“The movement taught me to come forward and fight my own battles. It has given us respect.” By ‘us’ Rajinder Kaur means women like her who took part in the movement against the Centre’s farm laws introduced in September 2020. Rajinder, a 49-year-old farmer from Patiala district in Punjab, had often travelled the distance of 220 kilometres to Singhu, and given speeches at the protest site.
Her neighbour in their village of Daun Kalan, Harjeet Kaur, 50, spent 205 days at Singhu, on the Delhi-Haryana border. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t grow food,” she says. “With each crop I harvested, I grew a little older.” Harjeet has been a farmer for 36 years, “but this was the first time that I saw, and participated, in a movement like this,” she says. “I saw children, the elderly and women arriving at the protests.”
Lakhs of farmers had gathered on the outskirts of the country’s capital, demanding the union government roll back the controversial laws. Farmers from mainly Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had camped there for a year from November 2020 until the laws were repealed in November 2021. The farmers’ protest was historic, and one of the largest people’s movements in recent memory.
Women from Punjab were at the forefront of the movement. They say the solidarity they experienced then continues, and the courage and independence they discovered being part of it have become stronger. “I never missed home when I was there [at the protests]. Now that I am back, I miss the movement,” says Kuldip Kaur, 58, from Mansa district.
Before, her workload at home in Rali village, in Budhlada tehsil , used to affect her mood. “Here I must do one thing after another, or attend to guests with whom we have to be formal. There I was free,” says Kuldip. At the protest sites, she volunteered in the community kitchens. She says she could have worked there all her life. “I would see the elders and think that I was cooking for my parents.”
In the beginning, when farmers started to protest against the laws, Kuldip did not join any of the farmer unions. After the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) was formed, she made a poster. On it, she wrote the slogan ‘ Kisan Morcha Zindabad ’ (‘Long live the farmer protest’), and carried that poster to Singhu. And even though she was told not to come by the women who were at the protest sites, as there were many problems in the camps, Kuldip was determined. “I told them I have to come there.”
When she reached Singhu, she saw women making rotis on the big chulhas (firewood stoves). “They called me from far away and said, ‘O sister! Help us make rotis ’.” The same thing happened at Tikri, where she found a tractor trolley from Mansa and settled in. A tired woman sitting near a chulha asked her for help. “I made rotis for more than an hour,” recalls Kuldip. From Tikri, she went to the camp at Shahjahanpur, on the Haryana-Rajasthan border. “When the men working there saw me, they asked me to make rotis for them also,” she says. And laughs, adding, “Everywhere I went, people would ask me to help them for that only. I wondered whether it was written on my forehead that I make rotis !”
Back home, her friends and neighbours found Kuldip’s commitment to the farmers’ movement inspiring. They would ask her to take them with her too. “They would see the photos I put up on social media and tell me that they wanted to go the next time.” A friend said she worried about what her grandchildren would say if she did not participate!
Not one to watch television serials or films before, Kuldip on her visits home from the protest sites Kuldip began watching TV for news. “I was either present physically or watching news about it,” she says. The uncertainty of the situation distressed her. She was put on medication to ease her anxiety. “My head would tremble,” she says. “The doctor asked me to stop watching the news.”
Joining the farmers’ movement, Kuldip found courage she didn’t know she had. She overcame the fear of travelling by car or tractor trolley, and travelled to Delhi multiple times, covering hundreds of kilometres. “Lots of farmers were dying in accidents. and I was worried that if I died in one, I would not be able to witness our victory,” she says.
On her visits home, Kuldip would join the protest meetings being held nearby. She remembers a meeting where a teenage boy, a regular participant at the protests, was standing next to her, when a speeding vehicle mowed him down. A man standing next to him died too, and the accident left a third man disabled for life. “My husband and I skipped death by an inch. After that, I was never scared of dying in an accident. The day the laws were repealed, I remembered his [the boy’s] presence next to me and wept,” says Kuldip, who also mourns the death of over 700 protestors who gave their lives for the movement.
Despite their deep involvement and critical support to the farmers’ movement – which forced the union government to repeal the contentious laws – the women of Punjab feel they have been sidelined in political decision-making. They say the abysmally low number of women fielded by political parties in the Legislative Assembly elections held on February 20, 2022, is proof.
