Thursday, June 13, 2024

“Our movement will continue regardless of who forms Govt,” say farmers as Shambhu border protest enters 113th day amidst heatwave

Photo: Saumya Raj

It has been more than 110 days since the farmers’ protest started on 13 February at the Shambhu border between Punjab and Haryana. Farmers and laborers on the border have endured a lot, from government and police brutality, tear gas, and rubber bullets to live bullets and pellet guns. When the protest began under the banners of the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM) and the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (non-political), the atmosphere resembled a battleground, but it has since calmed. Even today, thousands of farmers remain steadfast in their demands.

After more than 100 days, this highway has transformed into a village for the farmers, who have gathered everything they need to stay here. Camped in a row of tractor-trolleys stretching about 3-4 kilometers, these farmers continue their movement with unwavering strength. It feels like a village as farmers visit each other’s camps, converse, and help their neighbors when needed.

The Shambhu border first made headlines last February when Punjab farmers called for a ‘Delhi March’ to demand their rights. However, the Union and Haryana state governments systematically created obstacles to stop the farmers and began violently attacking them. Rubber bullets, pellet guns, and tear gas were used extensively. During this time, a young farmer, Shubkaran Singh, died due to the violent actions of the police at the Shambhu and Khanuri border of Punjab-Haryana.

Farmers call for minimum support prices for all crops and the calculation of the MSP by following Dr Swaminathan’s formula, among many other demands.

113 days have passed since this demonstration, yet this significant movement has not become an election issue in the Lok Sabha elections. Moreover, mainstream media has largely ignored the farmers’ prolonged struggle on the streets.

The election subject

During the seventh phase of the Lok Sabha elections, voting took place on June 1 in Punjab. The farmers’ movement is a significant issue for the people of Punjab in this election, with locals declaring that they will not allow the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to enter Punjab under any circumstances. Farmers at the Shambhu border asserted that if the government did not allow them to enter Delhi, they would not let the government come to Punjab.

This is the second time during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure in the 17th Lok Sabha that such a large number of farmers are protesting on the streets. There hasn’t been a farmers’ movement of this magnitude in the country for about three decades. The violence during this movement and the deaths of 750 farmers in the previous demonstration, including incidents like Lakhimpur Khiri, have enraged the people of Punjab.

When asked about the stance of the agitating farmers in the Lok Sabha elections and the future of the movement post-elections, Tejveer Singh, a farmer leader associated with the Indian Kisan Union (Shaheed Bhagat Singh), says, “Every farmer can vote for whomever they want. But our movement will continue regardless of who forms the government.”

Sukhchain Singh from Haryana said, “Elections have been happening in this country for the last 75 years. Nothing will change. It will not affect the movement against the government. We have just started increasing our numbers. More farmers are reaching the front by June 4. There is no solution to any problem without a movement. Unless our demands are met, this movement will continue.”

Despite discussions with several farmers about the Lok Sabha elections, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. Farmers believe all political parties are the same, with none willing to solve their problems.

Regarding the future strategy, Jagdeep Singh says, “The day after the last phase of elections, on June 2, a large number of farmers will arrive at the Shambhu border in 300 tractor-trolleys from Punjab villages. After that, we will decide our further strategy together after the election results are out.”

Photo: Saumya Raj

For farmers, winter, summer, and rain are all the same.”

Farmer Sukhchain Singh mentions, “Farmers are not too bothered by the heat. We also work in the fields in this heat. If it gets too hot, we have made some arrangements to deal with it.”

Farmers on the Shambhu border hold daily meetings from 10 am to 1 pm and then rest in their trolleys and tents. Several food stalls serve meals to the farmers, and there are numerous volunteers offering services.

At the protest site, there is a strong sense of community and service. Many people are engaged in serving the farmers, a principle highly valued by the people of Punjab, especially the Sikh community. Every day, people from nearby villages bring food and supplies in tractor trolleys and distribute them to the farmers. For health emergencies, organizations like Khalsa Aid provide medical services. There are even washing machines to clean the farmers’ clothes, operated by volunteers.

With temperatures soaring to 45-47 degrees Celsius, farmers have built temporary grass-thatched roofs and tin sheds to escape the heat. Some have installed fans, coolers, and even air conditioners in their trolleys. However, the lack of electricity at the protest site poses significant challenges, and farmers rely on generators. The heat begins to sting early in the morning and remains intense until late at night.

Kisan leader Tejveer Singh explains that the daily meeting time has been changed from 12 noon – 4 pm to 10 am – 1 pm due to the heatwave and the lack of resources to accommodate such a large number of farmers.

Farmers spend most of their time sitting and talking. Some weave charpais (cots) or decorate their tents with empty water bottles, while others read newspapers and books or watch TV and listen to Gurbani. Youngsters exercise or play badminton or volleyball in the mornings and evenings. Some farmers even keep potted plants in their tents.

Challenges faced by farmers

Discussing the challenges, Harvinder Singh says, “Farmers face significant issues with water and toilets at the protest site. We fetch water from kilometers away using tankers and have arranged some temporary tube wells. However, we still have to bring water from afar. There is also no concrete arrangement for toilets.”

Security forces have set up their camp across the barricading on the Haryana side of the Shambhu border. When we asked the farmers about this, they shared that even when the movement started, some elderly farmers approached the security forces with food, but the forces responded with tear gas shells.

Farmer Jaspal Singh from Pedhni Kalam village in Sangrur district says, “Where is the democracy? In a democracy, citizens have the right to protest. Look at the wrestlers sitting on protests for justice. Democracy is only a term now; this is dictatorial rule. The government is inflicting unprecedented oppression. Our battle is not just for the farmers of Punjab-Haryana but for all farmers and every person raising their voices against the government’s actions. The government’s schemes are designed to benefit big industrialists, not the farmers or youth. The Agniveer scheme for army recruitment is a betrayal to the youth. Wrestlers seeking justice for months are oppressed by the police while rapist leaders face no action. This is a fight for everyone’s rights.”

He continues, “Our fight is against the government and the corporates. The government is acting as a middleman, selling public sectors to corporates. They want to instill fear in the common people so no one stands against them. But we will not remain silent. We are fighting to save not just our crops but our future.”

Farmers at the Shambhu border assert that no matter how long their agitation lasts, they will not back down. Talking to any of the protesting farmers, one can see that their spirits are not dampened by police brutality or government neglect. The determination with which the farmers started this movement remains strong today.

Saumya Raj is an independent journalist who writes grassroots stories.

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