The Brutal Legacy of India’s Farm Laws: “Repeal of Laws Will Not Bring My Brother Back’

Photo: Amir Malik.

Until the day he died, 22-year-old Gurpreet Singh had been rallying the farmers of his village to oppose the new farm laws brought in by the government in September 2020. His father, Jagtar Singh Kataria, a farmer with five acres of land in their village, Makowal in Punjab, remembers his last speech. An audience of about 15 were listening to him intently as he told them history was being made on the borders of Delhi – and they should go there to contribute to it. That morning in December 2020, when Gurpreet ended his stirring speech, the group, with  sleeves rolled up, was ready to march to the country’s capital.

They left from Makowal, in Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district’s Balachaur tehsil , on December 14. About 300 kilometres into the journey, a heavy vehicle hit their tractor trolley near Mohra in Haryana’s Ambala district. “There was a massive collision; Gurpreet died,” said Jagtar Singh about his son, a BA student at Modi College, Patiala. “That was his contribution to the movement – his life.”

Gurpreet was one among the 700 or more people who died taking part in agitations against the three laws introduced by the Indian government to liberalise the farm sector. Farmers across the country believed they would destroy the minimum support price (MSP) process, and allow private traders and large corporations to control the prices of crops as well as gain undue advantage in the market. The protests brought farmers – mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – to Delhi’s borders from November 26, 2020. Demanding a repeal of the laws, they set up camps at Singhu and Tikri on Delhi-Haryana border, and at Ghazipur on Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border.

More than a year after the protests began, Prime Minister Modi announced a repeal of the laws on November 19, 2021. The Farm Laws Repeal Bill 2021 was passed in Parliament on November 29, but the agitation only ended on December 11, 2021, after the union government accepted most of the farmers’ demands.

I spoke to some of the families – in person and by phone – who had lost a loved one during the agitation that went on for over a year. Devastated and sad, but also angry, they remembered their own from among the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the cause.

“We celebrate the farmers’ victory, but Prime Minister Modi’s announcement about taking back the laws did not make us happy,” Jagtar Singh said. “The government has not done anything good for the farmers. It has insulted the farmers and the dead.”

“Our farmers have been dying. Our soldiers have also died for Punjab and the country. But the government is not concerned about the martyrs — be it those at the [country’s] borders or within the country. It has made a joke out of the jawans fighting on the borders, and also the farmers growing food here,” said 61-year-old Gyan Singh, from Dodra village in Budhlada tehsil of Punjab’s Mansa district.

Gyan Singh lost his brother Ram Singh, 51, in the early days of the protests. Ram was a member of Bharti Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan).  The farmers’ organisation was protesting at Mansa railway station in November 2020, and Ram used to gather wood for the protest site. He died on November 24 last year. “A log fell on him. He broke five ribs and damaged a lung,” said Gyan Singh in a firm voice masking his pain.

“People in our village burst firecrackers and lit diyas when it was announced that the farm laws would be repealed. We could not celebrate as we have a martyr in the family. But we were happy,” Gyan added.

The government should have repealed the three farm laws much earlier, said 46-year-old Sirvikramjeet Singh Hundal, a farmer from Dibdiba village in Bilaspur tehsil of Rampur district, Uttar Pradesh (UP). “But it did not do that even after 11 rounds of talks with the farm leaders.” Vikramjit’s 25-year-old son Navreet Singh Hundaldied while participating in the farmers’ rally on January 26, 2021, in Delhi. The tractor he was driving  overturned at the security barricades on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg. His father alleges that Navreet was shot before that, by the police. However, Delhi Police maintained that Navreet died from injuries sustained when the tractor toppled. “The investigation is going on,” said Sirvikramjeet.

“Everything seems upside down since he’s gone,” the grieving father said. “The government has not applied ointment to [the wounds of] farmers by repealing the laws. It is a ploy to hold on to power,” he added. “It plays with our feelings.”

The government’s attitude towards the farmers – alive or dead – has been terrible, said 40-year-old Jagjeet Singh, from Bhatehta village in Balaha block of UP’s Bahraich district. “We voted this government into power. Now they call us names like ‘Khalistani’, ‘anti-national’, and stomp on us. How dare they?” Jagjeet’s brother, Daljeet Singh, died in the violence on October 3, 2021 at Lakhimpur Kheri in UP,  where farmers had gathered to protest against Ajay Kumar Mishra, the union minister of state for home affairs. The minister, who had threatened farmers in a speech in September, was to address a meeting there on the day of the incident.

