“I encourage my mothers and sisters to show great enthusiasm in this struggle and make your grandmothers proud of our generation. Farmers unity zindabad! We will take back the laws in the same manner with which we are sitting here – united and in peace.” Sonia Mann steps back from the microphone and it passes to the next speaker.
As a 30-year-old actor and social activist, Sonia has spoken multiple times at Tikri – a major protest site on the Delhi-Haryana border. Sonia is the daughter of a farmer and joined the movement early in December 2020. She says she was inspired by her late father who was the state leader of the Kirti Kisan Union.
There are two stages constructed at Tikri, just outside National Capital Territory (NCT) Delhi, where lakhs of farmers have been protesting since November 26, 2020 for a repeal of the farm laws passed by Parliament in September 2020. Sonia was speaking at the main stage close to the Tikri metro station, constructed by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM). The other stage, constructed by Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) or BKU Ekta Ugrahan, is six kilometres away at Pakoda Chowk. Both these stages function from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and have become the soul of the protest.
All announcements are made from the two stages: the future plans of unions, programmes or directives from leaders; even names of those who have died in the protest are announced here, along with their father’s name, age, and place of birth.
The SKM stage at the Tikri metro station marks the point after which thousands of tractors and trolleys are lined up as part of the ongoing protests. Approximately 10 feet x 4 feet in size, it is covered from end-to-end with a green carpet. A tarpaulin sheet serves as a roof, to protect it from rain and the direct rays of the sun. As the stage is at a height from the ground, a seven-step ladder has been installed on the right side. Before climbing up, people are requested to remove their shoes. A music system has been set-up backstage so that people don’t trip over wires.
The two stages come alive at 11 a.m. every morning as farmers begin to assemble around the area. It’s a lively place as celebrities – including actress Sonia Mann, actress Swara Bhaskar, singer Rabbi Shergill and actor Harbhajan Mann – perform between announcements.
“We check the identity of every speaker and performer. He or she should not be part of any political party. We allow individuals [not affiliated to farm unions] but we are extra vigilant when they speak,” said 60-year-old Jasbir Kaur Natt, a member of the Punjab Kissan Union (AIKM). She is at the SKM main stage recording the names of speakers. “The previous night, leaders of [farmer] unions must submit the names of members who will be speaking on the main stage the next day,” she told us.
Once a speaker registers, they are handed a piece of paper with a number and they must come up to the stage when their number is announced. Once on stage, they are allowed to speak for 10 minutes.
In and around the two stages – an area of maximum visibility to the audience – there are posters, banners and flags supporting the protest. Women are seated near the front and men are seated behind them, with a cotton rope separating the two spaces. Speakers have been placed after every kilometre so that protesters sitting in their tractors along the highway can stay updated. “This stage [SKM] is a testament to the resilience and struggle of the Indian farmers,” said Vedpal Nain, a 50-year-old farmer from Rohtak in Haryana and a member of the Bharti Kissan Union (Kadian). Once activities at the main stage end by 4 p.m., groups of protesters and supporters carry out peace marches or slogans in and around the area.
“We come here [to the Pakoda Chowk stage] in the morning on a trolley driven by our brothers. We go back around 12 p.m. to cook and return on the same trolley after lunch around 3 p.m.,” said Baljeet Kaur, 50, from Khadial in Punjab’s Sangrur district. She has been staying with other women from her village who are camped in Tikri.
Getting a chance on stage may also get you some freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. “We have brought three machines from Rohtak. Summer is on the way and the temperature is rising every day. We will serve freshly squeezed sugarcane juice to everyone who comes to the main stage,” said young army aspirant Sumit Badak. The 21-year-old is preparing for the examination to enter the defence services. He arrived in Tikri in February along with 20 friends from Gurauthi village in Rohtak district, Haryana to serve fresh sugarcane juice to protesters.
Harinder Bindu is one of the leaders of BKU Ekta Ugrahan. Speaking from the BKU stage she says: “Women are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with men and fighting against the new laws; we are the backbone of the protest. None of this will happen if the voices of women are not heard.”
