At the forefront of several protests by farmers in Punjab on Friday were some unusual figures: two 20-year-old college students, a 33-year-old activist, and a teenage school dropout — all women.
They raised slogans of revolution and addressed large, mostly male gatherings of farmers, at which they delivered passionate, critiques of the Centre’s agriculture policies.
Punjab and Haryana were the epicentre of nationwide protests by over 350 farmers’ organisations under the umbrella of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee against the three farm Bills that were passed by Parliament this week.
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Thousands of protesters blocked roads and highways in several states, and were supported by Opposition parties such as the Congress, Trinamool Congress and RJD, as well as 10 central trade unions. Farmers fear the new legislation will pave the way for dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) regime, and throw them at the mercy of big corporates.
In Maharashtra, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the NCP, and Congress president and Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat said the state might decide to not implement the Bills. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has said the same, and the government in Punjab is understood to be considering the option of declaring the entire state Principal Mandi Yard to get around the laws. Kerala will challenge the laws in the Supreme Court.
“Es dharti di hiq te inqlaab uthda hai, itihas badal jaanda hai jadon Punjab uthda hai… (It is on this land that revolution is born, history changes when Punjab awakens),” Sumandeep Kaur, 20, a final year undergraduate student of mass communication, told The Indian Express over the phone from Barnala district.
Sumandeep, the daughter of a marginal farmer from Sauhar village in Barnala, spoke at protest gatherings in Mehal Kalan, Chhaba, Raikot, and several other villages in the district on Friday, and addressed dharnas organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda).
She has been going to protests and morchas with her father Kewal Singh since the time she was 5 years old, Sumandeep said. “I study at Punjabi University, Patiala, but I have been home since the novel coronavirus epidemic began. I understand the farm Bills. When we have no issues with the arhatiyas, what is the government’s problem? And they are not even ending this system, they are only replacing the arhatiyas with contract farming companies. The middleman will always be there,” she said.
Neelkamal, also 20 and a final year student at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, organised protests in six villages in Barnala. Her father is an activist, but Neelkamal was on her own on Friday, as he was visiting other villages.
“We belong to Thikriwal, the village of freedom fighter Sewa Singh Thikriwal. Revolution runs in our blood,” she told The Indian Express over the phone from Handaiya village in Barnala.
“We don’t have any farm land, but I am aware that the livelihood of farmers is linked with that of small shopkeepers. There have been repeated upheavals in the country… caused by demonetisation, the implementation of GST, talk of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), and now, in the middle of the pandemic, these farm Bills. I feel the need to share my views with farmers who have never been to college. The youth must take the lead,” Neelkamal said.
Her father Yadwinder Singh Thikriwal said, “I work as a security guard at the civil hospital, Barnala, on contract. I have been connected with the Inqalabi Manch, where I do plays. I also sing in these plays. My daughter was raised in that environment.”
Amandeep Kaur Deol, the 33-year-old general secretary of the Istri Jagriti Manch, took her three-year-old daughter to Friday’s dharnas. Amandeep, who dropped out of a PhD programme to focus on her work on women’s issues, addressed hundreds of farmers in Patiala’s Nabha, and spoke about the impact the Bills would have on women.
“My father is a farmer and I am very familiar with farmers’ issues. My husband and I are social activists. The farm Bills aim to bring private companies in the market, as a result of which the income of the farmer will gradually disappear. This will hit the women in the household, and families will have no money to educate girl children. Farmers have begun to send their daughters to school and college; those gains will be lost if these kaale kanoon are implemented.
Harmanjot Kaur, 18, a Class 11 dropout from Akalia village of Mansa district, stood for hours at the morcha, holding a flag of the BKU (Dakaunda).
“I want to speak from the dais soon,” she said. “Hence, I stand in the front rows, listening to the speakers. My parents are ailing, so I work on the farm. Farming is in my blood.”
Harmanjot’s mother Kuldeep Kaur said the family has three kanals of land on which they grow wheat and paddy. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to listen to us, we don’t like these Bills. Farmers are on the roads.” Added Harmanjot: “I understand democracy, and our PM needs to understand it as well.”
(With ENS Mumbai, Pune)
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