Four farmers and a journalist were killed afte the minister’s convoy ran them over. The minister’s son, Ashish Mishra, is among the 13 accused in the incident, which the special investigation team probing the case has described as a ‘pre-planned conspiracy’.

Daljeet, 35, was hit by two SUVs (sport utility vehicles) and run over by a third. “Our 16-year-old son Rajdeep witnessed the whole thing,” said Daljeet’s wife, 34-year-old Paramjeet Kaur. “Before he went to the protest that morning, Daljeet was smiling and waving us bye. We even talked on the phone just 15 minutes before the incident,” she recalled. “I asked him when he would be back. He said, ‘There are a lot of people here. I will come back soon.’” But that was not to be.

When the repeal of laws was announced, the atmosphere at home turned sorrowful, said Paramjeet. “Our family mourned Daljeet’s loss again that day.” Jagjeet added, “Repealing the laws will not bring my brother back. It won’t bring back any of the 700 martyrs to their loved ones.”

The SUVs that ran the protestors down in Lakhimpur Kheri moved slowly where the crowd was thicker, but sped up where the crowd was thin, said Satnam Dhillon. His 19-year-old son, Lovepreet Singh Dhillon, was one of the victims. “They kept hitting and mowing people down,” said Satnam, 45, from Bhagawant Nagar village of Palia tehsil in Kheri district, UP.

Lovepreet’s mother, Satwinder Kaur, 42, wakes up at night often and cries for her son, said Satnam. “We demand that the minister resign and his son be brought to justice. All we want is justice.”

“The government is doing nothing to ensure justice for us,” said 31-year-old Jagdeep Singh, from Dhauraharatehsil in Kheri. His father, 58-year-old Nachattar Singh, was also killed in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. Agitated when asked about the tragedy, Jagdeep said, “It isn’t right to ask us what are we going through. It is like asking a hungry person whose hands are tied at the back, with food kept in front of him, ‘how is the food?’ Ask me instead where the fight for justice has reached. What is our problem with this government? Why have farmers been mowed down?”

Jagdeep is a medical doctor. His younger brother is with Sashastra Seema Bal, a central armed police force on the country’s borders. “We serve the country,” Jagdeep said in anger. “Ask a son how it feels to lose his father.”

Manpreet Singh lost his 64-year-old father, Surender Singh, in an accident on December 4, 2020. Surender was on his way from Hassanpur Khurd village in Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar’s Balachaur tehsil , to join the protests near Delhi. The mishap occurred in Sonipat, Haryana. “[I feel] sad, very sad, but also proud. He sacrificed his life to the movement. He died a martyr’s death,” said Manpreet, 29. “The police officials in Sonipat helped me get my father’s body.”

Harbansh Singh, 73, was among the farmers who began demonstrating against the farm laws before the agitation converged at Delhi’s borders. A member of Bharti Kisan Union (Sidhupur), Harbansh had been addressing meetings in his village, Mehmoodpur Jattan, in Patiala district. But on October 17 last year, he collapsed while delivering a speech. “He fell when he was talking about the laws. He died of a heart attack,” said Jagtar Singh, his 29-year-old son.

“We would have been happy if those who died did not have to die,” added Jagtar.

When Pal Singh, a 58-year-old farmer with 1.5 acres of land in Sahauli village of Patiala’s Nabha tehsil , left home to join the protests in Delhi, “he told us not to expect him back alive,” said his daughter-in-law, Amandeep Kaur. He died of a heart attack in Singhu on December 15, 2020. “No one can bring back those who are gone,” reflected Amandeep, 31, who studied library management in college. “But the laws should have been repealed the day the farmers reached Delhi. Instead, they [the government and police] did what they could to stop the farmers. They put up barricades and dug trenches.”

Pal Singh was the main earning member of their family of four which is burdened by debts, said Amandeep. She works as a tailor, but her husband does not work and her mother-in-law is a homemaker. “The night before he died, he [Pal Singh] went to sleep wearing his shoes. He wanted to leave early in the morning and come home,” Amandeep told me. “His body came home, not him.”

Ravinder Pal, 67, from Ikolaha in Khanna tehsil of Ludhiana district, Punjab, died in a hospital on December 6, 2020. A video recording from Singhu on December 3, shows him singing revolutionary songs and inspiring others. The long white kurta he wore had slogans written in red ink, like ‘Parnaam shaheedon ko ‘ (salute to the martyrs), and ‘ Na pagdi na top, Bhagat Singh ek soch ‘ (neither turban nor cap, hats off to Bhagat Singh’s thoughts).