The farm laws that she and the other farmers are protesting against were first passed as ordinances on June 5, 2020, then introduced as farm bills in Parliament on September 14, and hastened into Acts by the 20th of that month. The three laws are the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
The farmers see these three laws as devastating for their livelihoods and as expanding the space for large corporates to have increasing power over farmers and farming. These laws also undermine the main forms of support to the cultivator, including the minimum support price (MSP), the agricultural produce marketing committees (APMCs), and state procurement. The laws have also been criticised as affecting every Indian as they disable the right to legal recourse of all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Constitution of India.
Around 12 people, selected by their unions (there are 12 farmer unions from Punjab and three from Haryana who are represented at Tikri), are seated on the SKM stage observing a hunger strike. Called ‘sukh hartal’, they will consume only water for 24 hours. “We have been sitting here since 11 a.m. and will continue to sit for this hunger strike till the next morning, after which the next group of 12 people will take over,” said Preetam Singh, a 60-year-old farmer, from Zira tehsil, Firozpur district of Punjab, and a member of the Bharti Kissan Union (Kadian). He said the fasts would continue until the laws are repealed.
Each union provides a list of about 50 members to volunteer for security-related tasks and so around 300-500 volunteers are in charge of security at the protest site in Tikri. They are given identity cards to be handed back once their shift is over. The security volunteers watch the stage and the area behind where heavy barricading has been put by the police “Eight people are on duty for 12 hours every day to watch the rear of the [SKM] stage,” said Sahil (he prefers using only this name). He was taking a tea break with the other volunteers when he spoke to me. A 25-year-old farmer from Fazilka in Firozpur district, he belongs to a family of farmers who grow wheat and rice on their six acres of land.
Both men and women volunteer for security work that includes night-time patrolling to ensure the safety of women, children and elderly people. During the day, they may be asked to serve tea to protesters sitting in and around the stages.
“We ensure that nobody disturbs the peace at the protest. Farmers are here to demand justice. Nobody wants violence,” said Mohan Singh Aulakh, a member of the Kirti Kisan Union. This 25-year-old has been in Tikri since November and is a security volunteer at the SKM stage. Mohan comes from a family of agricultural labourers. He believes that the laws will adversely impact this community. “About 3-4 lakh labourers are dependent on mandis to earn a livelihood. If mandis shut down, they will lose their jobs,” Mohan said.
Security volunteer Sarabjeet’s family grows wheat and rice on their five-acre farm in Bilaspur in Moga district, Punjab. The family lives under the cloud of a sizable debt of Rs. 8 lakhs. “We are here for our families,” she said. Sarabjeet and her friend Kamaldeep Kaur volunteer for duties around the stage. Kamaldeep is the daughter of agricultural labourers from Baghapurana tehsil, also in Moga district. She says her father is a Dalit labourer who moves around in search of work and gets paid around Rs. 300 a day when he has work, but jobs are hard to find.
Media volunteers – photographers, cinematographers, sound engineers and social media handlers – could number up to 30. One of the most visible is Vikas Kamboj, a 23-year-old from Baghe ke Uttar in Jalalabad tehsil of Punjab’s Firozpur district. He ensures every update announced from the BKU Ekta Ugrahan main stage gets on to the social media pages.
Keeping an eye on the area behind the SKM main stage is 30-year-old aerospace engineer Harpreet Singh. His family farms on five acres of land in Faridkot district’s Gujjar village in Punjab where they grow wheat and rice. “We took a loan of 7 lakh rupees [for our farm expenses] about four years ago. Along with interest, it now amounts to 11 lakh rupees. We have managed to pay 4 lakh rupees, but the remaining amount is too much – we barely produce enough to fill our stomachs, not our pockets,” he said.
Jasbir Kaur Natt is back at the microphone with an important announcement: “Tractors and trolleys are not arranged systematically so commuters are facing heavy jams. We have formed a team whose job is to arrange the tractors and trolleys on the road. Please cooperate with them.”
She steps back from the microphone and the next set of announcements commence, maintaining the peace and solidarity among the lakhs of protesting farmers left out in the cold.
Shivangi Saxena is a Bachelor’s student of Journalism and Mass Communication at Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Management Studies, New Delhi. This is her third story on PARI covering the farmers’ protests at Tikri, on the Delhi-Haryana border. She says: “Covering a movement as magnificent and remarkable as this has been a great experience. PARI Education helped me to see the protest from different perspectives and to present human stories supported by facts.”