In the daytime, the near-inconspicuous border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, at UP Gate in Ghaziabad, was the site of baton charges, tear gas shells, and water cannons. Their victims: thousands of farmers from the Bhartiya Kisan Union, trying to enter the capital. They had been marching for ten days, and were ready to enter the city to conclude the Kisan Kranti Padyatra, the farmers’ revolutionary march, that had begun in Haridwar on September 23.
As the light was leaving the day, groups of farmers rested in the canopied trollies of their parked tractors or on the barricaded road leading to the state border from Dabur Chowk in Vaishali. It was Gandhi Jayanti, the birth anniversary of a man who helped create a mass movement out of, among other things, farmer’s agitations from Champaran to Kheda.
Their chosen destination in Delhi was a site of history, too: they were going to gather at the memorial of former prime minister Charan Singh, himself a farmer-politician and a policymaker beloved of farmers and agricultural tenants.
“A tractor is run for only two months in a year. It barely wears out a pair of wheels in the first ten years,” said Raj Singh, a farmer from Katladi village in Haryana’s Karnal district. He was sitting on a road divider at Madan Mohan Malviya Marg. “We’re not wealthy people to be able to easily replace tractors.” The government was proposing to scrap diesel vehicles every ten years - untenable for these men and women. They wanted to roll back the clause. It was one among nearly a dozen demands; others including enforcing minimum support prices with penalisation, increasing government procurement of crops, and the implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission.
“But only political parties can hold public rallies, farmers can’t,” said Surender Sangwan, farmer and BKU activist, who had come from Goghripur, Haryana. “Delhi belongs only to Modi,” a peer chimed in before walking away. Images from the rally had started flooding the wires earlier that day: a mighty force, spraying water-cannons from behind barricades, beating back unarmed, often elderly men in thin cotton dhoti-kurtas and flat turbans.
The overreaction may have been in fear of a repeat of 1988. In that year, a farmers’ protest led by BKU’s then-leader, Mahendra Singh Tikait, brought Lutyens Delhi to a standstill, eventually compelling the Rajiv Gandhi government to accept farmers’ demands. This Kisan Kranti Padyatra was also Tikait’s legacy. It is led by current BKU president, Naresh Tikait - his son.
“Today they beat us and humiliated us,” Raj Singh said. “The 2019 election is not far. We’ll teach them a lesson when they come to get votes from our villages.”
Bagh Singh had come from Raj Singh’s village, too, worried about crop damage. Only if the whole village files a claim for these damages does the state address them; if not, their Rs 1,200 annual premium is paid for nothing. “Don’t we want to make engineers out of our children?” Bagh Singh asked. “But we can’t even afford a school education for them.”
It was a balmy Tuesday evening. By this time, the Central Government had assured the marchers, through BKU leaders, that many of their concerns would be addressed. But the night was uneasy. Some farmers were considering an indefinite sit-in on the spot. Their coordination with peers was challenged, by this time. Their phone batteries had died because they had been on the road for several days. A police official on duty remarked that they were probably going to set up open kitchens and stay where they were.
A contingent of 30 persons – elderly and middle-aged women and men, and an adolescent boy - came marching from the direction of the border at seven in the evening. The group was going to head home, because a few of their members had taken ill.
“Maar khaa kar rone bhi nahin dete,” said Ram Vilas Sharma, a senior citizen and leader of this group - they don’t even let us cry over the wounds they inflict on us. “Do you know how much an MP gets in pension, health cover and travel benefits? We farmers get nothing.” They brisk-walked to the Anand Vihar railway station five kilometres away, all of them leaning on walking canes. Each person balanced a sackfull of belongings on their head with one hand. In the other they held identical transparent plastic-jars with water that glistened in the light from passing vehicles. “Some of us will come back,” the Pachperwa farm-worker said.
Dilli dur ast, as the poet said. The heart of the country is sometimes the remotest place in the world.
This review was contributed by Akshita Nagpal, a multimedia journalist in New Delhi.
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