Largest Peaceful Protest in Modern History Marks One Year

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2021 Goldin Global Fellows

As we celebrate International Peace Day today, the ongoing farmers’ protest in India is a telling example of how non-violence can be a powerful tool against oppression and intimidation. A year ago, on September 17th 2020, hundreds of farmers (or kisan, as they are known in Punjabi) laid siege to railway tracks in the northern state of Punjab against the new farm laws passed by the Indian government that month which would negatively impact small-scale farmers. Men, women, youth, and children came out in droves to sit on the tracks and make their voices heard. As the state came to a standstill with no movement of trade owing to the suspension of rail traffic, local media and the state government took notice of the agitation that was brewing on the tracks.

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What began as a seemingly small protest confined to the state of Punjab last September, has transformed into a full-fledged revolution, one whose hallmark is resilience, perseverance, focus and most of all, peace. Amidst brutal attacks by the police to clamp down on these dissenting voices, the farmers have kept their word and commitment to non-violence. Avowed in the beginning that they will not resort to any violence, the farmers continue to fight government resistance and atrocities through mahapanchayats (a gathering of local leaders from several neighbouring areas), discourses on farming, langars (community kitchens) and lots of compassion. When visuals of peacefully protesting farmers being beaten up by the police beam across the world, one thing stands out: their patience and courage to not fight back with physical violence.

It is not that we can’t retaliate, we don’t want to. Farmers are the most peace loving community and we want everyone to see how oppressive the government is to attack hapless, defenceless farmers,” -- Joginder Singh Ugrahan, President of Bharatiya Kisan Union

Punjab is an agrarian state where farming has been practiced by families for generations, so it was imperative that the voice of dissent spread across like wildfire. We soon had singers, actors, educationists, defence personnel, intellectuals joining the stir, crying in unison “Farmers first”. Those protesting argue that the new farm laws will decimate farmer’s livelihood, leaving them at the mercy of large corporations. They fear dilution of the government’s minimum support price for crops and procurement regime and a potential takeover of the market by corporate bodies.

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In November 2020, as the farmers saw their pleas falling on deaf ears, they decided to encircle the Indian capital, New Delhi, resolute in their stand that they are not coming back until the laws are rolled back. As they headed from Punjab towards the capital, they were confronted with stiff opposition from the police in Haryana, a state they were to cross to reach Delhi, where they were targeted with water cannons, multi-layered barricading and baton charges. Yet, they marched on, this time joined by farmers from Haryana. As Haryana agriculturists threw its might behind its Punjab counterparts, the morcha (march or rally) snowballed into a movement which is now touted as the largest peaceful protest in modern history. The credit for not disrupting law and order and carrying the protest forward in a peaceful manner goes to the farmer leadership as well as the farmers who have understood and registered the significance of keeping it peaceful. It has helped them sway public sentiment in their favour, thwarting the designs of government-friendly media to paint them as anti-nationals and terrorists.

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On September 26th 2021, the farmers’ protest on the borders of Delhi completed 10 months. Over these 10 months, the farmers, of which there are a few hundred thousand, are living on the roads, agitating against the bills. And it is by no means an easy feat. From one of the coldest winters in a few decades to the wettest monsoon, they are enduring it all with their willpower and faith in their cause carrying them ahead. What they call home now, as they wait for the Indian government to register their presence, will put any establishment worth its empathy to shame. Tractor trolleys and tents are their makeshift homes. Adding to their woes is the emotional duress they are going through. Away from their families, they are living on the roads waging a battle against an oppressive and callous government as well as vagaries of weather.

Women too have emerged as a reckoning force in the protest, asserting their presence in an inspiring way.

We especially celebrate their participation in this revolution as many of them come from deeply traditional and patriarchal families, especially in Haryana (a state in the north) which is notorious for its skewed sex ratio. The stir has provided them with a robust platform to air their voices and opinions. Women farmers have stepped out of the four walls of their home to become part of this movement. They also bring a sense of compassion and calm with their constant presence at the protest sites, taking on the role of foster mothers for the youth. What is also heartening is that for many of these women it is the first time they have left their domestic life behind and are experiencing more of the world. Their families too are boosting their confidence, some of them even teaching them how to ride a tractor. Things like these, however small, are indicators of social movement-cultural changes brewing at the grassroots. It is also important to acknowledge that while the women are going the extra mile for the cause, they are also fighting difficult living conditions at the protest sites. And smilingly. Lack of sufficient toilets and sanitation facilities are some of the issues they grapple with on a daily basis. “We have adjusted to it though not easy. A small price to pay when our presence is being noticed and we are being heard,” says Sudesh Kumari, a farmer from Haryana who also made it to the Time Magazine in a long form article on women’s role in the protest.

The journey, however, has not been a smooth ride for the farmers. They continue to be slandered by govt-friendly media as terrorists and anti-nationalists. Vilification campaigns run amok on news channels and social media, targeting the leaders and attributing nefarious designs to them. Farmers, however, are making good use of social media to counter these narratives. They have formed their own IT cell which keeps a watchful eye on salacious reports. The IT cell, which is managed by youth who have roots in farming but are employed in the corporate sector, shares content which throws light on the truth. They say the social media army of the government is out to get anyone who raises their voice against the power that be.

There is always a way out though. We can’t let those sitting in power muffle our voices. About time we realised our strengths and staked claim on what is rightfully ours. -- Baljeet Singh,Kisan Ekta Morcha

The farmers, in their fight to challenge the new farm laws, have also given hope to so many others in India who have been dissenting against the constant violations of democratic rights and freedom of speech, to practice one’s religion, victimising minorities. They have also sent out a strong message of conserving the unity and diversity of India as its hallmark.

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