa and Pateesa),” Hardeep said. Around 25 to 30 gas cylinders are used to cook food every day.
“This is just the beginning of our peaceful protest. With each passing day, every Indian will be on road to join us for this fight,” he said.
Adding that the farmers will not leave until their demands are met, Hardeep said, “Let’s see how many more days the government can wait. There is no way out for them to get out of it.
They will have to agree to our demands.”
Local NGOs have set up medical camps to provide basic health-care facilities. Makeshift tents have been erected for resting but most of the protestors sleep in their tractors. On one of the protest sites along the highway, dozens of makeshift toilets are lined up. Besides, there are groups of volunteers at work to maintain the cleanliness and hygiene of those toilet trucks. There are also washing machines for protesters to use. Other facilities like a library and temples have been set up across the site.
This is the second major protest against the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government this year. In February, a crowd of mostly women gathered in New Delhi to protest against the new Citizen Amendment Act which was seen as an anti-minority law.
Modi has been criticized and also been called an autocrat for his right-wing Hindu politics. He was elected to power for the second time in May 2019.
Although the majority of the farmers protesting are men, women have also made their presence known. Sukbeer Kaur, 51, is the only woman from her village who has come to protest, along with her husband and 11-year-old daughter.
While holding a protesting flag in her hands, Kaur said it is equally important for women to protest against these laws.
“I know Modi won’t agree to our demands in a few days but it’s a revolution and revolution takes time,” she said.
Kaur said that authoritarian governments suppress people “but they don’t know who they are messing with.”
“Revolt is in our blood,” Kaur said.
While the farmers are resilient, the protest is taking its toll. On Dec. 16, Baba Ram Singh, a 65-year-old Sikh priest, killed himself near the Singhu border in protest.
Surmukh Singh, the farmer sitting in a truck with his fellow Punjabi villagers, said Singh would be avenged by the rest of the farmers: “The government is compelling the farmers to commit suicide but let them know that we will fight till our last breath and compel Narendra Modi to take back these laws.”