Later that day, Ravinder’s health took a turn for the worse. He was shifted to Ludhiana on December 5, where he passed away the next day. “He awakened the consciousness of others, now he has gone to sleep forever,” said his son, Rajesh Kumar, 42. The family owns no land. “My father was a member of an agricultural labourers’ union and worked for their unity,” explained Rajesh.

At 60, Malkit Kaur was an active member of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha in Mansa, campaigning for workers’ rights. She belonged to a Dalit community and owned no land. On December 16, 2020, Malkit was with a group of 1,500 farmers coming towards Delhi. “They stopped for langar [meal at a community kitchen] at Fatehabad in Haryana. She was crossing the road when a vehicle collided with her. She died there,” said Gurjant Singh, the local head of the farmers’ organisation.

The journalist killed in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident was 34-year-old Raman Kashyap. A father of two, he was a regional reporter for Sadhna Plus, a TV news channel, from Kheri’s Nighasan tehsil . “He was always interested in social service,” said his brother Pawan Kashyap. He and Raman jointly own about four acres of land in Nighasan with their third brother. “He got caught under the wheel of a vehicle and fell. Then he was left unattended at the spot for over three hours. His body was directly sent for an autopsy,” said 32-year-old Pawan, who farms on their land. “I saw him in the mortuary. He had bruises from the tyres and the gravel. He could have been saved if he had received treatment on time.”

Losing children has been hard on the families. Gurjinder Singh, from Tanda in Garhshankar tehsil of Hoshiarpur district, Punjab, was only 16 years old. He was on his way to a protest site near Delhi December 16, 2020, when he fell from the tractor he was travelling in, near Karnal. “Our family is destroyed. Why did the government come out with these terrible laws?” said his mother, 38-year-old Kulwinder Kaur. About 10 days before that, on December 6, Jaspreet Singh, 18, from Mastgarh in Guhla tehsil of Kaithal district, Haryana, was going to Singhu. He was killed when his vehicle fell into a canal on the way. Jaspreet’s uncle, 50-year-old Prem Singh, told me: “The families that lost their loved ones – how does it matter to them if the laws are repealed or not?”

While speaking to the families mourning their dead, I began to list out the main causes of deaths:  road accidents, mental stress and physical hardship in the harsh Delhi weather. Anguish over the new laws, which fostered many uncertainties – and the apathy that the farmers felt from government and media – led to deaths by suicides.

On November 10, 2021, 45-year-old Gurpreet Singh was found hanging in front of a local eatery near the protest camp in Singhu. Just one word, zimmedar (responsible), was written on his left hand, said his son, Lovepreet Singh. Gurpreet owned half an acre of land in Rurki village in Amloh tehsil of Fatehgarh Sahib district, Punjab, which provided fodder for the family’s cattle. He used to earn a living ferrying children to school in Mandi Gobindgarh, about 18 kilometres away. “If they [government] had decided to repeal the laws 10 days before, my father would have been with us,” said Lovepreet, 21, a BCom student at Desh Bhagat University in Mandi Gobindgarh. “The government should accept all the demands of the farmers, so that no one is forced to take the step that my father took.”

Kashmir Singh, born on August 15, 1947, the day modern India got freedom from the British Raj, wrote in the note he left behind: “I am sacrificing my body to oppose the farm laws.” He hanged himself to death on January 2, 2021. A farmer from Pasiapura in Suar block of UP’s Rampur district, Kashmir Singh had been serving in the community kitchen at Ghazipur.

“What would the 700 families of martyrs be feeling now?” Kashmir Singh’s grandson, Gurvinder Singh, asked me. “Though the laws are repealed, our 700 farmers won’t come back. Light has gone out of the 700 households.”

The protest sites around Delhi were vacated on December 11 this year, but farmers remain committed to their demand for a legal guarantee of MSP and compensation to families of the farmers who died in 2020-2021 protests. But, on December 1, 2021, in a written reply to Parliament, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said there was no question of compensation as the government had no record of the deaths.

If the government had paid attention, it would know how many had died, says Gurvinder. “Farmers sat on the highways, but the government was resting in its mansions.” Mazdoor Mukti Morcha’s Gurjant Singh asks, “When technology and data are easily available, how is it impossible to get the details of those who died in the movement?”

Gurpreet Singh could not give another speech. Over 700 farmers like him did not witness the last chapter of history written at Delhi’s borders. None of them are here to wipe the tears or taste the victory with their fellow protesters. They are perhaps holding up the flag of success in the skies above, watching the farmers salute them from the earth.

This first appeared on Rural India Online.

Amir Malik is an independent journalist. He tweets at @_amirmalik