A day spent with farm protesters on the outskirts of Delhi

Natasha Badhwar

TWO decades ago, I was a young videographer in the newsroom of NDTV and part of the team that brought the first privately produced English news bulletin to television sets in Indian homes. There was a cotton crop crisis developing in Punjab and senior editors had to decide who to send out for a ground report. With much enthusiasm, I volunteered to travel to Punjab, sharing that I speak Punjabi fluently.

The reporter and I set out in our quest to find cotton fields and the farmers who worked on them, and at the first instance that we needed to ask for directions, we stopped near a group of men.

“Aithey kapah de khet kithe ne?” I asked in my fresh city-accented Punjabi. The men indicated that I should repeat my question and I did, with more emphasis and some misplaced confidence.

“Hindi mein gal karo, behenji, sanu angrezi nai samjh aandi,” answered a young man. “Speak to us in Hindi,” he said, “we don’t understand English.”

It took me a while to recover from the shock and begin to laugh at my obviously useless accent. This week when I travelled to the Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi to witness the massive mobilisation of farmers in protest against the farm laws, I was tempted to practise my rusty Punjabi again, but I didn’t. I was proud enough to understand everything that was being said and translate for my colleagues.

“The culture of resistance, of being ready to sacrifice oneself in the fight for justice goes back centuries in Punjab,” shared Sukhwinder Kaur from Bathinda as she explained the context for the farmers’ agitation. “The second thing is that Bharti Kisan Union and other organisations have been creating awareness in the villages consistently. People know the process for agitation. Who is our friend, who is not an ally — we are aware of this.”

While we were recording an interview with her, a man interrupted to ask, “Are you national media?”

“Yes,” I answered, assuming that he would take us seriously and step back. I realised quickly that it was the wrong answer. We learnt that many news teams have removed identifying logos from their mikes to escape the wrath of protesters after they have been vilified as “terrorists and Khalistanis” on various Hindi channels.

On the Tikri border, we walked nearly 4 km to reach the spot where many of the leaders of various farmers’ unions were camping. On the way, we passed groups of farmers who were cooking dinner or had wound up and were putting away utensils. Many of them invited us to share the meal with them.

“When did you learn to cook?” I asked one group.

“The Modi government has taught us to make rotis also,” laughed one young man, raising his rolling pin in jest. “I’ve watched our mothers and grandmothers all my life. They will be proud of me.”

One farmer was on a video call with his adolescent daughter in Faridkot and was showing her tractors and trolleys parked along the highway till the camera could see. “This is the protest site. Look at it. See these people from Delhi, they have come to talk to us,” he said, turning the phone towards us. I waved at a girl on the screen. She was already tucked into bed and smiled back at me. “Hello, aunty,” she said.

Lachhman Singh Sewewala, who is a leader of farm labour and Dalits and part of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, unpacked the farmers’ demands in simple terms. “All Indians who want to live in a clean environment, breathe easily and in good health need to raise their voice against this black law.

“When the government encourages contract farming by large companies, the question of what crop will be sown arises. Will the choice be dictated by the need of the people or according to what brings maximum profits to multinational companies? Corporatisation of agriculture will create food scarcity and the entire country will suffer the brunt of these laws,” he explained.

My most inspirational meeting was with Harinder Kaur Bindu of BKU Ekta Ugrahan. The writer in me was trying to format the story simultaneously as I was listening to her on the history of the farmers’ struggles and their unionisation since 1984. “All farmers’ organisations are demanding the unconditional release of political prisoners,” she shared. “If intellectuals do not have the right to express their opinion safely, then all people will lose the ability to struggle and protest.”

We made friends with Amolak Singh, who has been part of the street theatre and drama movement in Punjab since 1972. “We are performing many plays by Gursharan Singh as well as new scripts every day at the protest site and in the villages of Haryana around us. Come back and witness the cultural side of Punjab,” he said, handing us glasses of warm milk before we began our walk back to our car.

We had had a long day, yet I returned with hope and energy. The farmers of Punjab may well be the spark that will ignite the inspiration we all need to see us out of the dark tunnel that the past few years have been.

— The writer is an author and filmmaker natasha.badhwar@gmail.com

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