A year ago, when farmers from the agrarian states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh reached the Delhi borders to agitate against the three farm laws introduced by the Centre, they did not expect to be at the protest sites for 358 days.
The occupants of the three border points — in tents and trucks that morphed into shanties and makeshift cottages at Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri– on Friday burst crackers, danced, and sang to welcome the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the Union government has decided to repeal the contentious laws.
Though several of the protesters cautiously described the decision as a “half-victory”, it was not the surprise they expected on the morning of Guru Nanak Jayanti.
“I was performing my morning prayers when a relative from Canada called up and informed me that the PM has announced they would repeal the three farm laws. I was shocked and exhilarated at the same time. But I still consider it a half-victory since we have been given only verbal assurance. We will only trust the government once they pass this decision in the Parliament and make it official. We will not leave before that,” said Karam Singh, a farmer from Bathinda who has been protesting at the Singhu border since last year.
The Delhi-Haryana border near Singhu village has become the focal point of farmers’ agitation over the past year. The protest site, which stretches up to 7km now, is dominated by farmers from Punjab and Haryana. Initially, farmers brought trucks and trolleys which served as their temporary homes. Gradually, concrete structures and air-conditioned trucks and have mushroomed amid an atmosphere of protest that is fuelled by several massive langars (community meals).
In fact, the area has started looking like a small town in itself, with farmers even installing signage designating their own names for different areas on the Kundli highway.
The stage area that was initially set up using tarpaulin sheets and bamboo sticks is now auditorium-like. The place has a makeshift hospital, a gym, a laundry service, a massage corner, and its own small gurdwaras.
The agitation spot was only sparsely populated on Friday — most farmers had gone back home, and were expected to return next week to mark November 26 as the anniversary of their occupy movement — some protesters broke out into jigs near the main stage area soon after the PM spoke.
Protesters said the resilience and support of their fellow farmers from across the country helped them continue the yearlong agitation. Surdev Singh, 54, a farmer from Malliana village in Moga district, said: “It will be difficult to say goodbye to the protest spot and other farmers as we have given a year of our life to this agitation. But I have learned the importance of peaceful protest.”
At east Delhi’s Ghazipur border, where the protest has been spearheaded by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait, who emerged as one of the principal faces of the agitation, protesters distributed jalebis and ladoos to mark the PM’s announcement.
The Ghazipur border, initially as an ancillary protest site, gained national attention in January when UP Police tried to remove the agitators days after the tractor rally on Republic Day plunged into chaos and violence across sensitive areas in the national capital. The protest regained momentum overnight as images of Tikait — in tears and appealing to people to join him at Ghazipur — went viral.
Ram Kumar Sharm, 68, from UP’s Nithari, has been arranging a langar for the protesters at the Ghazipur border from the first day of the agitation. He said that to celebrate the announcement on Friday, he made ‘moong dal khichdi’ with ghee and curd for lunch.
“We usually have rotis and rice along with a vegetable and some dal for lunch, but since today is a big milestone for us, we are distributing khichdi. I started the langar stand on the first day of the protest and since then, I do not let anyone who comes here go hungry,” Sharma said.
Many also said that the last year has been tough for them. Nanak Singh, 70, from Moradabad, remembers how many of their fellow supporters, with whom they had developed a bond, passed away waiting for this announcement.
“A friend that I had made (75-year-old Kashmir Singh Ladi) went to the washroom, and died there. Over 700 farmers have died during the last year. Do you think this has been easy?” Singh asked.
Om Raj, 85, said an announcement by the PM was not enough to call off the agitation. But, when the government agrees to all their demands, and when he does return home, he will miss his new friends. He has filled over 10 small diaries with the names and contact details of people he made during the protest. “I remember each one of them. We will catch up over the phone,” he said, pointing at his small diary.
The dusty protest site at Tikri border between Delhi and Haryana witnessed dim celebrations on Friday. While a section of youngsters was bursting firecrackers, the organisers issued appeals from the main protest stage to desist from using any celebratory fireworks.
Jagmati Sangwan, from the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM)’s women’s protection group at Tikri, said there was certainly a feeling of happiness as three “black farm laws” were taken back, but the larger question was farm distress due to which thousands of farmers have committed suicide. “The monthly income of 86% farmers with less than 2-acre land holding is mere ₹6,286 — even less than labourers in the unorganised sector. To make farming sustainable, we need MSP. It is a matter of life and death,” Sangwan said.
Unlike the Singhu border protest site, with its relatively lavish langars, the counterparts at Tikri border have had a larger representation of farmers with smaller landholdings.
Sweetened vermicelli and “kada prasad” was distributed at three places at the site on Friday.
SKM leader Ruldu Singh, Mansa, president of All India Kisan Mahasabha, said the PM’s announcement came when they were celebrating Gurpurab. “We are still celebrating Gurpurab only. Several announcements have been made in the past, and we are not going back unless Parliament formally rolls back the laws. A meeting will be held by all farm leaders in a day or two,” he said.
The trolley camps at Tikri are now restricted to the median of the road. On October 28 this year, police partially removed barricades from the border to restart vehicular movement. Heavily guarded by the central police forces, the narrow row of police barricades currently permits two-wheelers, ambulances and pedestrians to ply between Delhi and Haryana.