I had never heard of Singhu or Tikri before the farmers’ protests erupted at the end of November 2020. A month later, as I travelled to Singhu, to spend a day of solidarity at the protest, I saw a huge hoarding of Shaheed Bhagat Singh looming over lines and lines of trolleys converted into ‘bedrooms’. I walked past small roadside stalls that had sprung up around the protest site, giving it the feel of a buzzing fair. Everywhere I looked, I saw posters that dispelled the toxic narrative and accusations that mainstream ‘Godi media’ (lapdog media) had been peddling. “We are farmers, not terrorists.”
“I am a farmer, and yes I know English. Take back black bills. #WTFGodiMedia.” Elsewhere, in a scathing but innovative move, read a poster, “Don’t cover us, You are Fake Media.”
I sat in the audience as mostly Punjabi speeches were made, and noticed that slogans of ‘Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal’ were being balanced by constant references to ‘Dharam Nirpakhta’ (secularism/religious non-discrimination). I looked at the weary, lined faces of numerous elderly Sikh men and women, tired but resolved.
A few hours later, as I walked back through a labyrinth of trolleys, I looked at the old and young doing what they may have done back home in their villages—playing cards, smoking hookah, watching music videos on their phones as they waited for the government to pay heed to their resistance. Their clothes and towels hung on top of their trolleys, and utensils were piled in a corner, atop neatly folded blankets, to be used as soon as the sun set. Fading corneas rimmed with the white of age and cataract stared at me. Suddenly, the protest didn’t seem all that festive.
The 35km stretch at the Tikri border was lower on infrastructure support but higher on resolve and innovation. It was occupied largely by the under 10 acre landholders, from the Malwa region of Punjab, who converted the police barricades into shelves for storing utensils for the community kitchens. Blocks of concrete, with which the police had tried to block their tractors, were used as walls to drive nails into and erect tarpaulin covers. Makeshift geysers were installed every 150 metres. There were free jackets, tea, supplies at an improvised ‘Kisaan Mall’, and, of course, free langar. “We don’t stop anyone. Even the poor come and take food, supplies and blankets from us,” said a young protester, proudly pointing to a tent at a distance, where I saw that a family of local garbage sweepers had received blankets and food supplies, and the very tarpaulin that covered their meagre home. “They told us, don’t ever leave. Our folks abroad tell us the same thing. They said you are fighting our battle, tell us what you need, but just remain. They sent us washing machines,” he said.
Support had come from farmers in Kerala in the form of truckloads of pineapples. “We sent them relief supplies during the floods. They are thanking us,” said a volunteer at the protest. Haryana farmers, in a show of solidarity, deliver hundreds of litres of milk every day.
“We’ve settled our village here. We will not go back until we are victorious,” said a farmer. But the resolve comes at a price—57 protesting farmers have died by suicide or health conditions aggravated by the cold in the past month. Delhi is bitingly cold and wet as I write this. Two heaters are warming my room and I feel toasty under double blankets. I can hear the rain pattering outside my window. I remember the words of one of the old ladies at Singhu, who sat next to me. She asked me why I was there. “To see.” I replied.
“Do you have any relation with farming?” She asked.
“Do you have a relation to roti?” She made the universal gesture for food.
I nodded. “See,” she smiled, “you do have a relation to farming.” The speaker on stage had paid homage to another martyr of the protest, as her words hit home.