“We are sitting here for our rights and will peacefully continue our movement,” said Gurbhej Rohiwala, a farmer from Chak Roranwala. He is sitting near the stage at Pakoda Chowk in Tikri, on the border of Delhi and Haryana. This stage has been the venue for all speeches and events since the protests began on November 26, 2020.
From Firozpur district in Punjab, Gurbhej has been coming and going from Tikri since the day the protests began. A member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), he said he was saddened by the violence that erupted during the tractor rally. “Whatever happened at Red Fort and Nangloi was never planned by the farmers. We were marching on the route given to us by the police. We strictly condemn the violence created by some people but we will not stop our six-month-long struggle,” he said.
Gurmeet Kaur was part of a group of 15 women seated on a trolley in the tractor rally of January 26, going from Tikri to Delhi. “We stopped at a nearby point when the news of the hungama [mayhem] at Red Fort reached us. We all are upset that something unwanted like this happened. But this will not shake our faith in our leaders. We will continue to sit for our demands. This fight is not just for us, it is for the entire nation; women will continue to lead it.” A farmer from Phuglana in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, she says nothing will move her from her place at the protest site and she and the other women would not leave till the government repeals the new farm laws.
At the protest site in Tikri since the protests began, 75-year-old Balwinder Singh, a farmer from Wahabwala in Firozpur district is visibly distressed. “I have been here and active at the protest since the first day. Everything has been so peaceful and well-managed. There has not been even a single incident of burglary or indiscipline by fellow protesters. I could never imagine that this kind of violence would happen,” he said in a low tone.
During preparations for the tractor rally to be held on January 26, farmers say they were given strict instructions by their union leaders to follow the route decided by the police: they were to start from the Tikri border towards Najafgarh via Nangloi and proceed further to the Kundli-Manesar-Palwal expressway into Delhi.
On January 26, the rally was moving slowly and in a disciplined manner. A team of 1,500 volunteers was handling security. Each tractor was given strict instructions to carry no more than five people and they were being checked for alcohol consumption. But frustrations mounted as “the police continued to block our path even on the pre-decided route given for the parade,” said Nirmal Singh who came to participate from Fazilka district. “We were forced to deviate,” he said.
Jaspal Singh from Muktsar has been a part of the protest for the last two months. “We were given clear instructions the night before the parade. Nobody was allowed to move away from the line designated to them. We gave our numbers to everyone so they could inform us in case any mismanagement or misbehaviour occurred,” said Jaspal who was a volunteer in the management committee of the parade.
A month after the rally, at the protest site, farmers continued to get on with their daily routine. The dough is being kneaded at the langar and tea is being served to people seated in and around the stage. Nirmal Singh is a farmer from Fazilka tehsil in Punjab who came with fellow farmers on four tractors from his village Wahabwala for the tractor parade. He says: “The violence will not affect the movement. No force can disturb the unity of the farmers. We will continue to sit at the border and demand that the government takes back farm laws.”
The laws that farmers are protesting 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. They 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, despite opposition.
Many of the farmers, now seated near the stage at Tikri, are waiting to hear from their leaders to know what is planned for the days ahead. Requesting anonymity, they said that during the tractor parade, groups of young masked men with bamboo sticks attacked the police vans, despite many elderly farmers trying to hold them back. They were not wearing any badges of the unions that are protesting. This happened near the Maharaja Surajmal Stadium metro station.
Sunita, along with her five-year-old son, reached the Tikri border on the night of January 25, in time for the parade. She belongs to a family of farmers in Gorakhpur village, the Fatehabad district of Haryana. She arrived at Tikri with 10 other women from her village, all with their children in tow. She was still waiting in line to join the rally at the Tikri Border when news of violence on the route ahead began trickling in. “As a woman, I feel safe here. We knew there would be a crowd but we never thought that it would get violent,” said Sunita.
As evening approaches, the temperature begins to drop and the light is fading. Farmers continue to talk among themselves about yesterday’s violence. Many are hesitant to speak to the media. “The movement cannot be hijacked by any force. We are here only to protect our land and the future of farming. Incidences like these should not discourage the spirit of protesters,” said Gurbaz Sangha, a farmer from Chak Janisar.