Nearly half of Punjab’s 2.14 crore voters are women. Yet, only 93 – 7.13 per cent – of the 1,304 candidates who contested the election across 117 constituencies, were women.
Punjab’s oldest political party, Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded only 5 women. The Indian National Congress gave tickets to 11. Its election slogan in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ Ladki hoon lad sakti hoon ’ (‘I am a girl, I can fight’), appeared a distant dream in Punjab. Aam Aadmi Party beat the Congress count by one, with 12 women candidates on its list. The Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) and the newly formed Punjab Lok Congress – partners in the National Democratic Alliance – nominated 9 women between them (including the BJP’s 6).
It is a cold and wet winter day when I meet Rajinder Kaur. She is sitting on a chair; the bulb on the wall behind is throwing a weak light, but her spirit is strong. I open my diary, and she, her heart. The fire in her eyes is reflected in her voice that speaks of hope for a revolution led by women. Her painful knees meant she had to rest often, but Rajinder says the farmers’ movement fired her up – she spoke publicly and found her voice.
“Now I shall be the one deciding [who to vote for],” says Rajinder. “Earlier, my father-in-law and my husband would tell me to vote for this party or that party. But now, no one even dares to tell me.” Rajinder’s father supported Shiromani Akali Dal, but after she married and moved to Daun Kalan village, her father-in-law told her to vote for the Congress party. “I voted for the hand [the party symbol], but it felt as if someone had shot me in the chest,” she says. When her husband tries to tell her who to vote for, Rajinder stops him now. “I shush him.”
An amusing incident at Singhu comes to her mind. It was just after she had delivered a speech on the stage. “I went to a tent nearby to rest my knees, when a man who was cooking there asked me, ‘Did you hear a woman give a speech a while ago?’ Another man who entered the tent recognised me and said, ‘Oh, she gave a speech just a while ago’. I was the one they were referring to!” she says, her pride and joy undiminished.
“The three laws united us,” says Harjeet, next door. But she is critical of the outcome of the struggle. “Though the protest resulted in the repeal of the laws, our problems remain to be resolved,” she says. “The movement was withdrawn [by SKM] without ensuring that the demand for MSP [minimum support price] was met. Also, it should have made sure that the farmers who died in Lakhimpur Kheri got justice.”
“The farmers’ organisations may have been united during the movement, but they are divided now,” says a disappointed Kuldip.
In the run up to the 2022 assembly elections, most of the people that this reporter spoke to in Punjab did not favour any party – not even the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM), formed in December 2021 by a few farmers’ unions that were a part of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha. (The party’s candidates – the list included four women – contested as independents.) As the election mood switched on, the leadership and cadre of all the parties were mum about the martyrs who had lost their lives in the movement that had ended just a few months ago.
“The SSM and even Aam Aaadmi Party have shown zero interest or concern for the villages,” said Jeevan Jyot, a young woman from Benra village in Sangrur district. “People from the [political] parties don’t even know who is alive and who is dead,” she said,disheartened.
A 23-year-old school teacher who tutors children at her home now, Jeevan Jyot’s anger towards political parties intensified when her neighbour, Puja, died at childbirth. “What hurts me is that no leader from any party nor the village sarpanch approached the family, even out of basic courtesy.” Jeevan Jyot stepped in to help the family as the newborn and her three-year-old sister Gurpyar were in the care of their father, 32-year-old Satpal Singh, a daily wage labourer.
When I met Jeevan Jyot in Benra, Gurpyar was sitting near her. “I feel like I am a mother to her now,” she said. “I would like to adopt her. I am not afraid of rumours that I am doing it because I cannot bear my own children.”
Women’s involvement in the farmers’ movement gave hope to young women like Jeevan Jyot. The patriarchal world pits women in different battles, she said, and the battle against the farm laws was a continuation of the “spirit of their struggle”.
The strong voices of women from Punjab who came together for the movement disapprove of being sidelined now. “Women have been reduced to the home since ages,” says Harjeet. Anxious about being pushed back and away from public participation, they are worried that the respect they earned will become a footnote of history.
The author would like to thank Musharraf and Pargat for their help in reporting this story.
This story was first published by Rural India Online.