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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Night at the farmers’ protest: Pehredars keep vigil, langars give relief

Singhu, in Delhi’s north, marks the capital’s border with Sonepat in Haryana. And over the past 17 days, this is one of the three key border points that have become the epicentre of the farmers’ protests against the Centre’s new agriculture laws.

Written by Amil Bhatnagar | New Delhi | Updated: December 14, 2020 7:46:34 am
Night at the farmers' protest: Pehredars keep vigil, langars give reliefAt Singhu border, Saturday night — one of the 3 key border points that have become the epicentre of the protests. Praveen Khanna

A little after 7 pm, a thick fog creeps in and the air becomes colder. Near the main stage, volunteers begin to roll up carpets, remove halogen lights, and stack up chairs. The farmers, many wrapped in thick shawls, begin a slow walk towards their tractor trolleys. The day has come to an end at Delhi’s Singhu border. And the night has come to life — from buzzing langars serving food till midnight to groups guarding the tractor trolleys till the first round of tea is served around 6 am.

Singhu, in Delhi’s north, marks the capital’s border with Sonepat in Haryana. And over the past 17 days, this is one of the three key border points that have become the epicentre of the farmers’ protests against the Centre’s new agriculture laws. Thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, have set up camp here with parked trucks and trolleys extending up to 10 km on the GT Highway. (Follow Farmer protests LIVE UPDATES here)

“Several people have asked us as to what we will do if it rains. We are farmers. For us, rains are a sign of prosperity. We welcome the rain. It is already cold and we are braving it. A bit of rain will not harm us,” says Swaran Singh, a 70-year-old farmer who has stayed put here over the last fortnight.

It’s 7.30 pm and Singh is seated on the highway divider, his legs crossed, barely 50 metres from a police barricade. He is from Ropar and is accompanied by dozens of farmers from the area. For them, the bed is a mattress inside a small cloth tent on the divider.

For others, the night is still young. Nearby, a large screen has been stuck to the side of a tractor. From 7 pm onwards, a movie, primarily on Sikh culture and history, is played for two hours. The screen is connected to a laptop and the movie is streamed through the internet. Every now and then, the dialogues are overshadowed by chants of “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”.

Between 8 pm and 10 pm, volunteers mop the main stage area and place plastic bottles and other litter in disposable bags. Others dock speakers and audio equipment in boxes or cover them with plastic sheets. After the lights go out, the protest stage turns into an open lodge with rows of beds.

“The stage is open on all sides and it is windy but we have no problems. We have our blankets and anyone is invited to sleep here as long as there is space. We get up in the morning, keep our mattresses and blankets aside, and prepare the stage for speeches during the day,” says Harinder Singh, a farmer who has been assigned to manage the stage.

At the Guru Langar, managed by Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, dinner is served from 8 pm till 12.30 am. After 11 pm, a steel flask with a tap is used to serve tea along with dinner. On Saturday evening, soan papdi was served as “prasad”. “Even if someone is hungry at 2 am, they can simply wake someone up and will be given food,” says a volunteer.

By midnight, shadows come to life under the flickering streetlights. These are men with torchlights and sticks, standing in the narrow space between the tractors, taking turns to guard the area till morning. There are about 500 of these volunteers in Singhu, all wearing uniforms that say “pehredar”. Their job is to regulate movement, “prevent entry of anti-social elements”, and ensure there is no violence.

“We designate areas among ourselves. For example, there are 3-4 people to monitor an area of about 200 metres. This goes on till the last tractor in the line. It is possible that someone can come and steal things and carry out activities that can defame the protest,” says Jagtar Singh, who has been posted barely 200 metres from the barricade.

Even though the farmers hail from different regions of Punjab, they share a sense of community. Till 1.30 am, groups exchange mattresses and blankets, as and when the need arises. If someone requires extra material, it is provided from a tractor trolley with the understanding that it will be returned the following day.

At around 4.30 am, the night’s watch ends and men working in the langars begin preparations for breakfast. Outside, tables with plastic baskets full of toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, washing bars and shampoo pouches are set up. Most of these items have been donated by civil society groups while the rest have been sourced by the farmers.

By 7 am, the loudspeaker comes to life with a morning prayer. Several people are seated, eyes closed in meditation. Many others make a beeline for tea, which is served along with biscuits, rusks, and bread. Volunteers wipe the night’s dew from the equipment covers and the stage is set up again. Many make video calls to their families back home before the day gets noisier and busier.

“This is our life now. We have developed a system, we are feeding ourselves and keeping trouble out. The government must understand that we will not give up because our fight is genuine. This is history in the making,” says Gurtej Singh, a “pehredar”. Then, he starts clearing the remains of a bonfire from the night.

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