It was the second time in three-and-a-half years that fifty-year-old Kaluram Patidar, a farmer from Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, attended a protest staged by farmers which got dubbed as violent.
Patidar is one of thousands of farmers who have been peacefully protesting in the National Capital Region for the last two months. The farmers are demanding the repeal of the three new farm laws introduced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government last summer.
Patidar also took part in the Republic Day tractor parade and, like most farmers, his group stuck to their scheduled route.
When a small section of the massive protest ended up at the Red Fort in Delhi, the turn of events made Patidar and his family back home nervous. For, in 2017, Kaluram had lost his younger brother, Kanhaiya Lal, to a police bullet fired at a protest staged by farmers in Mandsaur.
News that a farmer had died near ITO in Central Delhi on 26 January jolted Kaluram into remembering this loss.
While participating in the ongoing movement, Kaluram has witnessed the character-assassination of farmers, he has heard pro-government rants of a large section of media, and he has seen disturbing images of violence being played and replayed on television screens.
This sequence of events has led him to firmly conclude that only repealing the three new farm laws will reassure farmers that their future is secure.
In the early hours of 26 January, farmers at Ghazipur on the border of Delhi with Uttar Pradesh had simply been gearing up for their historic march. When later the atmosphere grew more charged, Kaluram could not help but recall the demands that farmers had been raising during their 2017 agitation in Mandsaur.
On 6 June 2017, Kaluram had been standing right next to his brother Kanhaiya at Bai Chaupati in Pipliamandi town of Mandsaur. They had been shouting slogans asking for fair prices for their crops and a loan waiver. Suddenly, clashes had erupted between the police and the agitating farmers.
Within moments, the motionless body of Kanhaiya collapsed on the road like a fallen tree. A police bullet had hit him, piercing his chest and lung and killing him on the spot.
Forty-year-old Kanhaiya and five other farmers were killed in police firing on that day.
The bullet did not just kill Kanhaiya, it also left an emotional scar on the entire Patidar family. It has left a psychological imprint that will remain for the rest of their lives.
Kaluram is still struggling to overcome the grief of his brother’s death, but more than one hundred farmers have died so far in the ongoing protests on the borders of Delhi. These deaths have moved him deeply.
“I have lost a brother, so I know how difficult it is for others whose dear ones have died during these protests,” Kaluram tells this writer.
According to news reports, 150 or 160 farmers agitating around the Capital have died so far. “It hurts me deep inside that so many have died, and this is the sole reason why I am taking part in this movement. The new farm laws are completely against farmers and will end up killing more farmers. The government should realise this. Repealing these laws will be a real tribute to my brother and other farmers who have died during these protests,” he says.
However, the government of Punjab estimates that 76 farmers from the state have died in the ongoing agitation. “The thousands of farmers agitating at Delhi’s borders are not fighting for themselves but for their future and that of fellows Indians,” Punjab Chief Captain Amarinder Singh said on 22 January. “We are losing our farmers to the cold every day,” he said.
Extreme cold, suicide and accidents on the foggy highways have caused most of these deaths. The Indian Express has reported that one farmer died of poisonous insect bite and another died at Tikri Border after his car caught fire.
“My family is having a very testing time since my brother was killed,” says Kaluram. His sister-in-law decided to live with her parents, and the shock of being separated from their grandchildren shattered his parents.
The Madhya Pradesh police had alleged at the time that the farmers had set ablaze 25 trucks and two police vans along the Mhow-Neemuch highway during their protest. The state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had appointed retired Madhya Pradesh High Court judge JK Jain to investigate the killings of farmers. He gave a clean chit to the police and justified the firing.
Another farmer from Mandsaur, Dinesh Patidar, was eager to join the ongoing protests in the NCR, but because of his advanced age and poor health, he depends on others to facilitate any long travel. A police bullet to the chest had killed Dinesh’s 17-year-old son, Abhishek, during the same Mandsaur protest.
A student in Class XII at the time, Abhishek had been protesting along with a crowd near Pipliamandi when he was hit. He succumbed to injuries during treatment.
“The ongoing protest is historic and gives new hope to farmers, but it hurts to see so many farmers are dying,” says Dinesh over the phone from Mandsaur. “I have lost my young son. Police killed him three years back but his memory kills me every day. Since Abhishek left us, I am on medication.”
Dinesh wanted to be in Delhi, but no one asked him to join because of his health. “Not even the local farmer leaders asked me to come, but I am happy to see the amazing enthusiasm and firmness of my farmer brothers,” he says.
“I voted for the BJP in the last state election, but I firmly believe the government should repeal these three laws which could be disastrous for farmers,” Dinesh adds.
The daily news of farmers’ deaths is disturbing, but it has not shaken or weakened the spirit of farmers.
The legacy of India’s most misunderstood revolutionary freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh, seems to have become the force inspiring their movement.
Every third tractor trolley and car parked at Singhu and the other borders has a sticker of Bhagat Singh. Most books available on the sale counter are related to Bhagat Singh. Thousands of posters of Bhagat Singh have been distributed during the two-month-long agitation.
A “jeetenge ya marenge—we will win or die” spirit has taken root in their agitation.
“The situation is very clear. We are here to wake up the government, as Bhagat Singh did,” says Sarwan Singh, 50, who has joined the protest from Kapurthala, Punjab. “We want government to repeal the laws and we are not going to step back. If the government wants to kill us, so be it. We all are ready to die—but nothing less than repeal is acceptable to us,” he says.
When the clashes with police were aired on 26 January, the farmers’ tractor rally drew attention around the world. This encouraged the unions to step up their agitation.
“I voted for Modi, but now he is trying to destroy our nasl and fasal [children and farms]. We will not allow anyone to occupy our farmland and we want appropriate prices for our corps,” says Mahesh Vyas, also a farmer from Mandsaur, who came to Ghazipur to participate in the tractor parade.
“As we farmers are expanding our struggle, now is the time for the Modi government to make the right decision and repeal its laws,” he says.
The author is a freelance investigative journalist. The views are personal.